Nathan and I once went to a vegan restaurant with our kids where the young waiter asked us how long we’ve been vegan. When we told him we both have been vegan for over 20 years and our kids have been vegan since they were born, he looked astounded and a bit starry-eyed and said, “You guys were vegan before they knew it was safe.” He then proceeded to pepper us with lots of questions about what we eat (the same thing most Americans do but in vegan versions), whether it was hard to raise vegan kids (it is not), and how we felt health-wise (great).
He reminded me of myself, over two decades earlier when I attended an animal rights conference being held on my college campus, anxious to learn all I could about the philosophy of animal rights and the vegan diet. It was also there that I met the people who would later become my housemates over the coming year – students from the campus animal rights group. After recognizing my unbridled enthusiasm, they asked me to be their housemate. An animal rights rookie, I was thrilled and grateful for the opportunity to learn all I could from people I then regarded as seasoned veterans. Which is why, though their “house” turned out to be the dark, damp basement floor of a very run down Victorian, I threw caution to the wind, and moved into what can best be described as their “commune.” It was then that I learned that the only thing we had in common was a love of animals.
Peace, Love, and Veganism, but No Deodorant
Were you to have judged my housemates simply by their appearance, you would have likely concluded that they had just stepped out of a time machine set for 1968.They had long and often unwashed hair. They wore colorful, loose clothing. The women never wore make-up and the men never shaved. But despite their hippie appearance, an almost militaristic devotion to law and order betrayed their mellow facade. Theirs was a house run with precision and discipline. There were rules about everything: how to feed and tend the six foot high compost heap in the backyard, how to limit the use of water when cleaning dishes and when it was appropriate to flush. “If It’s Yellow, Let It Mellow…” was strictly enforced. Television was prohibited. And everyone had to be quiet whenever the “meditation” room was occupied. Where there weren’t rules, there was an expected conformity to certain conventions. No one wore deodorant. No one ate junk food. And you had better rinse and re-use every plastic bag – no matter how sticky – or risk the collective condemnation of your housemates.
To belong required adopting a whole host of behaviors that had absolutely nothing to do with being vegan. Yet because I was new to veganism, I still was somewhat confused by its implications. I didn’t understand that I didn’t need to change absolutely everything about my life and who I was to be vegan. I didn’t need to be an anarchist. I didn’t need to give up white rice for brown. And I didn’t need to look like Janis Joplin. As I would later gratefully discover, I could still be an authentic vegan and wear make-up, color my hair, and enjoy the occasional mani-pedi. I could still love shopping for clothes and watching Beverly Hills 90210. I could still be me. I didn’t need to change, just the food I ate, the materials my clothes were made of, and the products I used to clean my house did. That’s all. That’s it. And nothing more. What a relief.
Over the last twenty years, I have come to realize that the confusion and misperceptions I once had about veganism are very common. People make a lot of assumptions about you when you reveal you are vegan – assumptions about your politics and your lifestyle, as well as your eating habits, assuming that you are a super-human health-food nut who shuns potato chips and soda while subsisting on a diet of fruits, vegetables and whole grains consumed between yoga classes.
But that’s not me. I don’t subsist on vegetables. And I like my veggie burger with a white bun, thank you very much. I don’t do yoga, or write poetry, or sip tea in my Zen garden. I don’t wear Birkenstocks, t-shirts with slogans, a crystal does not hang from my car’s rear-view mirror, and I don’t use phrases like “all is one” and “mind-body-spirit.” I don’t begrudge people who do. And I certainly do not care if they do. But I don’t. And since most Americans don’t either, we shouldn’t equate veganism with these things. But we often do and non-vegans frequently think that is what it means.
Just Whom Are We Trying to Convince?
After 20 years of being told by others that they could never be vegan because they don’t like vegetables, I have also come to believe that these assumptions are tragically detrimental to our cause. Veganism is generally seen as a lifestyle of self-deprivation and far too many people believe that veganism is more difficult and certainly less tasty than it actually is. And while some of these assumptions are understandable – after all, what are most people left to conclude about what we eat if meat, eggs and dairy products are off limits – I believe these perceptions are also the result of the way in which veganism is often promoted to the public. Too often we feed rather than work to dispel the myths people have about vegan food that make veganism seem unappealing and even downright impossible to people accustomed to the typical American diet of fast food.
Unfortunately, veganism – both the food and the people who practice it – is still perceived as “counter-culture” even when most vegans and the foods they eat are relatively mainstream. Among our friends and family are a vegan lawyer, a vegan surgeon, a vegan accountant, a vegan CEO, a vegan insurance salesman, a vegan textile designer, a vegan realtor, a vegan mechanic and a large handful of vegan-since-birth children. And though vegan food can be made to imitate and be just as tasty as every “food” Americans traditionally eat – from pancakes to “bacon,” to pizza and hot fudge sundaes – Americans still believe that most vegans live on fruits and veggies alone because they are vegan for health reasons as opposed to ethics, even though statistics reveal that the opposite is actually true. Though the movement to promote health food and the movement to promote veganism are, in reality, separate and distinct, to the American public they are perceived as one and the same – a fact that seriously undermines our efforts but which as a movement we encourage.
The covers of vegan cookbooks often depict piles of raw vegetables, even though analogs of traditional American “foods” like fried chicken and hamburgers would have much wider appeal and pique more curiosity. Many bloggers equate veganism with obscure grains like quinoa and amaranth, even though America’s beloved wheat is just as vegan. We shun junk food, we condemn “processed” foods, and some of us imply that vegan analogs of meat are somehow suspect, less vegan than vegetables, or to be used only as “transition” foods, even though these foods are the easiest and tastiest alternatives for people accustomed to the traditional American diet. In short, rather than simply teach people how to replace meat, eggs and dairy products with vegan alternatives, we confuse them with health food dogma and jargon, and make what is actually very simple and straightforward, confusing, difficult and foreign.
It Doesn’t Matter if YOU Love Vegetables, Most Americans Don’t
Predictably, the response we get from most vegans when we explain our philosophy is, “But I love vegetables.” That’s fine. More power to you. But most Americans don’t. And they won’t eat them. If we can’t get Americans to eat more vegetables with their meat, we certainly aren’t going to get them to eat vegetables instead of meat.
It is true that America is in the midst of serious health crisis relating to our collective eating habits. And it is also true that if all Americans ate whole grains and more vegetables, we could no doubt remedy that crisis. But for that to happen, people have to want to eat healthier. And right now, there is no evidence that Americans do. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Despite decades of outreach by non-profits and government agencies intended to encourage Americans to eat more fruits and vegetables and to employ moderation in their eating (think food pyramid and now, MyPlate), Americans are only getting fatter.
Our ever-expanding waistlines prove that Americans as a whole aren’t really interested in eating healthier. The top ten lists of restaurants in America are either fast food or chain restaurants serving traditional American diner and comfort foods. Less than 10 percent of people in the United States shop at natural food stores on a regular basis. And, perhaps most shocking of all, according to a study published recently in the American Journal of Cardiology, 56% of Americans who reported eating fast food on a weekly basis before they suffered a heart attack were right back to eating fast food on a weekly basis six months later. And that number is likely to be higher as respondents who know they shouldn’t don’t want to admit to researchers that they do. Bottom line: Americans want convenient, tasty, familiar food and lots of it. And those facts alone should dictate how those of us who promote veganism for ethical reasons – that is, to save the lives of animals – should tailor our outreach.
Give the People What They Want
As vegan advocates, we are selling a product – the vegan diet. And the number one rule of marketing is to know your intended audience and to tailor your pitch accordingly. Statistics show that the primary reason most people become vegetarian or vegan is not for their health, but out of concern for animals. That is an important fact worth repeating: most people who attempt veganism are doing it for the animals and for no other reason. And yet, sadly, statistics show that many of these people will fall off the wagon. When they do, is it because they suddenly stop caring about animals? No. In fact, the reasons most commonly given for why such individuals resumed eating animals and/or their products is a craving for foods they used to eat, and their experience that being a vegetarian or a vegan was inconvenient.
If we want to be effective, if we want to increase the number of vegans in order to decrease the number of animals killed, we need to listen to what failed vegetarians and vegans are telling us. They want to stop hurting animals, but they have found veganism to be too hard: they miss the foods they used to eat, and it is not very convenient. Hence, our marching orders: we must promote a version of veganism that is as familiar and as delicious as possible – one that reformulates the foods they are already eating to look the same and taste the same but without the use of animal ingredients – while simultaneously working to expand vegan options at restaurants, traditional grocery stores, and everywhere else that Americans work, live and play.
We must also stop saddling veganism with an obsessive focus on health—a gluten-free, whole grain, mostly vegetable version which causes many people who try veganism to fall off the wagon. We must free veganism from other unrelated counter-culture dogma such as “spirituality.” To be vegan, you just have to stop eating animals and their products. You do not have to eat traditional health foods and unfamiliar grains. You do not have to listen to NPR or stop and smell the roses. You do not have to give up your coffee for tea. You do not have to give up Starbucks for the locally-owned and organic coffee house. You do not have to give up Barnes & Noble for the Indy bookstore. You do not have to give up wheat for spelt. Or potato chips for rice crackers. You can order it to go. You can have your cake and eat it, too. In other words, you can still be vegan and still be you; living the lifestyle you are currently living and eating the foods you have always eaten, minus the harm to animals.
The most effective thing we can do to help animals is to feed the compassion and good intentions of new and aspiring vegans with vegan versions of the foods they are already eating, rather than starve it to death with an unsustainable diet of quinoa, kale and alfalfa sprouts.
The revolution will not be served with tabbouleh.