Eating Animals, the New York Times Bestseller by Jonathan Safran Foer, reads like a journal, walking the reader through the author’s odyssey to learn everything he can about food production and food related health and environmental concerns. It is an unusual book as both a well-researched work of non-fiction and the story of a family: it is at once deeply scientific and research-driven and a moving memoir about a new parent and erstwhile dog owner with a genuinely urgent question. Like last year’s book on Henrietta Lacks and HeLa, Eating Animals engages the range of disciplines: it is directly relevant to Health, Business, English, History, Communications, Philosophy, Hospitality and Culinary Arts, and all of the Sciences, including Behavioral, Political, Biological and Physical.
One thing Eating Animals is not, however, is a simple argument for vegetarianism. As Foer is careful to clarify, he does not actually make a case for or against eating meat: "Almost always when I told someone I was writing a book about ‘eating animals,’ they assumed… it was a case for vegetarianism. …but it’s not what I’ve written here" (13). Rather, the author poses a number of questions to which he offers a number of answers---about how food is produced and how those processes are impacting the environment and our health; about how animals are treated and viewed by the human race and whether, or how much, we care about their suffering. The title may be simple, the text is not. As Foer has said in interviews, the idea of vegetarianism that gets invariably tied to the book has done a great "dis-service" to the conversation on it. (See our Teacher Toolbox for links.) Far more important to the book is the issue of factory farming, against which it makes a clear argument. But that position does not come down to a simple choice to not eat meat---it is about whether to eat factory farmed meat; its centerpiece is the ethics of animal suffering; and its core is a business ethics question regarding practices we ought, or ought not, to consider acceptable or tolerable.
In terms of the issue of "teach-ability," Eating Animals is absolutely readable, the language accessible for both developmental and more advanced students. Several members of our faculty already teach the book (or chapters thereof) precisely because it works so well in the classroom while also exploring so many critical contemporary issues. Again, like last year’s book, Eating Animals is written in the style of literary journalism: while providing much useful information and based in research, it is told in a narrative style and is as much about family and culture as it is an exposé of factory farming. When we think about questions of culture, what could be more important than cuisine in the lived, daily experience of culture? When we think about family, what could be more memorable than the moments centered on food—Thanksgiving (which Foer talks about), or Passover or Eid al-Fitr or Christmas, or birthday, anniversary and welcome-home dinners?
Why was Eating Animals an Important book for KCC? Well, along with exploring the cultural implications of food, Foer’s book addresses numerous associated concerns. Eating Animals is a compelling survey of virtually every food issue on the planet—matters of science, health, ethics, agri-business, biodiversity, sustainability, suffering, starvation, planetary and individual health, and, of course, food and eating. And, as was our aim last year, we want to do justice to this book, to the urgent questions it raises. Which means, for KCC Reads, this year is about food as an issue rather than a given, it is about functioning as a bridge for the Civic Engagement work so important in this campus community.
As only one example: Eating Animals inspired our community to work on issues of food insecurity. In May 2014, we held the very first fundraiser for our own KCC Food Pantry. And Foer begins there, at the intersection of power, politics and (not just food, but) starvation through the story of his remarkable grandmother, a Holocaust survivor who was determined not only to outlive the persecution, but, to do so without sacrificing her beliefs. (For her, he says, food is not just "food," it is "terror, dignity, gratitude, vengeance, joyfulness, humiliation, religion, history, and, of course, love," 5.) His thesis is captured in the incident in which she refuses to eat pork despite the fact that she was literally starving; he inquires as to why she did not eat the meat gifted by a sympathetic farmer and she replies: "If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save" (17). Now, we ask: Why is it that 1 in 5 American children, including many KCC students, don't know where their next meal is coming from (usda.gov), meanwhile, we waste ~34 million tons of food annually (epa.gov) and spend millions turning it to waste? How does the condition of food insecurity affect our students? And, what should we do about this problem—as citizens, teachers, administrators, students? What is our responsibility, as a civically-engaged campus, to reduce food insecurity in our local and global worlds? Those things in mind, we decided to be pro-active and work to support food insecure members of our own campus community by holding an afternoon tea, as our final event of the year on Eating Animals.
And, it was a great success: we raised a whopping $565.00 for the pantry! Therefore, we'll continue efforts like this in future years of the KCC Reads program...
The adoption of this amazing and important book afforded us a rare opportunity not only to work collaboratively across campus programs—with the Urban Farm, Eco-Fest and other "green" efforts—but also to collaborate as faculty, staff and students on food insecurity and other issues. Foer's book addresses everything from the environment, public health, ethics (food, animal, business) and animal welfare / animal rights, to agri-business, biodiversity, factory farming vs. family farming, climate change and sustainability. The book makes a variety of useful and important class projects possible which could become one way students satisfy their civic engagement requirements, and/or, the class could present project outcomes (or creative / scholarly work) at the Spring 2014 KCC Reads Student Conference.