I still stand behind what I wrote in this article, but this piece wasn’t necessary. As someone pointed out in the comments–what are the action steps? What am I doing to make a difference? Educating is one thing but action is another.
If you didn’t already know, not everyone can afford to go vegan. Instead of giving a PSA, I just want to support organizations who are aware of the problem and working to fix it. Education is super necessary, but there are vegan thinkers who explain these issues way better than I can. I’ll let them do what they do and get to work behind the scenes.
One of the more frustrating vegan opinions is that everyone can afford to go vegan. Here’s why this insensitivity to worldwide poverty is perpetuating the belief that veganism is only for privileged people.
The USDA defines a food desert as any area “vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas.” They can range from rural towns where fresh food is hard to reach without a car to densely populated cities with lots of food retailers that just don’t carry healthy options.
The South Bronx is my mental image of a food desert. There’s no shortage of fast food, Chinese take-out, and bodegas, but aside from the Hunts Point Produce Market (that sells wholesale produce to local retailers), you have to do some digging for a fresh bag of salad greens. Nearly 30% of Bronx residents live below the poverty line, so even if there were more access to retail produce, the cost per calorie wouldn’t make a plant-based diet feasible for many families.
The Bronx does have affordable vegan options. Bodegas sell just about every accidentally vegan snack food item under the sun. Ramen noodles and cans of beans are cheap and ubiquitous in Mott Haven, but asking residents of any food desert to sustain their families on “cruelty free” food-like substances in the name of animal welfare is setting them up for a lifetime of health complications.
The affordable vegan options places like the South Bronx have no nutritional value. They’re the vegan junk food we grab when there is nothing else to eat, but no vegan could sustain themselves or their families on Uncle Ben’s instant rice. The only way members of urban food deserts are able to afford a vegan lifestyle would be to sacrifice their personal well-being, which is such an unfair expectation.
The Vegan Society defines veganism as “a way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.” I’d argue that impoverished areas with poor access to fresh produce aren’t places where veganism is possible or practicable.
I’m not saying poverty is an excuse for carnism, but it is a pretty good explanation. Not only are members of food deserts just as brainwashed by the common narrative that we need loads of protein to survive, but they’re surrounded by cheap animal-based options and too overwhelmed by the stress of poverty to think about the ethical, nutritional, and environmental consequences of eating meat. It’s really hard to care about the well-being of another person–let alone another species–when you have kids to feed.
Insensitivity perpetuates racial divide
With the large percentage of black and brown people who inhabit food deserts, the “everyone can afford to go vegan” argument perpetuates the misconception that veganism is strictly for privileged white people.
The slogan tells low income families that their daily struggles are no excuse for harming animals and the best thing to do is sacrifice their own health by living off the nutrition-void vegan options in their neighborhood. You’re basically screaming, “I don’t know and don’t care about your life struggles, just focus on things I find important,” to every low-income omnivore within earshot.
I know the intentions are good, but if the delivery of the vegan message isn’t properly received, the entire statement backfires. It’s why marketing firms and ad agencies do so much research before launching a campaign. They need to know everything about their intended audience to show the consumer that this product or service speaks their language and is exactly what they need.
In order to save animals, vegans have to acknowledge poverty. If vegans would stop making it painfully clear that they don’t understand the lives of low-income African Americans, we’d be able to connect with the largest population of meat eaters in the US and turn the wheels of animal liberation at a much faster pace.
In the end..
With all that being said, I know the person complaining about the price of vegan groceries probably doesn’t live in a food desert. If you know the person and are positive she/he can afford a vegan lifestyle, by all means–let ’em have it.
“You can afford to go vegan,” is a perfectly acceptable statement for people who don’t struggle with food insecurity, so specialize the message for deserving omnivores instead of generalizing the financial status of the entire non-vegan population. This very small distinction can go a long way.