Guilt: How literature helped me understand the harm of my eating habits and how to cope with the emotions felt after

By Gabby Pulsinelli

Food is personal. It is an object which fills the space of value, memories, and culture in our minds. It is an object that has the power to weigh on you and it can eat you from the inside out. Today, we are so distant from where our food comes from that we forget the awful circumstances that it originates from. When presented with the images of factory farming and other practices in the industrialized food system the reactions are different. Some continue to eat meat others go vegetarian or vegan, but there is a guilt that comes with seeing these images that no one can deny.

How do you deal with the guilt of eating meat and other animal products? What is the result from when you decide to omit these items from your diet? When you become educated about food how does it change what you eat, where you eat, how you eat and everything else that revolves around food. Some learn than say “that is terrible” and move on, continuing to eat their McDonald’s burger, I couldn’t do it.

After visiting Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glenn a feeling of comfort and discomfort fell over me. Even though I felt calm while petting the pigs and sheep a feeling of guilt came over me. It was a feeling that my eating habits for the past 22 years have been a contributing factor to their discomfort and suffering. Something about the factory farm footage paired with seeing the cages right there and meeting the animal’s after had an overwhelming effect that drove me over the edge to reconsider my food choices.

This guilt and gut-wrenching feeling after seeing the cages in person gave me the same feeling I felt in many of the passages in Eating Animals. This specific one I remember reading and I had to stop and get a piece of the picture to truly see what is considered a ‘humane’ practice.

“In its Animal Welfare Guidelines, the National Chicken Council indicates an appropriate stocking density to be eight-tenths of a square foot per bird…Let’s try to picture it. Find a piece of printer paper and imagine a full-grown bird shaped something like a football with legs standing on it. Imagine 33,000 of these rectangles in a grid…enclose the grid windowless walls and put a ceiling on top…This is a farm.”  (Safran 99)

Safran’s description is one that would shock a normal and decent human being, they take the reader on a factory farm. His language is direct, he knows what he wants his reader to feel. He brings the reader in with “Let’s try to picture it” to make them feel like they are the chicken, he uses the idea of anthropomorphism well here. Even though anthropomorphism has its dangers he is able to successful use it here to project the idea of claustrophobia and overcrowding. He puts you in the ‘farm’. Picturing yourself as the chicken does not feel good. It makes you feel guilty, it makes you feel as if you were the chicken and makes you feel bad for the animal.

This passage shatters the pastoral images we are fed in the grocery stores and on tv that most American’s feel their food comes from. Even though he does not state it, Safran in this passage he is describing the conditions in which a farm can be considered “cage free”.  So many people associate a false picture when it comes to “cage free” they think that the chickens are running around outside instead of an oversized shed. My initial impression of cage free was just that, until taking this class I did not realize that they get so little space. This brings me back to the Chicken Council’s videos they post on their website, they say their ‘happy’ but how do they know? I hate to use the word “natural” here because it is a loaded term but: a chicken’s natural habitat is not less than a piece of paper. There is nothing natural, moral or redeeming about the process in which we raise poultry, all the buzzwords on the packing are all lies.

His language throughout the book only gets more extreme to the point of making you question why you ever ate meat in the first place. Within the first 50 pages, the following is said: “half of all the layer chickens born in the United States, more than 250 million chicks a year –are destroyed.”(Sagran 38). The word destroyed is what caught me here, it is such a strong word to use, he could have said killed, tossed out, but he uses “destroyed”. Using this language implies violence, it is not a passive word. Chicks are destroyed simply because they are male, they do not even try to find a use for them. They view them just as a bycatch and toss them as if they have no value. The fact is just so mind-blowing it stops the reader in their tracks and makes them question their choice on eating eggs. This sentence is one of the ones highlighted in my book, it is one I returned too while trying to come to terms with myself and the food I choose to ingest. I typically would eat eggs as a quick breakfast, however, I never thought of the fact that millions of chicks die so I could have my breakfast or they were trapped in a small cage. After reading this I looked in my fridge in my eggs and could not touch them.

I had been thinking about going vegetarian for the past year, I did a short 4 month vegetarian moment after my environmental economics class while I was a sophomore and learning about the impacts of meat. I was preaching environmentalism as part of Team Green and as a Super EcoRep, but do not follow it myself. This did not last as soon as I went home, my parents thought of it as strange and did not support the choice at all. My parents have no concept of the environment, being green, or even think about their food choices. I do not even think we recycle paper in my house. There is something different this time around; the guilt this time around is eating me alive.

Something about farm sanctuary pushed me over the edge, it was stronger than just numbers. The guilt manifested itself into something I could no longer ignore and suppress, my conscious took over and forced me to think about the ethics of my food. It brought me to the conclusion that my morals did not line up with how I was eating. Cutting meat out was not enough for me, all animal products had to go as there is no end to the cruelty even if it is not their flesh. Can there be happy cows who I can get milk from? Can you humanely slaughter an animal? Is it sustainable to eat a small amount of meat?

 

Right now for me, the answer is no for all of those questions above.

 

Let’s talk discourse. The first time I went vegetarian I was fighting against the discourse that everyone should be eating meat to have a balanced diet. The government ‘teaches’ us that a balanced diet with fruits, vegetables, grains, protein, and dairy on our plate each meal. This type of meal has been ingrained into me since I went to boarding school when I was 14. The person serving my lunch would ask what you wanted and there always be a meat, a vegetable, and a carb. The fruit was in the basket on your way out and the milk containers were on the side. This discourse shows that not drinking milk and eating meat within a balanced diet is wrong.

What is so messed up about the MyPlate image is that literally creates an entire category –dairy—in which all product(unless plant based) come from sort of animal exploitation. The reason why the government promotes drinking milk? To prevent osteoporosis, but ironically countries that they do not drink milk regularly(unlike the USA) have a lower percentage of people who suffer from osteoporosis (Safran 113). In order for a human to drink milk a calf is taken from her mother, if it a girl they are put through the same procedure of constant pregnancy to produce milk and if they are a steer more often than not they are shipped off to the veal industry. The veal industry is a result of the dairy industry as they did not know what to do with the male baby cows. The steer will get shipped off and live in a small white tent where they live their short lives out with no more than a few feet to move around with no social interaction with other cows or humans until their slaughter.

Our obsession with milk is extremely recent, it is a governmentally sponsored and celebrity endorsed phoneme: “This sums up the sense of Foucault’s analysis of power, that is, that power is dispersed throughout social relations, that it produces possible forms of behavior as well as restricting behavior.”(Mills 20). The power behind the dairy and milk industry is one that we can date back to 1950 that is the result of dairy companies advertising the “nutrition” value of milk and creating a demand through infants not breastfeed (Dupuis). There was no need to promote milk drinking; people were doing fine without it. It was people who had “power” and were in an authoritative position in which they could promote milk to the general public and not be questioned because they were “experts”.

This discourse that dairy is needed to be ‘healthy’ is a hard battle I need to fight with not only my parents but everyone around me. I have not yet received the “you’re not going to get enough protein” line but I am waiting. Milk and eggs are so relevant to ‘normalized’ cooking that when you choose to omit them from your diet in every fashion it makes you an alien in many people’s eyes. Eggs and milk are so prevalent in so many dishes on campus and in restaurants. While trying to find something to eat in Douglass on a revisit day I looked at the soup and it looked vegan until I read the label. Same with other stations, they all boast some type of cheese or dairy-based element. All the desserts that day had eggs in them, we do not need 5 different types of desserts. What kills me is that Danforth is all you can eat dining hall and I had 4-5 choices of a full meal and the only source of protein I could find was a poorly cooked veggie burger that I could not even finish.

It is one thing to say you do not eat meat at all, it another thing to say you will not eat red meat, some say they only eat fish, others will say they eat very little meat in generally. There are many discourses about choosing to not eat meat, being vegetarian is not viewed as so strange. Being vegetarian is still a fight against the discourse of myplate and that eating meat is normal. There are still many “normal” options people do not bat eyes at. For example, you can eat cheese a food our culture is obsessed with.  Many restaurants even feature a “V” on their menu to represent vegetarian meals. But people do not bat their eyes at this as much, even vegetarians are merging into the more widely accepted discourse of eating habitats. When you say your vegan, God have mercy on your soul for the reactions you get.

When you say your vegan a whole floodgate of questions, comments, and judgments come at you at once. So here let us dive into the world of Gabby’s social interactions, work life, RA life, and family drama. Most recently at a work place party, they were having a thank you lunch for the students and professional staff members(which I am one of) to wrap up the end of the year. Part of my job was helping the event planner carry in the food, place the soda, and layout the dessert tray. What was for lunch you say? Pizza, wings, mostly cream based desserts and soda. While at this party my co-workers were like “Gabby get food”, in which I had to politely tell them “I can’t eat ANY of that”. Gal, who organized and order the food, felt so bad after I told her I was vegan. Gal happens to be a vegetarian and we ended up talking about why we did not eat meat, part of it for her is her religion .

I got the question “why are you vegan”. As of right now while writing this paper I have never fully explained my reasoning as every time I get asked this question it is during while someone is eating meat. At the end of this paper I hope to answer this question fully but my answer while in company with others who are currently consuming animals products is the following: “After taking Animal Histories and Food Media and Literature and visiting farm sanctuary and seeing footage of factory farming I cannot look at meat/animal products the same way. If you want me to tell you the full reason I better not do it while your eating.” While this is the truth, it is not the whole truth. I said my line and we continue our conversation. Then our director joins us and notices I do not have food and gives me the nudge to go get food and I repeat the “I am vegan” line. What Christine then says is something that I related to the way to much, “Gabby can’t eat meat because she “overeducated” on the subject”.

I do not know how I feel about this word “overeducated”, am I overeducated or do I know the truth? This brings me to Mills again, “Truth, therefore, is something which societies have to work to produce, rather than something which appears in a transcendental way.” (Mills 18). This ties back into the idea of power Mills talks about and who has the power to produces these “truths”. While the chicken council says less than a sheet of paper is humane is that the ultimate truth? As a society, many rely on a “higher power” and these people who occupy these positions are the ones who typically create these “transcendental” truths. Many follow blindly and take the truth at word value never questioning at all, they see words like “cage-free”’ and organic assume that they are better than the other products in the store.

My “overeducation” is a result of taking a variety of narratives together to see the full picture, I decided to question my food and not take it at face value. The truth that is presented in the supermarket is a false notion and after learning these “truths” that society is slowly starting to piece together. This knowledge of knowing what goes on a ‘farm’ and how animals are treated weights on you, it reaches a breaking point. If I truly believe in the harmful effects of factory farming and can see through the “bullshit” (as Jonathan Saffran calls it) how can I still consume it?

What you choose to eat has consequences, either you see them or not, the truth is that we are so far removed we do not know what is true about our food anymore unless we grow it ourselves. There are not just animal abuse issues and environmental issues but the treatment of those who work in the food industry. Choosing to eat factory farmed meat is not only support the awful treatment of animals but the as equal horrible conditions of workers in the industry. One of the reasons I choose to be vegan is the treatment of workers in the meat industry. This is one of those reasons to be vegan is extremely difficult to tell people about because of the vivid images that are needed to understand.  While reading Fast Food Nation the descriptions and stories spoke to me and made me feel awful about all the meat I had ever eaten in my life. What Fast Food Nation does is bring forth a narrative and a truth that is buried by the big meat packing industries: “Every year about one out of there meatpacking workers in the country roughly forty-three thousand men and women- suffer an injury or work-related illness that requires medical attention beyond first aid.”( Schlosser 183) These are just the reported ones, there are probably much more that go unrecorded as well and are encouraged by plant managers to keep their injuries under the radar.

In the discourse of why people are Vegan are for a healthier lifestyle(according to some experts), boycotting animal abuse, rejecting practices of factory farming, and religious beliefs. However, you never hear vegans talking about the workers who are mistreated and taken advantage of in order keep the profit margin high. One of the reasons I became vegan was the fact that thousands of people working in this industry are affected by the industrialization food system. Families are torn apart by factory farms, in a paper I read in Animal History it talks about how the swine industry made a family live apart. The factory is so concerned about germs transferring between piglets and full grown pigs that the father, who is a manager, could not live with his family who worked with baby piglets (Blanchette 643). The people working in the meat industry are the lowest of the low, mostly illegal and pushed to the physical limit. They push the conveyor belt to make it “faster pace for higher profits” and sacrificed the safety of their workers (Schlosser 185). These workers are disposable, the company could care less about them and it is evident in the story Schlosser paints for us.

Through literature and personally reflection I have been able to come to terms with my guilt about eating meat and change my habits to support a lifestyle that does not support harming animals or exploitation of workers. However, this change has not been easy socially, mentally, or physically.

Food is an important part of the college experience and is a vital part in how I hang out with many of my friends. In Eating Animals Safran makes this point:

“Sharing food generates good feeling and creates social bonds. Michael Pollan…calls this “table fellowship” and argues that its importance…is a vote against vegetarianism. At one level, he’s right. Let’s assume you’re like Pollan and are opposed to factory-farmed meat. If you’re at the guest end, it stinks not to eat food that was prepared for you, especially (although he doesn’t get into this) when the grounds for refusal are ethical…How much do I value creating a socially comfortable situation, and how much do I value acting socially responsible?” (Safran 44)

 

Table fellowship is something I am struggling with, many of my friends are omnivores and when they ask me to eat out I have to check the menu ahead of time. About two weeks into my journey finding out what being vegan is like I get a text from one of my close friends on campus “let’s go out to olive garden tonight with the gang”. Very rarely do I get to hang out at once with them, the menu at Olive Garden has a total of three items I can eat: their salad with oil and vinegar, without their signature dressing, breadsticks, minestrone soup, and pasta with marinara or tomato sauce. Out of all of their options, those are the items on the menu I can eat four things. I decided to go with them and it was somewhat awkward at dinner. I felt bad having to tell the waitress that we needed two different salads for the tables, as my other friends wanted the other dressing. Even though it was awkward placing our orders overall at the table no one questions me or made me feel bad. In the back of my mind, I could not help to think of the animals harmed in making my friends meals.

Right now while I write this paper my friend messages me on facebook to our group chat, “if any of you are around there is free bbq in the wells brown room” my friends thought me going vegan was just for this class. They have blown away that I have decided to make this lifestyle change, in the conversation about the free food she typed: “I would not be able to live this life during finals I don’t know how you are managing.”  My friends are extremely tied up in their studies rarely do they cook or even think about the food the put in their bodies. They live in the discourse that being disconnecting to your food is accepted and to not question the industry. They also live in the world that you need meat to survive, most of the meals served on campus have some sort of animal product in them. My friends burrito bowls typically not only have meat but cheese and sour cream and other animal products. Even their salads will be topped with cheese and chicken with a dressing that most likely contains an animal fat. They do not think at all about their food, their concerned with others things that when it comes to eating it is just fuel and nothing more.

Physically this transition has been rough on my body, my face is breaking out and is draining thinking about what I can eat while at dining locations. Even cooking is becoming a drain—something I enjoy doing—after working till 5pm coming back to my room and trying to make something that will fill me and is nutritious takes mental and physical energy. With their being so few options available on campus I am forced to shop ahead of time off campus and to try to meal prep as much as I can. It is an adjustment to having to cook ahead of time, I believe this will be much easier once I have an oven at my disposal next year and not just a stovetop.

What is surprising is the amount of food I need to eat, that has been the shell shocker to me. I find myself hungry all the time, I will eat a full meal and then be hungry in an hour or two. It is taking some adjustment to this diet but it has become easier over time and I know that have to be more conscious of what is going into my body. While at Wegmans shopping for the week I was looking for vegan chocolate, took me like 10 minutes, and when I finally located it I found myself reading the labels to make sure it was vegan. I know with time these side effects will disappear and it will become easier shopping/cooking.

It has been a whirlwind the past month and I know that this will be an uphill battle, I have to face my parents and then find out how to be vegan while going to school in North Carolina (pretty sure BBQ reigns supreme there). It is finding a freedom within a system that makes the choices about what I eat more moral. This journey is far from over, I have to learn how to operate in a system at my home and within my family that is rooted in meat-loving-cheese-covered dinners. It is going to be plenty of awkward conversations and parties (not all beer/wine is vegan). I am not sure what to except when I leave Rochester, all I know is that the literature and our trip to Farm Sanctuary spoke to me and changed me. My habits are more conscious of what I eat and how I consume food.

Guilt is a strong emotion, one that has taken hold of me this semester and last. It is now that I understand the morality and power of my choices when it comes to food. I may be one person but maybe I can help someone learn how to eat morally (vegan, vegetarian, or “meat-eater” as Sophia has said). I can control my own actions and eating habits and will find that space of freedom is this chaotic industrial food system.

 

Bibliography

Nature’s Perfect Food: How Milk Became America’s Drink, Erna Melanie DuPuis

Herding Species: Biosecurity, Posthuman Labor, and the American Industrial Pig, Alex Blanchette

Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan

Fast Food Dilemma, Eric Schlosser

Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran 

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