Everyone is posting about food right now. In the middle of an endless pandemic, it helps to know that we’re all struggling and that we all get through with food: Wings for the Super Bowl, chili or soup for the snowstorm, trying a new takeout place to help local restaurants, learning to cook a new recipe since we’ve all got time on our hands.
I love having discussions about all of it: What we eat and how we eat, and especially the thornier topics — factory farms, ethical eating, veganism, being gluten-free, food deserts, poverty, and food privilege. This is fascinating stuff, and everyone has an opinion, because everyone buys food and everyone eats.
But as people find a way of eating that works for them, they tend to become settled in the idea that their way of eating is the “right way.” Vegans, as the meme says, will tell you ALL about it. So will people who are juicing. And everyone has a story about that one person at Thanksgiving who was gluten-free and brought dessert and ruined pumpkin pie for everyone.
But I’d like to suggest something different: Even if you *are* right, and even if your way absolutely is the best way, maybe, just for right now, leave other people’s food choices alone.
Some background, so you know where I’m coming from: I have a farm, but it’s not a “Farm.” Our place is ten acres with a huge barn and some pasture, but it’s hilly and not suited for crops. It’s enough to raise a few animals who eat grass. We raise beef and pork, but not a lot — right now we have two cows. We have raised up to 30 pigs at a time, but we’ve decided that’s not our thing, because raising pigs is a HUGE pain in the ass, and we have friends who raise pigs, so we trade or buy meat from them. We don’t grow any crops beyond a vegetable garden and a few apple trees.
It’s hard to butcher cows that you’ve raised on your farm, who have names. Lots of people who eat burgers without any guilt get upset when they hear that Clarabell and Daisy have gone away, to come back as steak. But I believe that meat should be raised ethically, and I want to know where our food comes from. And the more you learn about how most meat is raised, and the more you connect with people who grow food, the more you understand about how badly the food system in the United States is screwed up. Almost everyone in our country could eat better, but we don’t — because good food is expensive, and cheap food that tastes good is everywhere and easy to get.
There are so many enormous problems in our food system — massive amounts of waste, chemicals, packaging, the way we treat animals. All of these matter in our choices of what to eat. The way we treat animals is horrific, from chickens trapped in cages to the fact that factory pork earns a profit of only $5 per pig. It’s hard to convince a factory to treat an animal well for months at a time when the animal is only worth $5. It’s hard to even think about.
But it’s also hard to think about the way we treat humans.
We can’t complain about chickens and how their cages are too small while we’re drinking wine harvested by migrant workers who don’t have access to health care or decent housing and who earn 1 to 5 cents per pound of grapes.
Everyone has issues with food. It’s almost impossible not to.
We live in a society where most people have too many choices of low-quality food and not enough access to high-quality food. And when you add in religion, allergies, culture, body shaming, the way people treat women who like to eat, factory farming, chemicals added to food, and advertising? It’s no wonder that everyone has a different idea of what eating the “right way” is.
I understand different ways of eating: I lost 100 pounds a few years ago, my family has eaten gluten-free for ten years, my kids can’t eat dairy, and I owned an allergy-free bakery. I’ve done paleo, vegan, juicing, organic, raw.
I’m also the media director for a local non-profit (that sounds more impressive than it is) that rescues food that’s going to be thrown out. We rescue literally tons of bread, squishy tomatoes, and lettuce that’s about to be thrown away and we divide it among families who don’t mind that the avocados have a soft spot or that one apple in the bag has a bad spot.
Last night we had steak tips, mushrooms, and salad that was supposed to be thrown away. The steak wasn’t organic — I’m sure it was raised on a feedlot. But it was going to be in the dumpster if I didn’t “rescue” it. So should it go to waste?
Meanwhile, mothers around the country go to bed hungry because they let their children have their share of dinner, and they lie awake worrying about how to feed their family next week, about their kids having to eat yet another meal of pasta and white bread from the food pantry. They would love to eat steak tips and salad that I rescued from the garbage.
After years of being immersed in discussion about food in our culture, and after interviewing chefs, dieticians, doctors, foodies, and experts on “the latest food trend”, all I’ve come up with as a philosophy is that we’re all doing the best we can and we all have to be kind and respect other people’s choices.
You’re vegetarian because you feel better when you eat that way? Fantastic. Paleo, eating only clean meat, and butter in your coffee? Bone broth for breakfast, sourdough bread because it breaks down gluten, or sauerkraut for the probiotics? Wonderful. Seriously — eat whatever works for your body and your family!
But stop telling other people that they have to eat the way you do. Just stop.
I saw someone suggest the other day that if you care about the planet, you have an obligation to eat vegan and that being vegan is “cheap and easy.” No. Absolutely no. Maybe, for you, being vegan IS cheap and easy. But it’s not that way for everyone.
Being vegan can be cheap and easy if you just eat beans and rice from a crockpot. But to cook rice and beans you need time to cook, a place to cook, a crockpot, spices and electricity, a way to get to the store, and the mental energy to think about food.
And in the meantime, Jack in the Box tacos are two for $1.
I’ve been in a place where I had about $5 a day for food or less. Funyons and Jack in the Box tacos were a mainstay, with a V8 juice so I got my veggies and vitamins. I lived that way the whole year I was 18, until I got a job at Pizza Hut and was able to live off of leftover personal pan pizzas.
There’s a lot to be said for a Big Mac when you’re starving.
There’s also a lot to be said for not having to cook when you have an autistic toddler who doesn’t stop screaming for eight months straight.
And while no one would suggest that Jack in the Box tacos should be a mainstay of any diet, the fact that we have the option to decide what to eat at all is something most of us take for granted.
If you want to know whether you’re “wealthy” on a global scale, ask yourself the following questions: Do I have access to transportation? Do I have more than one choice of what to wear, including shoes? And do I have more than one choice for what I’m going to eat for dinner tonight?
Much of the world has to answer “no” to these questions.
Anyone who has a choice in what they eat has privilege, period, and really has no room to judge others for being vegan, or not vegan, or eating paleo or keto or eating too much, or gluten-free, or whatever it is they do.
I care a great deal about the environment and the future of our planet, and I also care about social justice, and of course those two things are linked, and of course eating vegan is easier on the planet.
But a vegan who leaves their three-bedroom house and drives to Whole Foods has a much higher carbon footprint than someone who lives in public housing and takes the bus to work while eating a sausage sandwich from the convenience store, and you don’t often see people who live in public housing shaming vegans for their choices.
And yes, you can be dirt-poor and choose to eat ethically and spend your time, food budget and energy on being vegan. But it’s also OK not to if you just don’t have the bandwidth.
And anyone who eats anything in this country, especially vegans who eat plant-based diets, is eating food that was harvested by migrant workers who are paid an unfair wage and live in miserable conditions, and I care about their rights as well as the rights of animals.
It’s never just as easy as saying, “it’s cheap and easy to eat vegan/vegetarian/paleo.” Cheap food comes at someone else’s expense.
Let’s all just leave people be, and let them make what decisions are right for their family, especially now, in the middle of a pandemic, when one out of every seven people is going hungry.
When everyone in this country has a full belly, then we can argue about how to create a better food supply for everyone. And then, over a glass of ethically harvested wine, we can discuss whether our organic, non-GMO tofu can ever really taste good.