"Mommy, what are those?" Soren asked one morning as I unwrapped a couple of whole roasting chickens and rinsed them in the kitchen sink.
"They're chickens, honey," I told him.
"Dead chickens?" asked Soren, looking horrified. He's used to the lively flock of hens and roosters who run around the yard at his cousins' house.
"Dead chickens," I confirmed, looking glumly at the empty hole where one of the chicken's neck had once been attached to its body.
Soren's eyes were wide. "Who killed them??"
"I don't know. A butcher, I guess. A butcher is somebody who cuts up animals so we can eat them. All meat comes from the bodies of dead animals."
"I don't fink it's very nice to KILL animals and then eat them," said Soren.
"I agree," I said, turning the chicken over and examining the hole where its guts had been ripped out. "Do you think we should stop eating meat?"
"Yes," said Soren.
This exchange took place three weeks ago aaaand...we're still eating meat.
However. Our conversation acted as a catalyst on a thought process that has been churning around in my brain since last year when I ordered a free vegetarian starter guide from PETA (the premiere unbiased resource on vegetarianism) and started thinking more about the ethical implications of eating meat and other animal products. Seriously, if you want to improve your ethics in just one area of your life, eating is a good place to start, seeing as how eating is something most people do every day, multiple times a day (or, if you're me, all day).
What I've decided is that the key to ethical eating is mindful eating-- eating with an awareness of the food you're eating, its source, its impact on the world, and how that impact aligns with your own values.
The truth is, most of us eat food without really thinking about where it comes from. When I eat a hamburger, I might briefly think, "Hamburger comes from a cow," but I don't really allow myself to absorb and understand the reality of that fact. If I did, I probably wouldn't eat the hamburger. This is largely a product of my tender-hearted personality: I don't like for any living creature to suffer or die. Seeing a dead skunk on the side of the road makes my heart hurt. Mouse traps upset me. I catch and release spiders that I find in my home. When someone carves on a tree, I grab their hand, press it against the bark, and gasp, "Can't you feel its pain?"
So if I stopped to really consider that the flesh ground up and mashed between the two pieces of white bread in my hands once belonged to a living creature-- that this food source had once had great big long eyelashes framing giant brown eyes, that it had spent his days lowing, moving like a mindless adolescent in groups of other cows, and flapping its tail around its manure-covered butt-- I'd probably set the burger back down. Especially if I thought about the day he (he!) was herded into a processing plant, shot in the head, gutted, skinned, and hacked into bloody pieces for my consumption.
This doesn't bother some people. And that's okay. My sweet beautiful little nieces, for example, happily shoot and butcher their own deer. But since I would have to be pretty darn hungry before I could find myself capable of going out and killing my own animals for food, I probably shouldn't eat them so readily and so casually.
But even if you're the sort not bothered by animal sacrifice, it's still important to be mindful of where your food has come from and cultivate an awareness of whether the dietary habits you pursue are making an impact on the world in a way that aligns with your values.
For example, a lot of people don't know about the horrible living conditions that many egg-laying hens and grown-for-meat chickens are subjected to throughout their sad, short, hormone-injected lives. I don't know about ya'll, but I have no desire to continue to contribute to an industry that abuses living creatures this way.
Another consideration we often stifle during our daily consumption of meat, eggs, and dairy products is the environmental impact of our diets. Did you know that in in America 1/3 of all annually used fossil fuels go to producing animal food products? That the crops grown to feed food animals deplete soil nutrients more quickly than crops grown to feed humans? That it takes 10 times more energy and land resources to produce a meat-based meal than a plant-based meal? The meat-heavy diet to which we have become accustomed is unsustainable.
Lastly, I don't care what you were told in school or what you read in Self magazine, animal products are really not all that healthy for you. Vegetarians who eschew all animal products are far less likely than their meat-eating peers to develop osteoporosis, heart disease, kidney stones, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, hypertension, certain cancers, strokes, and obesity.
So what I'm saying is, I'm thinking about going vegan.
But it's hard. I was a vegetarian for a couple years as a teen, but that's because I didn't really mind cutting an entire category of food from my diet. Now I'm a bit more attached to food and have moved past a single food-choosing criteria ("What diet will make me the skinniest?") to a longer and more complicated list of questions, such as:
-What foods will provide my body with the vitamins and nutrients it needs, increase energy, and promote overall health?
-What foods will my husband and children eat?
-Will this diet fit into our budget?
-Will at least one meal I prepare during the week be deemed consumable by Briar, who needs her dietary sugar content thinned by something at least mildly nutritious?
-What foods are convenient and easy to prepare?
-Which foods will keep me from getting hungry again within the hour?
-How will eating/not eating this food affect my relationship with the people around me?
-How will eating/not eating this food impact the overall quality of my life?
-How is my diet impacting the broader world?
I'm quite entrenched in my current dietary habits, so change might be incremental and slow-going. However, since my conversation with Soren I have switched to buying locally-produced milk and eggs. The dairy farm where the milk is produced is located almost directly across the street from my office. I can go look at the cows any time I want and as them how they're doing and about whether they've been offered a 401K and dental plan. The origin of the eggs I am less certain about-- the girl at the counter said they were brought in by a farmer in nearby Ririe. (I wanted, couldn't bring myself, to ask if they had been produced by a non-oppressed chicken population. So if any of ya'll have contacts in Ririe, maybe you could do some sleuth work for me?)
I promise I won't judge you if I see you eating a meaty cheesy omelette. Eating is such a personal thing and many, many factors go into our food choices. You don't have to go vegan to be a good person. However, I would encourage you to think through the broader impact that your diet makes on the world and find a small way to change and improve that impact.