On (not) knowing where your food comes from: meat, mothering and ethical eating

Abstract

Knowledge is a presumed motivator for changed consumption practices in ethical eating discourse: the consumer learns more about where their food comes from and makes different consumption choices. Despite intuitive appeal, scholars are beginning to illuminate the limits of knowledge-focused praxis for ethical eating. In this paper, we draw from qualitative interviews and focus groups with Toronto mothers to explore the role of knowledge in conceptions of ethical foodwork. While the goal of educating children about their food has become central to Canadian and American discourses of “good” mothering, we identify a paradoxical maternal expectation surrounding meat consumption: (1) to raise informed child consumers who know where their food comes from, and (2) to protect children from the harsh realities of animal slaughter. Rather than revealing the story behind the meat on a child’s plate, mothers seek to shield children from knowledge of meat production. Our analysis of the child consumer contributes to ethical eating scholarship and illuminates a larger paradox surrounding knowledge of meat in an industrialized food system. In the practice of feeding children, mothers confront the visceral discomforts of meat consumption; their reactions speak to discordant feelings involved with eating meat in a setting far-removed from the lives and deaths of animals. Ultimately, the paper illustrates the limits of consumer-focused strategies for food-system change that call on individual mothers to educate young consumers and protect childhood innocence, all while getting ethically-sourced meals on the table.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    When using the term “knowledge”, we are referencing discursive or deliberative consciousness, rather than the practical consciousness guiding habitual consumer decisions. See Warde (2014, pp. 292–293) for a discussion of the role of practical consciousness in food consumption.

  2. 2.

    The Ontario Food and Beverage Policy significantly decreased cafeteria and vending machine sales in schools, and lead to significantly decreased revenue for school boards (Gray 2017, p. 134).

  3. 3.

    We recognize that this is a culturally and geographically specific understanding of children’s relationship to killing animals for food, and that in some contexts children are introduced to hunting and animal husbandry from a young age.

  4. 4.

    To read more about the study methodology and the food practices of the families in this study, see Cairns and Johnston (2015).

  5. 5.

    Most participants included meat in everyday family meals, so it is understandable that they might see making a special vegetarian meal for a child as a burden—especially given the unequal gender burden of foodwork in most households. It is possible, however, that this perceived burden relates to the social construction of vegetarian meals as more difficult or labor-intensive than meat-based meals.

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Acknowledgements

We would like to thank Shyon Baumann for his comments on a previous version of this paper. The research was supported by an Ontario Government Early Researcher Award.

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Correspondence to Kate Cairns.

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Cairns, K., Johnston, J. On (not) knowing where your food comes from: meat, mothering and ethical eating. Agric Hum Values 35, 569–580 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10460-018-9849-5

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Keywords

  • Childhood
  • Consumption
  • Ethical eating
  • Meat
  • Mothering