What is religion’s role in food politics? — “Lifting the cellophane veil.”

The Stroum school of Jewish Studies at UW (“Jew Dub”) hosted a thought-provoking panel called “What is religion’s role in food politics?” on Thursday, February 23. Nigel Savage, Executive Director of Hazon, and UW PoliSci Professor Karen Litfin led the evening.

I attended.

While a better title would have been “what is Judaism’s role in food politics?” — I had flashbacks to being the lone blonde girl playing Book of Ruth Around the World at my best friend’s Synagogue in grade school — the experience ultimately was the same as it was as a child at Temple Beth Israel: a pleasant and welcoming one, despite my being a gentile.

My first thought when I first heard of this event (lifelong non-believer that I am) was, bah — religion’s role in food politics should be the same as in other politics: none.

I entered with a contrary attitude.

However, the panelists brought up an interesting point: change in food policy (the session didn’t really focus on actual politics, like the Farm Act or subsidies, but more on the sustainable food movement) needs to be at the grassroots level. Our government is not going to stop subsidizing corn or allowing CAFOs to get away with horrible practices because of the lucrative cash flow involved.

And, because the majority of Americans identify as non-secular, religious organizations already play a large role in their lives, so these groups have the opportunity to influence many areas that need change.

Plus, food is already deeply tied in with religion, making the connection even more natural. Islam and Judaism have dietary codes (halal and kosher), many Buddhists are vegetarian, Hindus do not eat cows, Catholics give up fish on Fridays and consume wafers and wine at mass, Seventh Day Adventists are flexitarians, Pastafarians worship a giant plate of Spaghetti (juuust kidding), and so on. Therefore, it is natural for religion and food to come together.

(As an aside, it’s interesting to note that “kosher” means “is this fit for me to eat?” Ethical veganism asks a similar question: is the food I am eating fit to be food or does it have a greater level of consciousness? We — vegans, Jews, and others following a dietary code — don’t eat what we eat to be annoying to others. We do it because our inner sense of morality tells us it is best.)

Of course, food is also inextricably linked to the very essence of humanity, not just religion: we need to eat to live, and thus this has become ritualized and fetishized, even in secular circles. As professor Liftin said, “food is the part of the environment that we eat” and the most likely area for overcoming differences between cultures — everyone eats. This is where I think veganism grates on non-vegans: by separating ourselves from the mainstream and placing judgement (be it real or perceived) upon them, we alienate ourselves.

Nigel used the phrase I refer to in the title, “lifting the cellophane veil” to explain how raising greater awareness about where what we eat actually comes from helps us to really understand our decisions. As an example, he asked how many of the audience of 100 or so ate meat but wouldn’t if they had to kill it themselves. A few hands raised. Next, he asked how many were vegetarian or vegan but would eat meat if they killed it themselves. A few more hands raised.

Nigel then told an anecdote about killing three goats; his organization had decided to slaughter animals from a local farm to teach parishioners to question their food choices. He asked the same questions to a similar group of 100 people, with similar responses as we experienced, then killed and dismembered the goats in front of them.

His group prepared the flesh in a banquet. Of that group, around 40 of the meat eaters decided not to eat the meat, while 20 or so vegetarians did.

This was the “cellophane veil.” Some people think of meat just as food, not about the animal from which it came, because it comes wrapped in plastic on a slab of Styrofoam. Others know where meat comes from, but elect not to eat if because of the negative conditions the meat industry creates for animals, humans, and the environment. Putting the responsibility for an animal’s welfare onto the consumer allows them to step back and examine their decisions.

While I do not support the killing of animals by any method (my decision has been made), this was interesting in thinking about how to get people to reduce their meat consumption.

The act of showing some people brutal violence can get them to change their tune. Nigel also noted that the Jewish version of PETA contacted him to express their disgust; his point was that his inviting people to watch goats being slaughtered was much more effective than just sending emails, like this vegetarian organization did, in reducing meat consumption.

We vegans focus a lot on sharing pictures of happy cows, though clearly the mainstream has no problem eating — and even romanticizing the killing of — happy cows because “they lived good lives.” Maybe it’s time to start leafleting pictures of meat industry carnage? As Lenin said, “You cannot make a revolution in white gloves.”

On a final note, Professor Liftin mentioned that secular organizations can have religious elements to them. I would never say that veganism is a religion (it’s a lifestyle), but there is some overlap. I haven’t felt as much community as I felt tonight since Vida Vegan Con, just in the magnitude of people with the same ethics and values together in one room. This made me crave interaction with like-minded individuals.

image by Mike Licht, via Creative Commons

5 Responses to “What is religion’s role in food politics? — “Lifting the cellophane veil.””

  1. February 24th, 2012 at 7:36 AM

    FoodFeud says:

    I really love your conflation of religion and food both in this post and your “Go Vegan for Lent” one. I am Catholic (on and off practicing) and while I don’t often agree with the politics of the church, I firmly stand by the morals of Liberation Theology and social justice – those of Dorothy Day, Cesar Chavez and the like. It’s very intriguing stuff and I’m so happy to hear you enjoyed your time at the seminar.

  2. February 24th, 2012 at 11:16 AM

    Helen says:

    Thanks! Religion’s role in our society is a fascinating one, especially the difference between politics and theology in organizations (as you mention). I especially enjoyed this session because of the community; it made me wish that athiests had some sort of regular gatherings to ponder morality and engage in open and honest conversation!

  3. February 24th, 2012 at 11:44 AM

    Jes says:

    What a really interesting talk! The “cellophane veil” is so important–as is the economics of it all. I was blown away when I read the price on my sister-in-law’s package of chicken breasts–$2.70. As a person who does occasionally buy meat from a farmer up the road, I regularly pay over $20 per whole chicken. It just blew my mind how cheap the cellophaned food is. You don’t have to think about it no matter what. A lot of things need to change in this country/world–it’s daunting to think about it. But definitely good that people are!

  4. February 26th, 2012 at 6:29 PM

    Fran @ vegansmarties says:

    Great article. Thank you for reflecting on the talk, very interesting!

  5. February 28th, 2012 at 4:11 PM

    Leah says:

    Wonderful article, Helen! Thank you for sharing.

    I’m not an “evangelical vegan” — someone who actively and aggressively recruits. I do hope people I love (and people I don’t love) will make better food choices because *my* choices get them thinking, but I have found that doing things like sharing delicious vegan food and modeling positive and fun vegan lifestyle are much more effective conversion tactics than scaring or shaming. Showing people that veganism is not only possible but actually quite easy (most of the time) is a great way to turn them on. It’s not about what you shouldn’t be doing, you naughty person, but about what you could be doing.

    When you show people awful images, they look away and try to forget. I want to catch and hold the gaze…like with some hawt vegan food porn. I do confront misunderstandings when they happen in my presence and I do openly and directly address negative comments made about vegans to me, but otherwise I’m just trying to entice omnis to join the party.

    Thanks for getting my gears turning with all these important conversations!!!

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