DURHAM — Kathy Rudy is tired of hearing colleagues tell her they can't afford to buy hamburger meat at the farmers market.
Yes, there are many people who really can't afford the higher prices there. But they are not her colleagues at Duke University, where she is associate professor of ethics and women's studies.
The way she sees it, it's cheap, industrial food that's killing us. It led to the most recent recall of half a billion eggs, followed by Walmart's recall of ham and beef deli meat. The recalled food, which sickened hundreds, has called attention to flaws in the nation's food safety system.
But to Rudy, 51, the problem is that middle-class Americans have grown so detached from their natural environments they expect food to be plentiful and cheap.
"What they're saying is, 'Food doesn't mean enough to me that I want to pay attention to the environment, the animals, my own health,'" she said. "To not attend to that interconnectedness seems very short-sighted to me."
Animals were what got Rudy involved in thinking about food in the first place. A feminist scholar with a master's in divinity, she started her career at Duke writing about the moral conflicts over abortion. Later she wrote a book on homosexuality and the church. But a few years ago she was searching for a new subject and volunteering at the Durham Animal Protection Society when she became increasingly concerned about the fate of animals, particularly farm animals.
"Animal suffering reactivated my feminism and my spirituality," she said.
After a tour of an Eastern North Carolina pig factory, she felt sick to her stomach. There, she saw pigs packed so tightly into sheds they had no room to turn around. She vowed to never eat meat again. That changed as she learned more about local, environmentally sustainable farming practices.
Rudy became convinced that industrial farming, in addition to feeding animals unnatural diets of corn, hormones and antibiotics, was torturing them, and in the process, poisoning people who ate them.
Just this week, federal investigators touring the site of the Iowa egg producers responsible for the salmonella outbreak found barns infested with flies, maggots, rodents, and overflowing manure pits. Egg facilities such as those in Iowa grow 50,000 hens or more in cages so tight they can't spread their wings, let alone escape the onslaught of feces falling from birds on top of them.
"Anybody can see it's wrong," Rudy said. "The only argument for it is it's cheap."
An alternative way
Rudy just completed a book, "Animal Affects: Culture and Connection in Animal Advocacy," due out next year. She's working alongside N.C. State University biology professor Jennifer Campbell on another book, tentatively titled, "Making Meat." It explores four North Carolina farmers who grow animals for food in responsible, humane ways.
Rudy, who grew up in Syracuse, N.Y., came to Durham in 1982 to work for a women's music distributor called Ladyslipper Music.
Four years later, she enrolled at Duke Divinity School after giving up hope that the Roman Catholic Church, where she had been baptized and confirmed, would allow female priests.
Halfway through divinity school, Rudy fell in love with academic scholarship and completed her doctorate in ethics. After a post-doctoral fellowship at Princeton, she returned to Duke to teach in the women's studies department.
If there's one theme that runs through her work, it's addressing injustice.
"She's someone who's committed to ethical issues since she was a grad student," said Ranji Khanna, chair of the women's studies program at Duke.
Her concern for industrial farming is not just about health, or aesthetics or taste. Rudy thinks industrial farming has severed the relationship humans have enjoyed with animals for the past 10,000 years.
Farmers once understood that animals had needs, and they strove to give them a good life in return for the manure they produced, the weeds they ate, the meat they gave. To many, that relationship is grounded in a sacred covenant between God and humankind.
"Whoever you picture God to be, that person is not happy with industrial agriculture," she said. "I'm sure of that."
The good news is that a younger generation of small farmers is attempting to restore those relationships by giving animals a measure of happiness and peace.
When farming was cool
She reminds her students that the nation's Founding Fathers were all farmers and that farming was once a highly esteemed profession.
It's a tough sell for Duke undergraduates who often view farming as akin to waitressing or picking up garbage.
But Rudy is hopeful.
Small-scale farming cannot eliminate outbreaks of food-borne illness, but because they're small, the damage to the wider public can be limited. She points to an outbreak in listeria and rabies at a Durham goat farm this past April. The problem was caught early, and no one got sick.
"If we want to serve healthy food, a lot more people will have to farm," Rudy said. "Farming has to become cool again."
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