Okay, here’s the copy of the letter I wrote to Racialicious.com (you can check out their blog via my links). My question to you, fair readers, is what do you think? What would you do in such a situation? We continued discussion tonight, but I left for rehearsal while it was still going. I’ll update you on our solution once we reach one. Without further ado…
I have a very sensitive question, and I was hoping you could help me. First, the setup:
I go to a private, progressive, liberal-arts college in the U.S., and eat in a dining co-op on campus. I am a minority woman of color (multiracial) who eats meat when she can afford it, and one of the few PoCs in the college as a whole (not to mention the coop system itself). I joined the coop because it was a) financially feasible- it’s cheaper than regular school dining by $1,000 dollars, and b)healthy. There are many coops on campus, yet I selected my current one because it was housed in my then-dorm, and served meat (not often, we try to be accommodating to vegans/vegetarians, and usually can’t afford much meat in the budget). Also, I am in no way perfect- I’m still trying to understand the complicated intersections of race, privilege, class, religion, and other things–especially how they relate to food politics.
So, here’s my problem-
Every semester each coop re-evaluates its policies. New people are elected to positions, policies are modified/changed/resumed, and so on. We vote by consensus to get things done and while it’s great it can lead to some very tricky situations…like this one.
One of our new members keeps a modified sort of Kosher- As she explained (and as best I can understand) while she is fine with certain forms of animal products and preparation of foods, she does not want pork products in the co-op. As she explained, according to her religion pork products were used to desecrate the second temple and so she cannot have them touching any plates, silverware, cleaning supplies, or cooking utensils for fear that they would contaminate and continue to contaminate the coop. She would also be uncomfortable with having her own special set of dishes, or a special designated pork set of dishes, etc. This is because the former would make her feel like a second-class citizen, while the latter would be too logistically difficult to maintain, as even dish water or the sink containing pork-byproduct waste would contaminate the other dishes. Thirdly, she would not agree with having her money spent on purchasing any pork products. While we have served pork in the co-op before, she is willing to overlook this past contact, as long as no pork is served while she is officially eating here. The campus has another coop that keeps Kosher, yet she likes ours and would like to stay here.
The dilemma with me lies in several factors-
I am perfectly fine with avoiding meat in situations where it makes others uncomfortable- our college’s coop system is largely vegetarian, and so I have grown accustomed to accommodating and at times embracing a meat-free lifestyle. Our co-op has in the past made rules stipulating that vegetarian and vegan options must always be available and nutritionally wholesome to anyone who wants them, whoever cooks meat at a meal must give 24 hours notice, in order to allow anyone uncomfortable cooking, cleaning up after, or eating at that meal a chance to leave or switch work shifts, and meat cannot (for budget reasons, as well as to respect non-meat eaters) be served much more than a once per week average.
However, according to our food-buyer, since pork products are the cheapest and possibly easiest meat to spread amongst 100 or so people, it has historically made up about 60% of our meals with meat. As a person with financial difficulties who often struggles with issues of class and food-politics on this campus and in this space specifically, I appreciate and look forward to days when I can eat meat that is both sustainable AND AFFORDABLE. As I said before, the coop system is largely vegetarian, and this school has a largely upper-class student body, and sometimes I feel othered as a person who could not often afford such sustainable, yet expensive options. Sometimes I feel that people here don’t understand or respect that certain foods like meats are part of peoples’ culture, and an aspect that should be handled with respect and not scorn or guilt-tripping. I felt like this was a “safe space” for me to deal with these issues respectfully. During discussions of this issue, several members expressed that they felt this coop had been a “safe space” for not having to bow to religious rules and regulations, which they feel the girl’s proposal would make them do. And, while I know she didn’t mean to imply this, I am offended that someone would feel so strongly that what I eat is dirty, and contaminates everything it touches. If this were a personal matter- say, she asked me not to eat pork around her or in her house- I would comply gladly. But making me and the rest of the coop abide by some rule we may strongly disagree with and are offended by makes me feel like a second class citizen.
On a third, and more philosophical level, I’m wondering about peoples’ ability to pick and choose what part of a religious law is strongest for them, and how much sway that has in issues of religion v. other personal beliefs. As I said before, this person admits she practices a modified version of Kosher- she and her family have created a hierarchy of rules to live by, and this one happens to be uncompromisable to her. But when a person is able to pick and choose what parts of sacred laws (like religion) are applicable to their life, what then separates religion from any other strongly held personal belief system? And what does it mean to be tolerant of these two, especially when the two conflict? Her religion is rubbing against others’ beliefs of not bowing to such religious laws- what happens now?
The way our system works is that if a certain number of members strongly disagree with a proposal (say, 3), the proposal doesn’t pass. If any member threatens to leave the coop if a certain proposal passes, that proposal is ALSO nixed. This is such a tense issue; I’m afraid nothing will be passed because of such strong feelings on both sides. So far everyone has been respectful in voicing their opinions, but I am worried that mine are possibly hurtful, and if I say them they could cause great damage. However, I think what I’ve got to say is important, and according to others I’ve talked to about this (both inside and outside the situation) my feelings are valid and my opinion needs to be said.
Please Racialicious, help me out! I don’t know what’s right and what’s best. She wants this coop to be a “safe space” for her. So do I.
ETA: So the consensus was (after a 12 day long discussion) that there is to be an average of meat once per week, with pork no more than once a week and NEVER at breakfast. There is to be a separate pan for cooking meat, as well as a separate pan for cooking pork. These two pans will be stored separately from other cooking tools, and they will no longer be used to cook vegetarian dishes (so no “contamination”). They must be washed last. 24 hour warning must be issued before meat is prepared, and if pork is made there needs to be a sign put up on a specific door (not sure which one) that says pork is being currently cooked. Yeaaaaah…..and then we got into a ridiculously long discussion about ordering produce local v. organic, and which was more important. Ugh. Co-ops.