Bringing Catholic Social Teaching to the Dinner Table
Creighton University senior Patrick Carter wants to bring religion to the table – the dinner table that is.
The idea first struck him in a Catholic social teaching class.
“There was nothing in Catholic social teaching that specifically talked about food,” Carter said. “I kind of saw that as a deprivation of the body of Catholic social teaching and sought to supply some potential applications of that.”
He also drew from his experiences growing up in St. Paul, Minn., as Carter comes from a food-conscious family. Throughout his childhood, his family made a deliberate effort to regularly prepare and share meals together around the dinner table.
Carter, who is majoring in justice and society with minors in both environmental policy and applied ethics, also credits many of his experiences at Creighton as influencing for his idea. As a freshman, he volunteered with Habitat for Humanity. Carter then joined the Cortina Community and served as an English as a Second Language tutor during his sophomore year, when he also became a part of the university’s honors program. As a junior, he led a spring break service trip to Shadowbrook, a sustainable organic farm in Lincoln, Neb. Throughout his senior year Carter worked as a GED tutor and led another service trip to a sustainable farm in Indiana.
“You go out there and you meet people who are doing fantastic things. You should come back with a little of that,” Carter said. “Whether it be in an honors presentation, or you go visit the farmers market, or you completely change your diet…there is something to be said about being changed by those kinds of experiences.”
With these influences in mind, Carter, through an independent research project for the University’s sixth annual Honors Day program, focused on applying Catholic social teaching to major themes of food in our everyday lives. He centered his project on three areas of the body of Catholic social teaching; subsidiarity, the environment and the common good. He then tied these major themes to food, researching current practices of food production involving where our food comes from and how much money, energy and time goes into its production. Finally, Carter synthesized his findings to illustrate how society’s current practices surrounding food compare to what we should be doing according to Catholic social teaching.
Carter’s findings revealed a major gap between society’s current practices and the doctrines of Catholic social teaching.
“We are so far removed from where our food comes from that we don’t realize the implications of it,” Cater explained. “We as a society have kind of isolated ourselves from food production.”
Accordingly, his research led him to some alarming statistics. Carter discovered that the average U.S. meal travels 1,500 miles before getting to the table, and the average U.S. family’s food incurs about 900 gallons of gasoline per year, which is nearly 85 percent of what a family typically spends on transportation. He figured out it takes seven pounds of grain to produce one pound of meat. He also found that, despite such massive waste, 15,000 children in the world die each day due to malnutrition.
“If you think of a full night at the Qwest Center Omaha, that’s about 15,000 people,” Carter explained. “Imagine that many people dying every single day around the world because they don’t have enough nutritious food to eat.”
These findings led Carter to explore the benefits of applying Catholic social teaching to our food habits. One of the main areas he explored involved the advantages of buying locally. He found that doing so preserves energy and involves less transportation, thus making buying food from local markets to be significantly more environmentally friendly.
Carter acknowledges that critics, however, may argue that buying food locally will eliminate a substantial number of jobs from the industry. Yet he suggests that there are alternatives available to those who may face unemployment.
“I don’t think we should have a responsibility to keep funding an industry or a group of people that are doing harmful things to our environment or our society,” he said. “As an alternative, you can still be a beef producer, but maybe instead of working in the factory, you own your own farm.”
In addition to the importance of buying locally, Carter’s research led him to two other conclusions. He found that to better adhere to Catholic social teaching, people should work to reduce their consumption of meat and also strive to live more simply.
Carter’s research holds that reducing meat consumption would consequently create a market for locally produced beef throughout the country, thus encouraging less overall consumption. He also found that, as a result, reducing our consumption of meat would be beneficial for the environment, the safety of workers and for people’s overall health.
"It is kind of the mindset of being deliberate about what you’re eating, and knowing that it takes seven pounds of grain to make one pound of beef…think about how much that could feed other people and how much energy it takes just to make that," said Carter.
Carter’s project also explored the small measures we can take to simplify our lives in terms of food, including eating out less or using the money we would have spent on a meal and instead donating it to institutions such as the Sienna/Francis House, a homeless shelter in Omaha.
However, Carter realizes such steps will be challenging for society. Eliminating food waste and consciously considering where food comes from resists the typical habits of our current approach to food.
“It’s very counter-cultural, and it’s hard to change people’s minds when they don’t know about the realities of food production,” Carter explained.
He supports the idea of people taking small yet progressive steps in terms of buying and eating habits, as this holds the power to begin changing society’s overall approach to food.
“It shouldn’t be an all or nothing. It’s a continuum and a work in progress,” Carter said.
After graduation in May, Carter plans to pursue a master’s degree in public policy at the University of Minnesota.
Carter received the Spirit of Creighton Award during the morning commencement ceremony on May 15, 2010.