Friday, February 27, 2015

The Ethics of Eating

- along a wilderness trail - 

The other day my wife and I were eating lunch at a local restaurant, and when the meal was finished, our waitress commented on the fact that we ate everything on our plates, "You guys must have really liked the food."  My wife and I get comments like this all the time and I have often wondered why a server almost inevitably makes a comment if we eat all the food that we ordered? 

The other day at lunch my wife suggested that I pay attention to the other diners- many if not most of them were literally throwing away half the meals they had ordered. So is it any wonder that a server might be quite surprised that we left our plates clean - must be that we really liked the food?  The truth is that both my wife and I grew up in households where you weren't allowed to leave the table unless your plate was clean. At the time I thought it was a silly rule, I have now come to see the wisdom of this practice. 

As I read this morning's New York Times I was immediately reminded of my "clean plate" practice. In a very informative article titled, Food Waste Grows with the Middle Class, I learned of the escalating phenomenon of discarding uneaten food especially in this country.  In fact it is estimated that a staggering amount of one-third of all the food produced in the world is left uneaten. The article went on to explain:

The food discarded by consumers and retailers in the most developed nations would be more than enough to sustain all the world's 870 million hungry people.

Unfortunately most of the uneaten food goes to landfills where it decomposes and produces the dangerous greenhouse gas methane, significantly contributing to the global warming threat.

The article made me very aware of just how much we take our food for granted - we have so much of it that we can readily throw it away and think nothing of it as millions of people throughout the world  starve to death. We can send back plates of half-eaten food or throw out leftovers in the refrigerator and the significance of doing this means nothing to us; and without thinking twice, the local supermarket can discard yesterday's produce into dumpsters where is trekked out to landfills, significantly contributing to the pollution of the planet.

So the way we treat food and the way we eat food is most definitely a spiritual concern and it poses a serious ethical problem,

Christians are now celebrating the season of Lent - a time in which many people abstain from food. For some it is a time of fasting, for others it is a time when they don't eat meat. I wonder if this Lenten season might also be a time for every one of us on any spiritual path to focus on the food we throw away.  Eating less food or fasting or abstaining from certain foods may indeed be a spiritual discipline but so is "cleaning your plate" and  only ordering or buying the amount of food that you know you can consume. 

When we think about the big massive problems confronting the world today like war or violence or global warming, most of us throw up our hands wondering what one single individual can possibly do to help change any of it. Maybe one less pile of food scraps thrown onto a landfill can actually make a difference. And if we all were more careful about how we eat we may indeed change the world, making the planet a safer place for the generations yet to come. 

The Buddha taught:

As from a large heap of flowers many garlands and wreaths are made
so by one mortal in this life there is much good work that can be done.

Listen to my weekly podcast: "Desert Wisdom"


  1. Really good point made here. I actually grieve when I see food wasted. When I was little my father taught us to eat everything on our plates and not waste it, he would remind us to think of all the hungry children in Africa who have nothing at all to worked. (mike)

    1. Yes Mike the same was true in our household. At the time I thought it was a silly rule but now I see it as profoundly wise.

  2. I remember reading of an organization in San Francisco area named the Diggers. They provided free food and clothing to people. One of the things they did was get the left over meat which you saw being wasted and provide it to those who had none.

    Like Mike in the previous remark I was told to eat my food. My parents had come through the great depression and they new what hunger and hardship was like.

    As for me I like a small amount of meat and lots of veggies, beans and rice along with 'Real' butter. I intend to exchange my meat for fish when I get my fishing license.