Do Women Bear The Burdens Of Ethical Eating?

In Salon this weekend, Siobhan Phillips described the month she and her husband spent eating “ethically.” Her experiment got us thinking about whether the burdens of a sustainable diet fall disproportionately on women.

What differentiates Phillips’s experiment from the legion of others of its ilk is that Phillips and her husband decided to “eat conscientiously for a month, not just on our regular grocery allotment but on the government-defined, food-stamp minimum: $248 for two people in our hometown of New Haven, Conn.” They started with zero food and bought “the SOLE-est products available — that is, the sustainable, organic, local or ethical alternative.” They made dal, chili, and biryani, and finished the month with $1.20 left over.

But what exactly does “they” mean here? It’s possible she’s just using the first person singular for simplicity’s sake, but it sounds like it fell to Phillips, not her husband, to implement most of the changes. “I relied on the sort of reasonably flexible schedule that is a luxury in far too many households,” she writes, “and I started with some basic cooking knowledge” [emphasis ours]. She also refers to “my Chinese fried rice and Italian risotto.” She mentions only one contribution from her husband: microwaving his own oatmeal, after she shows him how. One Salon commenter sums up the apparent inequality this way:

Now women are being called upon not only to manage the eco-cleanliness of their families domiciles, but also to manage the ethical qualities of their families food choices: a leftist version of “Better Homes and Gardens”.

Not every household where the woman does the cooking is an inequitable one, but from personal experience it seems to me that the current pressure to eat locally, organically, sustainably and well weighs much more heavily on women. My ex was into bike-riding and recycling, but he thought farmers’ markets were lame — if I wanted us to eat local tomatoes, I had to go and get them by myself. And my dad, an environmentalist and general bleeding-heart who has always done half the childcare, cleaning, and cooking, used to refuse to cook for me after I went veggie.

This imbalance happens because women still cook and shop for groceries more than men, but also because some men — even men who are otherwise progressive — look down on sustainable eating, or the work that goes along with it. Plenty of guys still agree with Jessica that vegetarians are sissies, and riding a bike or even retrofitting a car to run on vegetable oil may seem cooler than picking out locally grown fruit. So while eating sustainably benefits everyone by slowing climate change, right now it may also make things harder on women.

There’s hope, though. Vegan Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson and his foe, omnivore/sustainable food advocate Michael Pollan, are both dudes. And my dad, once a die-hard meat-eater, recently purchased a vegan cookbook as part of his new project to “eat lower on the food chain.” Perhaps caring about food miles and pesticide runoff will one day be considered manly. For those of you who think about such things, do you notice a gender gap in ethical eating? And what do you think we can do to close it?

Can We Afford To Eat Ethnically?

Earlier: Can Female Vegetarians And Male Carnivores Ever Find True Foodie Love?

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