Thursday, May 8, 2008

Veggie Might: That Food Crisis Everyone’s Just Raving About

Penned by the effervescent Leigh, Veggie Might is a weekly Thursday column about the wide world of Vegetarianism.

Kris, thanks for inviting me to join the CHG tea party. It’s an honor and a pleasure to chime in with my two bits about living and eating vegetarian on just pennies a day.

All the recent talk of food and the economy reminded me of an article from the April issue of VegNews. In “Privilege or Necessity,” Catherine Plato discusses whether vegans and vegetarians are left-field elitists—not just food snobs, but food snobs with a cause—or down-to-Mother Earth pragmatists who are taking a bite out of the environmental crisis.

The article could so easily be an “in defense of my lifestyle” tract, but it goes much deeper into the politics of poverty, health, sustainability, and responsibility.

“A vegetarian diet doesn’t have to consist of expensive meat substitutes, processed foods, and prepared gourmet hummus.” (Just ask Kris.) Plato goes on to say, “A plant-based diet … can actually be more affordable than one heavy with meat and dairy products. The key is relying on unprocessed foods.”

Amen, sister. When I first became a vegetarian, lo, those many years ago, I had no idea where to begin. My family ate meat at every meal—even the vegetables had meat in them. Like many newbies, I bought the line that to get enough protein I had to stuff myself with tons of processed soy and fakery. Now, 17 years later (rock!), I know better. Whole grains, legumes, veggies, fruits do the trick­—and much more affordably. My body and my handbag are much happier.

Of course it’s not that simple. Time is a major player. Try telling an exhausted single mother of three that when she gets home from an eight-hour work day, plus a two-hour commute, not to microwave something from a box. Maude knows, I do that, and it’s just me and my dog. Which leads us directly to access.

The New York Times just ran a piece on Monday about the dearth of supermarkets in poorer neighborhoods in the Bronx and Brooklyn. Because of high rents and low profit margins, grocery stores are being driven out and replaced with drug chains and convenience stores. This graphic shows the correlation between the lack of fresh food in neighborhoods with high rates of obesity and diabetes.

Education and outreach, as always, is key: reminding folks that it’s cheaper to cook at home, that it’s healthier for people and the planet. The veg community has long maintained that a plant-based diet yields environmental sustainability. Crops are cheaper and require fewer fossil fuels to produce than livestock. Don’t forget about all that methane snacking on our atmosphere.

According to John Ikerd at the University of Missouri, “...about 90% of all food crops produced in the U.S. is fed to livestock and poultry....” If we could eat the food we grow to feed the livestock that we slaughter to eat, we’d have enough affordable food to feed Every Body. And think of all of the other resources that would free up. Hold on, I think I just solved the oil crisis! Okay, I’m willing to share credit with the other 4.7 million or so Vegetarian-Americans out there. And maybe some science dudes.

I’m curious what others think. Just in the last week, there have been higher prices at the market that made me adjust my grocery list. Omnivores, are you cutting back on meat purchases as food prices rise? It’s easier than ever to give veg a go. The InterWebs are chock full of amazing recipes and tips, and almost anything can be made vegetarian or vegan with minor substitutions.
A group of friends, of whom I am the only vegetarian, just had our monthly potluck, and it turned out to be an all veg success. I’ll even venture to say that no one missed the meat. Come on, food crisis, I’m ready for you. What else have you got?

(Photos courtesy of Flickr members Muffet and yoshiko314.)

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Mrs. H. said...

We don't buy meat, and we have cut back on our meat consumption, but we still eat it often. My husband hunts, and so fills our freezer every year with deer, duck, fish, and hopefully this year, turkey. We figure out how many we need for the coming year, and off to the woods he goes.

All that being said, we have cut our meat portions a little smaller lately, mainly for health reasons. Beans and all-veggie meals grace our table at least three times each week, and we grow a large vegatable garden and have installed two dozen fruit trees and bushes this year. As good quality produce gets harder to find, more expensive, and leaves a larger carbon footprint, we are choosing to go in, our own backyard.

phrakture said...

I actually just went through a "month of vegetarianism" (cut out dairy and eggs too). I was amazed at how cheap it was. My lunch was costing me about $3 from the produce section of the grocery store, as opposed to getting a $10 sandwich down the street.

All in all, that month changed my eating habits far more than I suspected. Stop eating so much meat, your colon AND your wallet will thank you. 8)

Nicole said...

My boyfriend wants meat all the time and I could live without it. Our compromise is we eat it twice a week. He gets his steak and I get a chicken breast or something to that effect. He's starting to understand that meat is expensive and not the best for him or the planet. A slow conversion in the process...

Jaime said...

The trick is also in how you do it. I've been a vegetarian for ten years, but only in the last couple have I really started eating vegetables and whole foods. Took me forever to start liking beans. Processed foods can be almost as expensive as meat, and are not quite healthy. (I loved them, but after so much time away, I wonder how a Chik Patty would taste now...) Learning to make my own seitan was also important and really exciting.

bigbinder said...

We decided to eat less meat, but not go totally meatless. This is kind of an idea we have been toying with for a while, but are finally getting on board with. We are making dishes with other protiens, or extending the meat with oatmeal or rice. Last fall we did an eat local challenge (I dragged my family along behind my blog) and found out that locally raised meat tastes WAAAAY better, but is more expensive. I dragged my ratty old Moosewood cookbook out and started making some meals from that again; dinner takes longer to make but we feel better about it. Almost smug, but not quite.

Kathy said...

I found your post interesting. We are on opposite sides of the fence when it comes to meat, but we both agree on processed food. I try to make our food simple, and with meat. Soy is not an option for me or my family because of my cancer history. I did love soy milk before cancer though.

If you look back a hundred years ago food was simple and good, that is where my heart lies. Good simple food that farmers and ranchers eat. We have raised cattle, chicken and goats. (please don't stone me) Just didn't want to be lying to you.

We normally eat fruit and veggies in season, my Hubby will glad tell you a Brazilian vegatable is not as safe as anything raised here. We know our restrictions, other countries have very few restrictions on pesticides and hormones.

Marcia said...

We already don't eat very much meat. We are eating out less, and that's when we tend to get most of our meat, so that's where the cut back has come.

I have been trying more vegan recipes though.

Your comment about the harried working mother hit home though. About the only way that I am able to cook unprocessed food is by doing as much prep as possible after my child is in bed (soaking beans, cooking rice, chopping vegetables). And I only work part time! I have to return to full time soon, and I'm trying to figure out where those 4 hours a week are going to come from.

I guess I'll be sleeping less.

Leigh said...

Thanks for commentary, folks. This was fun AND painless!

Marica, and anyone with young'ns under foot, I don't know how you do it. I'd be eating food from a tube.

Kathy, fear not, I only use stones to make soup. ;)

mrs. h & Kathy, I totally respect the fact that you and your families grow and "obtain" your own food. Where are you, if you don't mind my curiosity? I'm growing herbs in my tiny NYC kitchen this year, and I feel like a Fanny Flagging hero.

phrakture, I just pictured Phil Hartman (RIP) sitting on the top of 8,000 bowls of cereal.

Jaime, what seitan recipe do you use? I just started making my own recently (from PPK) and it's been a revelation.

Thanks again for all the great feedback. See y'all on Thursday!