If Not All, None: On Veganism, Access, Privilege and False Dilemmas

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I should start this out but saying that I have never really experienced food insecurity, at least not in a chronic way. I grew up in a comfortable suburb in a comfortable home; I am neither proud of this nor ashamed of this. It is a statement of fact. There was never a worry about how food was going to make it to the table and our cupboards and fridge were always abundantly stocked. When I made the decision to go vegetarian as a teenager and a vegan ten years after that, I never had to worry about going hungry. Even in 1995, the year I went vegan, limited animal-free options really did not worry me perhaps because I had never been food insecure before and I knew that if I had even a small amount of money and access to a grocery store, as I always did, I would be fine. Sometimes meals were as simple and inexpensive as pasta and sauce but they were filling and easily available. Other than occasional work-related events, food scarcity was a non-issue. Even then, a nutrition bar in my purse could stave off hunger.

It was surprising to me the first time I started hearing about vegans being elitists and out-of-touch because the food I cooked was often inexpensive and simple. As I learned more about the factors that contribute to unequal access to even the nutrition bars I took for granted, I understood it better. The idea of being able to reject certain foods (or “foods” depending on one’s point-of-view) because they don’t align with our ethics is a choice that only those with certain economic advantages can easily make. I don’t think that is a valid reason to reject veganism wholesale, though.

For the past couple of years, I have been seeing a lot of people in left activism spheres dismissing veganism because not everyone has equal access to plant-based foods, often because of poverty or living circumstances or both. As soon as the subject comes up, it seems to get aggressively shut down by the gatekeepers, often with a stern, angry admonishment that veganism is for the wealthy and the privileged. There is definitely complexity and nuance to the food access conversation that must happen, far more layered than simplistic slogans like “Go vegan!” allow for, but ultimately, I believe this kind of dismissal is a knee-jerk, often heavy-handed attempt to stop any conversation in its tracks under the guise of social justice, and it’s resting on a fundamentally specious argument. The fact that veganism is easier for some more than others is important to acknowledge and understand, as well as the factors that contribute to this ease or difficulty. That is not where the conversation should end, though.

Here’s my analogy…

Let’s say you have a beautiful park near your home. It’s clean, it’s safe, it has nice amenities, beautiful grounds and landscaping. You are very grateful to have access to this beautiful park and you know that having it nearby actually improves the quality of your life. It is more than just a smart housing decision on your part that affords you access to this park or simply good luck, though: you likely have proximity to this park because you have advantages not everyone has. This is not your fault, but it is your responsibility to be aware of in order to create fairer access.

In all likelihood, if you live near a verdant natural space, you are more affluent than those who live in areas with fewer green areas. You have more opportunity to get ahead financially if you are white. It is a simple fact. White supremacy is baked into our society, so bound to the dough it is very difficult to even notice at times but it is hidden in plain sight. While you have access to this beautiful park, not everyone has equal opportunity to parks like this in their own neighborhoods through no fault of their own and that is because some people are born with a distinct disadvantage. This doesn’t mean they can’t get ahead and it also doesn’t mean that you, living close to a lovely park, don’t work hard; it means that it is often far more difficult for the disadvantaged than it is for you to live in close proximity to beautiful parks due to how deeply entrenched institutional and systemic racism is.

You, though, are someone who cares about fairness and it bothers you that not everyone has equal access to a park like the one near you. As much as you love this park, you also care about equal opportunity. Given this, does it mean you should stay away from the park in some kind of display of solidarity? If you avoid the park — and give up enjoying the views, the fresh air, the green space, the flowers in the summer and the leaves in the fall, the way it makes you feel — out of solidarity with those who don’t have equal access, would that be anything more than a symbolic gesture? Further, would simply abstaining from enjoying your neighborhood park increase the likelihood of someone who is not as advantaged as you to gain access to something as lovely and beneficial as this park?

No.

What an activist and social justice-minded person would do instead is try to increase access to beautiful parks for everyone regardless of economic status and try to decrease the factors that contribute to unequal access to parks. Withdrawing your enjoyment of the park because others don’t have access does not help anyone gain equal access in the slightest. Instead, consciously using the advantages that allow you to live near a park in the first place to try to leverage more equal opportunities for those with limited access could actually result in removing barriers that are significant.

It is similar to veganism. We know that plant-based diets contribute to multiple health advantages and diets that are meat- and animal product-heavy can increase one’s likelihood of developing poorer health outcomes, from heart disease to type 2 diabetes. We also know that animal agribusiness often manifests as environmental racism, where the worst effects of air and water pollution are felt most personally by the poor, especially people of color, because the factories that turn animals into products are not in affluent communities but disadvantaged ones. Further, we know that as the consequences of climate change, which is inextricably linked to animal agribusiness, accelerate and become more apparent, the poorest will be the ones who will face the deepest, most personal challenges. In other words, eating the products of animal agribusiness to spite vegans is actually feeding a greedy monster that is preying upon the most economically vulnerable people and communities. It’s not a choice social justice-minded people would make if they were well-informed about the cruelty and the reckless voracity of the industry. I also know that those who want to dismiss veganism don’t want to hear it, but the staggeringly cruel treatment — the cycle after cycle of forced impregnations, the taking of babies shortly after birth, the mutilations without painkillers or follow-up care, the denial of the smallest of comforts and the horrific violence at death — routinely inflicted on defenseless and innocent individuals is counter to all we understand about justice and compassion.

Instead of dismissing veganism — which, unlike animal agribusiness, is actually rooted in principles of social justice — consider supporting the people, organizations and campaigns that are making plant-based diets more accessible to people of color and those who are not affluent, for example, A Well-Fed World, the Food Empowerment Project, Chilis on Wheels and SÜPRMARKT. Developing a knack for creating low-cost but filling and nutritious plant-based meals is also a strategy for extricating your support of the animal agribusiness industry, as well as simply figuring out action plans for budget-friendly practices. As vegans, we can strive to create events that are free or very low-cost to expose people of all economic statuses to vegan food in neighborhoods that have easy access to public transportation. We can also try to be as helpful as possible to increase access: creating cooking videos or teaching classes; keeping informed of low-cost grocery options (from Dollar Tree to Aldi); and remaining mindful of the fact that capitalism and white supremacy help to create circumstances, like food deserts, low income and a lack of time, that challenge communities of color far more than white communities.

Make no mistake, lack of access to whole, fresh plant-based foods is real and experienced most profoundly by people of color. This is not caused by vegans but we must acknowledge it and try to mitigate this lack of access. Those of us who are fortunate enough to easily be vegan should not stop being vegan because not everyone has equal access. That would help exactly no one. Nor should progressive and social justice-minded people dismiss veganism because they met a snooty vegan here or there. The fact is, being antagonistic to veganism and supporting animal agribusiness instead is akin to cutting off one’s nose to spite her face. It is definitely a nuanced and complex issue, one that’s entangled with the very roots of injustice in our country, but it is an important one to face without pithy, glib slogans or knee-jerk dismissal but with compassion and honesty.

Marla Rose is a journalist, co-founding partner of VeganStreet.com and Vegan Street Media, and she wants you to check out this handy-dandy free guide for new (or aspiring!) vegans. If you like the work Vegan Street is doing, please consider joining our Patreon community for as little as $1.00 a week.

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Marla Rose is a Chicago-area writer and co-founder of VeganStreet.com and VeganStreetMedia.com.

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