6 Reasons Why Michael Pollan Buddhists and Their Vegetarian/Vegan Adversaries Fail at Food Ethics
My recent post here on race and Buddhism has been quite the hot potato. Now standing at 100 comments, the conversation is at turns rich, depressing, inspiring, and infuriating. Over the past week, the topic of food came up, specifically issues around access, food deserts, and intersections of class and race. For some reason, the first thing that came to my mind was the rural community in Western Pennsylvania where my father is from. The region has been decimated by over a century of coal mining projects, which also provided most of the meager livelihood for folks living there. The town itself has a single grocery store packed with processed crap and below average fruits and veggies shipped in from god knows where. Chronic illness is fairly commonplace, and odds are that most of the land is poisoned in some form or another. Places people used to go to hunt for wild berries or greens are now mounds of coal soot and chemicals. Desperate for cash, a lot of folks have opted to sell off the mineral rights to the little bit of land they own. It is, in many ways, the rural cousin to the urban food deserts that were brought up during the discussion mentioned above.
However, while it’s tempting to suggest that the food issues my father’s mostly white, rural community face are equivalent to those faced by predominantly black and/or brown communities, it just doesn’t hold up. For one thing, many of those rural food deserts are in Native American communities. Beyond that, the numbers of folks impacted in urban food deserts, with their majority people of color populations, are just so much greater than those in rural areas.
As such, I tend to find mainstream (read mostly white and middle/upper class) Buddhist discussions around food sorely lacking. Take up the first precept of not killing, for example, and you’re bound to hear debates between ardent vegetarians and Michael Pollan fanatics. The fifth precept of not taking intoxicants might lead to a discussion of eating disorders and/or issues like obesity, all of which tend to get framed in a highly individualized manner. Bring up something like food deserts, and folks will do things like applaud corporate beast Whole Foods for moving into poor African-American neighborhoods in cities like Chicago.
So much gets left off the table. I’d like to offer some of those forgotten/ignored pieces, and invite you all to add to the list and discuss these issues more.
1. I’m of the school that recognizes different body types, different cycles within one’s own body, and bodies situated within a specific geographical and social context – and thus doesn’t believe it’s possible to argue for a single diet for all people. In my opinion, it makes sense from a planetary standpoint to lean towards much less meat consumption, but it also is important to lean towards far less chemical usage on the veggies we eat, as well as a shift away from mono-cropping, giant single species ranches, and other abusive forms of food production. It’s also worth questioning the way obesity is framed primarily in terms of body fat.
2. When considering food deserts and/or lack of healthy food, it might be time reconsider things we often think of as norms. Things like grocery stores. Not eating “weeds” and wild berries. And even private ownership of rich, bountiful land. Projects like the Beacon Food Forest could be replicated and spread, and food foraging practices renormalized as ways not only to support folks in food deserts, but help change the entire culture around food regardless of where people live.
3. I’m all for “locally grown food,” but let’s get real about issues like corporate land and water poisoning, and how that severely limits healthy food access for millions of folks. The arsenic triangle in Minneapolis is just one example of a predominately lower income, urban community of color where things like backyard gardening are damned difficult because some company dumped their toxic waste and disappeared decades ago.
4. Privileged folks who feel bad about those living in food deserts and/or struggling with healthy food access might want to consider that the same folks probably have some excellent solutions in mind. Some of which might already be in place on a smaller scale. I sort of cringe when reading comments like this one, not because of the ideas, but the manner in which they’re being expressed. As if folks don’t know anything and need some lessons on shit they’re probably already doing. I’ve noticed that middle/upper class “charity” organizations have a tendency to take ideas learned from communities like their target ones, and repackage them as “teachings” to offer folks in a similar boat. Definitely good for keeping the savior complex alive, as well as the money coming into the “do good” organization.
5. The animal rights commentary of privileged vegetarian/vegan folks tends to include some mention of corporate food policies and practices, but is often divorced from things like life cycles, natural balances and rhythms, ecosystem patterns, and the like. A liberated society for all beings can’t be made from narratives that isolate one element of a much larger, more complex and interconnected web.
6. Along those lines, food is intensely tied to culture, family and community history.Many Native folks, for example, are having challenging discussions these days about the pros and cons of frybread. Any conversation about food and ethics worth its weight has to take those factors in mind.