On Monday, when I shared my new obsession (blueberry ginger ice cream: raw vegan and no ice cream machine necessary) I also shared some thoughts on how grateful I am that I have the ability to prioritize my ethics, my health, and my tastes through my food choices. I mentioned that, as a blogger, I spend so much time thinking about food as a form of nutrition or artistry that I forget to think about food as a basic human need.
I’ve spent much of my life in a state of hunger, but not out of necessity; I went hungry because I was suffering from my eating disorder. While I don’t think it’s right to talk about that as a “choice” I made–eating disorders are illnesses, not willed conditions–I do know that there’s a big difference between hunger as I experienced it, and hunger that is forced upon people who lack access to food. Today, I want to chat a little about veganism in the context of material and financial resources.
The comment that got me thinking about all of this on Monday came from Hannah, who said:
I take food for granted, too, when I spend an unnecessary amount of time stressing about its health or sugar grams. I feel like the food blog world doesn’t address this enough – the amount of privilege in regards to food and healthy food access – so it makes it seem easy for everyone to eat healthy plant food all the time, where in some places, it might not be.
Wise words, Hannah. I’m glad that we’ve all created a community here on CR where we can openly talk about our interest in nutrition and our histories with food. That said, I think it’s important for us all to remain mindful of the abundance in our lives. I personally have so much to be grateful for. In spite of the fact that I’m a full time student with very limited income outside of my academic life, I still manage to buy as much food as I want, and I often am able to shop organic (even if it means cutting costs in other areas of my life, like entertainment or dining out). I’ve always lived in a major metropolis, and not only that: I became vegan in a city that is persistently and outwardly vegan-friendly. This isn’t true of many other places: depending on where you live, it can be hard to find a supportive and active vegan community, and it can be hard to access specialty markets and grocery stores where vegan goods are available.
I recently heard veganism described as a “luxury,” and that didn’t really sit well with me, only because the word seemed to imply excessive financial privilege, or even superfluousness. Veganism doesn’t have to be any more expensive than other ways of eating: in fact, it can be much less expensive. At its most basic, the vegan diet consists of vegetables, nuts and seeds, soy foods, grains, and legumes. Grains and legumes can provide much of the nutrient density in any plant based diet and they, at least, can be had quite cheaply: this is part of the reason that they are the staple foods for so many global diets. When I was an editorial assistant making about 25K a year in New York City, I felt so grateful that I could create filling and nutritious meals from lentils and dried beans and rice that I had gotten from my neighborhood health food store’s bulk bin–often at about a dollar per pound.
If you get into superfoods–exotic dried fruits and roots–or if you get really into raw foods, and the pricey nuts and seeds that can come with them, it’s true that grocery costs can really go up. To me, the point of spending money on things like goji berries and/or hemp seeds has always been that these foods are so remarkably nourishing that a little goes a long way, and that the value they offer justifies the cost. But if my resources were slashed, and I had to make due on frozen vegetables, dried beans, and quinoa and rice, I could. And I know that I could obtain flavor and satisfaction, along with sustenance, from basic staples.
That said, if you take “luxury” to mean good fortune, then yes, veganism might be seen as a luxury. I can’t speak for all vegans, but I’m personally grateful that it’s a choice I can make, because it’s not a choice that everyone, all the world over, can make. There’s a big difference between pointing out that veganism is possible on even a very limited budget, and addressing the issue of whether or not veganism is possible well below the poverty line, or in circumstances where access to produce is literally nonexistent. I’m talking now about scenarios like food deserts, where it is virtually impossible to obtain the vegetables that are the cornerstone of plant based diet. It seems naive and unfair to suggest that a vegan diet is optimal in these conditions, or under any circumstances where food in general is scarce.
Of course, I’m not suggesting it, nor are most proponents of plant-based diet. What I’m suggesting goes back to the Vegan Society’s definition of veganism: “ways of living that seek to exclude, as far as is possible and practical, all forms of exploitation of animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.” When veganism is literally impossible (as opposed to “sometimes challenging”), few activists would insist that it’s the right choice. What they would probably say is that the fact that not all people in the world can adopt a vegan philosophy is all the more reason that those of us who are fortunate enough to make that choice, do.
To add some humor to this serious topic, the issue of “what’s possible?” reminds me of the famous eskimo retort that so many new vegans hear at cocktail parties. “What if you were an eskimo?! You couldn’t eat a vegan diet as an eskimo.” Well, probably not. But few vegan activists set out to argue that eskimos should be vegan. What they’re saying os that those of us who have the means to be vegan should consider it. The fact that eskimos would probably not be able to thrive on a plant based diet does not mean that I, a person who lives two miles from a Whole Foods and even closer to a farmer’s market in Washington, D.C., shouldn’t. By opting into a vegan lifestyle, I do my best to ensure that animals will not suffer or be exploited at my expense, and I help to set an example for others who want to make the same choice. I make this choice because I can make it, and I’m grateful that I can.
I guess that’s the real point of this post: not to say that veganism is a luxury the way having a personal chef is a luxury, or ordering the vegetable tasting menu at Per Se is a luxury, but to simply say that those of us who can be vegan should take a moment to acknowledge our good fortune. We have the freedom to eat food that is consistent with our ideals, and we have the humbling opportunity to do some good for other living beings every time we sit down to a meal. I’m personally very grateful that I can make the food choices I do; I’ve spent a lot of time thinking how my eating disorder made me take food for granted, but lately, I think more and more about how I’ve always taken my socioeconomic status and basic access for granted.
Speaking of all this, I wanted to mention a really inspiring article in the Washington Post the other day, which mentions a local clinic that writes vegetable “prescriptions”–vouchers, in other words–for low income families, in addition to providing healthy cooking classes and yoga. It’s easy to get cynical about health care, I know–or so I’m always being warned–but these kinds of organizations give me hope that access to healthy food will become less of a privilege, and more of a basic human right–soon.
Image © The Washington Post
I welcome all of my readers to take a moment this evening to be grateful for their food–I’ll be doing it, too. And I’d love to know your thoughts on all of this. I’m not as educated about food politics as I wish I were, so I’d love to hear from those of you who study or read up about these issues. How do we begin to share access to healthy foods with those in need? Any cool programs you’ve read about? Do you ever take your food choices for granted?