To me, being a vegetarian doesn’t mean cutting back. Even as I go to restaurants narrowing down a menu of thirty items down to two or three, reading ingredient labels of canned food in grocery stores and asking, rather sheepishly, at social gatherings, “What kind of broth is in this?” I hold my ground. I am certain carnivores will accuse me of being naïve and idealistic, having no sense of logic and, if we want to get all up-close and personal, that my vegetarianism comes from an internally-driven, socialist agenda to scare people and make them feel guilty about eating a few chicken wings.
Fine. But allow me the chance to explain myself: food, like everything else in modern society, is not just food. It’s a social construct. Let’s take corn, for example: Corn is not just a means of nourishment or a stalk with some kernels on it. Corn is an essential ingredient in the American heritage. Every year, the streets of downtown Urbana are overrun with the medley of residents, venders and entertainers for the sweetcorn festival. We pour its oil into our pans and watch it pop in the microwave. We convert it into ethanol and end up stirring political tension.
Food means everything to us. The connotations that food have are so ingrained into our culture that we emotionally need it, possibly more than we physically do. And for this, I am not surprised by how people have reacted when I tell them I don’t eat meat. I’ve been met with everything from loud approval to a silent uneasiness. On many accounts, I have been rebuked, sometimes unnecessarily so, but I don’t find these encounters worthless.
I find them educational. Let me make an distinction here: I’m not interested in explaining the many benefits of vegetarianism. A Google search can solve that for you—and on your way you would go, riding along the parade of health statistics and Morningstar coupon offers. I’ve been through enough of that to the point where I still felt like vegetarianism meant cutting back. After all, I spent pretty much my entire childhood as an avid carnivore. So why go on like a never-ending record, telling people how many gallons of water goes into a pound of meat or how much methane a meat processing plant produces? Why bother pushing the name of Michael Pollan into conversation?
Because consuming less meat is what people in wealthier countries should do and I am aware of how dangerous making a statement like that is. Meat is not just a symbol of wealth; it’s the soothing, self-affirming lullaby of the western diet. In both its taste and texture, one finds substance, richness and power moving through the motions of the jaw. Meat-eaters have told me that no soy product will ever match this sensation. And by that, pleasure masks the reality behind what really makes meat.
Becoming a vegetarian has allowed me, as well as many of my own friends, co-workers and professors, to really see what isn’t apparent on the plate. We don’t see what sort of conditions the animal lived in, whether it was allowed room to graze or confined in a crate, which currently won’t be phased out until 2017. We don’t see the amount of food stock that was expended on the animal, as opposed to one of the 925 million malnourished human beings in the world. We don’t see how many miles and fuel that has been used for its transportation. We don’t see how processing plants pollute our air and water or many of the people who work and live all along this system. And we certainly don’t see any of this going into the cost of a hamburger at the local McDonald’s. It seems to me that when people eat meat, the rest of the world has to cut back on resources to make that happen.
Meat is certainly not the only culprit. It just so happens it’s altogether the most wasteful category. There is also much to consider with products like bananas and coffee, what pesticides and fertilizers are involved, if their producers adhere to fair trade practices and how far these items must travel for us to enjoy them. The point is that the choices we make when we eat come a long way in the narrative of food in our society. In pursuing vegetarianism, there is so much knowledge to be gained about where our food comes from and why we should think twice before handing over our power as consumers to a wasteful industry. And you have a choice; vegetarianism isn’t the only option. Here are a few terms to get acquainted with:
Locavore: Quickly gaining notoriety, this term refers eating food that’s only locally grown in your community. Many resources are consumed to get bananas from Ecuador, your coffee from Ethiopia and your wine from Spain. By consuming only food that’s locally grown, you can better support your local economy and better yet, make personal connections with the very people who are growing your food, from Urbana’s farmer’s market.
Organic: Organic food is food that’s been been produced without the use of pesticides and fertilizers, though there are a few “organic” pesticides and fertilizers approved by USDA. As for organic milk and meat, the USDA has defined organic to apply to animals who graze at least 4 months out of the year and consume at least 30% of their feed from grazing. Going organic is considered highly important because intensive agricultural practices are a leading cause of land degradation around the world. Additionally, for those of you worried about your “carbon footprint,” organic food production emits less greenhouse gases into our atmosphere.
Fair trade: The fair trade system began as a way to not only ensure sustainable practices from producers, buyers, traders and consumers, but also as a way to empower individuals in the global economy. A fair trade certification sets a fair, base price for products to cover the cost of production, as well as the living expenses and needs of the producers. The certification also looks
at labor conditions, investment in community infrastructure (e.g. education) and businesses, sustainable production methods and how much economic mobility producers have. It breaks down the supply chain to create a more direct passage between consumers and producers.
Vegan: The difference between being a vegetarian and vegan is that many vegetarians, including myself, still consume dairy and eggs. The actual term for what I am is a lacto-ovo vegetarian, when you remove “lacto-ovo,” that’s what a vegan is. But in many ways, vegans go further to remove any presence of animal-related products in their diet, including honey. They may even treat local, organic and fair trade certifications as requirements.
I would leave you lost if I did not provide you with local resources on how to eat just a little smarter:
The Red Herring: The only completely vegetarian restaurant on campus isn’t far from the Quad— for those of you who pass by the vine-covered Channing-Murray Foundation at the corner of Matthews and Oregon will only need to look down its basement steps to find the Red Herring Vegetarian Restaurant. Over the past couple years, management and menus have fluctuated from vegan to vegetarian, but now the restaurant serves vegetarian entrees, as well as sandwiches, soups and baked goods. You won’t find a quirkier atmosphere, especially with that giant, painted Ren and Stimpy cartoon on the wall screaming at you to put your dirty dishes into the bin. And their current manager, Maggie Verklan, is one of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet.
Strawberry Fields and the Common Ground Food Co-Op: These two grocery entities in Urbana emphasize on promoting natural food products that are environmentally sustainable. Common Ground, in particular, is community owned and offers many educational programs to the public, including their Food For All Program that aims to help people of lower-income status to eat healthy and sustainably.
Urbana’s Market at the Square: What better chance to meet and connect with local farmers than Urbana’s Market at the Square? The Market generally runs every year, from May to November on Saturday mornings from 7 a.m. to noon. There, you can interact with tons of local venders, who sell everything from produce to garden décor. For those of you who are staying in campus this summer, seeking out Urbana’s Market at the Square is an absolute must.
The Student Sustainable Farm: Those of you who live in the public dorms may not be aware that your dining hall food doesn’t come from very far—in fact, a lot of it comes from a farm just a little past Lincoln and Windsor, the Student Sustainable Farm, run by Zach Grant. Though it’s not technically certified organic, the farm strives for less intensive agricultural menthods. All throughout last Fall, the SSF set up a stand at the Quad to sell their produce every week—which is likely to be recurring. Also, the SSF also allows for many volunteering opportunities during planting and harvesting seasons. Best part of that: volunteers get to take free produce home with them.
Eating consciously isn’t all about depriving yourself. It’s about wanting to give more to the community.