Classism and ableism in vegan politics

Veganism as a political movement operates on principles that are both classist and ableist. At the level of the individual, being vegan can be an environmental and moral standoff with the stubbornly omnivorous world around us. But when individuals seek change by gathering converts, they make harmful assumptions about the abilities and needs of their target population.

Being vegan takes time, money and the skills to cook unfamiliar foods. One must make time to gather ingredients, which includes finding a grocery store with plentiful vegan options. This mythical store may not even exist outside of Portland, the Narnia of hipster co-ops. And I don’t know about you, but the most important cooking lesson I received in my formative years was to broil meat until it browned on both sides, which does not translate well to preparing kohlrabi. Many people are not familiar with the processes of cooking certain vegetables or grains. Getting enough nutrients from vegan food requires large quantities of fresh produce in addition to grains and legumes, ingredients you would be hard-pressed to find affordably in a food desert. If one has to travel to a grocery store outside of their immediate area, they add extra time to the assembly and preparation of these foods. If someone is not eating plants on a regular basis, consider the social factors that influence their decision rather than fantasizing about their impending death by French fries. If they do not have access to a variety of fresh foods, they will not be able to sustain a diverse vegan diet, nor will it be the healthiest choice for them.

Veganism also assumes that a person has no physiological or psychological barriers that would prevent them from achieving a healthy, sustainable lifestyle. It is no coincidence that veganism and vegetarianism are common among people with eating disorders; when you are already predisposed to exert extreme control over your food, a disordered mind relishes the challenge of a highly restrictive diet. Those in recovery must be allowed to eat whatever foods they want without cutting out entire food groups; yet we are often made to feel like we should prioritize the ethics of veganism above our own wellbeing.

As far as the oft-touted health benefits of veganism go, it can be more important to eat a diversity of foods, mainly from plants, than it is to eat exclusively vegan. If you have the ability and the means to do so, expanding your diet to include more plant foods can have health benefits independent of whether you also eat animal products. Many plant-based nutritionists will encourage their clients to incorporate more plants rather than swear off animal products altogether. This is not only more realistic for most people, it can also be more enjoyable. Food is not merely calories and macronutrients; it is also meant to nourish our souls and provide pleasure and satisfaction.

There are many reasons why a vegan diet could prove detrimental to a person’s physical health. Certain nutritional needs are difficult to meet without including meat. If someone is allergic to beans or soy, for example, they need an alternate source of protein that is affordable and available.

Some people are passionate about veganism for its environmental benefits, while others see eating animals and animal products as inhumane and unethical. Shame campaigns depicting horrific acts of animal cruelty and black smog from carbon emissions fail to generate long-lasting change in people who are accustomed to the relative ease of an omnivorous diet. They create a false moral hierarchy in which those who eat only plants are superior to those who choose to fuel their bodies in a different way. Rather than shame individuals for not adopting their lifestyle, vegan activists should focus their efforts toward sharing recipes, donating to food banks, and hosting cooking classes. By investing money and time in productive, non-guilt-inducing ways, they can campaign with a conscience and avoid doing further harm.