I’ll admit I haven’t read the book yet, although I’d like to, but I’ve been keeping up with the press on Jonathan Safron Foer’s new book “Eating Animals,” an investigation on the ethics of factory farms and eating meat. For an animal lover, the moral quandary of factory farms is not a complicated one: they’re bad. Animals that never see daylight, never leave cramped cages, animals that are basically tortured for the duration of their short lives and then killed. It’s far from a happy landscape, even for an omnivore such as myself. Foer, at least in the interviews that I’ve read, makes the argument that it is our responsibility as Americans to say no to the offerings of factory farms, to change the culture of a country so heavily dependent on low priced and ethically questionable food. His argument is that the cost at the cash register is far exceeded by the environmental and moral cost. All great arguments, and all arguments that cater to the decision process of the financially comfortable, educated middle and upper class. It’s easy to have a conscience about what you eat when you get seven figure book deals.
I don’t mean to disparage Foer’s commitment to the abolition of animal cruelty and irresponsible, capitalistic greed. I feel like his heart is in the right place, but I get the feeling that he and those of similar accord are out of touch with the reality of poverty in 21st century America. For some light reading today, why not check out the Washington Post article on the growing problem of hunger in America. The numbers are staggering: 49 million people at some point ran short of nutritious food offerings, including one in four children, in the United States. It’s hard to be selective about what you eat when the alternative is that you have nothing to eat. I won’t argue that the food industry in this country has us by the short and curlies, but how do you look someone in the face who can’t feed themselves or their children and tell them, organic local farm only. In theory it’s a great idea to change the eating habits of America, in practice, McDonald’s is a much cheaper place to eat for someone without a paycheck.
I’ve long been frustrated by members of the privileged classes dictating what is morally correct. When you’re poor, sometimes you just don’t have the option. I know, I’ve been there. At one point, when I was in my early twenties, sans college degree, I was living in my car in Los Angeles making 7 bucks an hour and taking food wherever I could get it. I was lucky, I worked in a restaurant and, thanks to the generosity of the cooking staff, I was often able to eat. There were days however when I literally had no food and no place to get any. I know what it’s like to be hungry with no idea of where you’re next meal is coming from. Worrying about factory farm or not at that point is pretty much moot. Selfish as it may sound, my own survival was the primary thing on my mind.
Foer’s book of course is supposed to be a journalistic exploration of the problem, and maybe he addresses this. As I’ve said, I haven’t yet read it. I did however read Natalie Portman’s response in the Huffington Post and this is where I have a problem. Portman is wealthy, and from the limited knowledge I have of her bio, it appears that she has lived in a privileged class her entire life. For someone who has worked with FINCAand has witnessed the poverty of developing nations, her understanding of American poverty seems remarkably limited. (Not to mention, her comparing eating meat to rape shows a remarkable lack of perspective). I just can’t abide by people with money telling people with no money how they should live. The problem with the privileged classes is that they often have no real understanding of garden variety poverty, and when the decision comes to eating factory farm meat or eating nothing, it’s a no brainer. I don’t care how much you learned from you’re liberal arts education, the reality of true poverty atomizes a lot of those good intentions. Eating meat is not illegal, so the rationale against it is purely philosophical. Poverty doesn’t leave much room for philosophy. (Ironic since most philosophy majors are broke). Thanks Natalie Portman for caring. When those in the soup lines get there Star Wars back end money, I’m sure they’ll rush to the local grown section too.
I’m not advocating here that people should chuck their morals, or stop fighting a good fight. I think that what Foer is doing by pointing out the dangers of America’s cheap food dependance is commendable. As a culture we should try for change, for making things better. But if the burden of this change falls on the poor, than that is not a good solution. I think that all of those who are comfortably middle class and who start to feel a bit preachy should dredge up some empathy. Poverty is oppressive, it’s humiliating, and I say this having only experienced a brief glimpse of it. Imagine having no get out of poverty card like my middle class background gave me. If you’re starving, you shouldn’t have the added burden of caring where your food came from.