In the past few years, my Facebook newsfeed has become a stream of posts touting the benefits of a vegan diet. Understanding how consumption of meat, dairy and eggs impacts the world—from the horrific treatment of animals, the amount of water needed to produce a serving of meat, and the health impacts of eating dairy—has changed the way I eat. But recently, the social media posts advocating a vegan diet have seemed to change tone, now portraying veganism as the only form of ethical consumption and treating those who consume animal products as immoral.
While I wholeheartedly believe that there are compelling reasons to reduce or eliminate animal consumption, the patronizing, ethnocentric and classist attitude of some vegans has left a bitter taste in my mouth.
As knowledge about the meat industry and the environmental impacts of animal product consumption have seeped into the mainstream through social media and documentaries like “Cowspiracy” and “Forks Over Knives,” people in the United States are increasingly switching to a vegan or vegetarian diet. According to a 2016 Harris poll, 3.3 percent of Americans over the age of 18, or around eight million people, are vegan or vegetarian.
While switching to a vegan diet has many benefits, the push from many animal-rights and environmental protection advocates for widespread veganism—and the oftentimes patronizing attitude expressed by these groups—exemplifies the classism often present in environmental advocacy. Reducing meat consumption, buying organic and non-GMO produce and consuming locally-grown fruits and vegetables are known to benefit the environment in numerous ways, but these plant-based vegan diets are not financially accessible to a large portion of the United States.
More than 45 million people in America are on food stamps through a government program formally called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. The maximum monthly allotment for a family of four receiving SNAP is $649, but the maximum amount is only given to individuals who have no other income, meaning that the assumed food budget for SNAP recipients is $36 per person, per week.
To stretch $5 a day to feed an adult who potentially works long hours of physical labor, has little time to prepare food and has allergies or medical diet restrictions is hard enough—let alone attempting to adopt a vegan, plant-based diet.
This daily budget doesn’t account for any wasted food, either. A 2015 study found that low-income parents are less likely to try to feed their children new, healthy options, as children tend to try new food eight to 15 times before accepting it. When arguing that healthy eating is affordable, writers typically calculate the cost of the food actually consumed, ignoring the foods purchased and introduced to children, only to end up in the trash. Switching to a vegan diet may be healthier, but struggling parents rely on staple foods that they know their children will eat, rather than introducing vegan options that may go to waste.
Even if getting sufficient calories and nutrition were not an issue, access to fresh produce is not a given for many communities within the United States. According to the USDA, food deserts are “parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas.” For many families in New York, the only source of food within walking distance of home is bodegas or convenience stores, which often lack perishable food items like fresh produce.
The push for vegan diets as the only form of ethical consumption even ignores the science. Permaculture is a form of farming that “integrates land, resources, people and the environment through mutually beneficial synergies – imitating the no waste, closed loop systems seen in diverse natural systems,” according to the Permaculture Research Institute. While the majority of Western agriculture does have ecological consequences, small-scale sustainable farming that implements crop rotation and uses animal grazing and manure to improve soil quality can benefit the environment and society.
It may be vegan, but season after season of acres of water-intensive vegetables raised and harvested by migrant workers being paid below a living wage is far from beneficial to the environment or society.
While shifting from a meat-heavy diet to a plant-based vegan diet may be environmentally beneficial, it’s far from any easy change to make. All this is not to say that switching to a vegan diet has no significant impact, but that such a switch is only one, often inaccessible, way to live fulfilling, ethical, and environmentally conscious life.
As families across the country struggle to put food on the table, veganism is an option few can afford.
Photo by Julia Himmel