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Is Veganism Only for the Affluent?
I understand the appeal and emotional importance of committing to the vegan lifestyle. I am a vegetarian who limits my use of animal products, dairy, and eggs. However, I worry that the commitment is one of privilege. It can be very time consuming and expensive to live a dedicated vegan lifestyle. People from a lower socio-economic status may not have the resources (a computer, for example), time, or money to research veganism or buy product alternatives.
The impoverished typically are also victims of sexism, racism, and other forms of oppression and discrimination. This suggests that veganism is attainable by only a few -- those who are Western, white, and middle-class. How do you respond to this? Can veganism become more accessible?
The vegan ethic is not rooted in privilege, although it may appear to be in contemporary society. Veganism originated in England in 1944, toward the end of World War II. Food was rationed then, and although vegetarians were able to obtain extra cheese to supplant the meat they declined, vegans received no such subsidies. They were forced to subsist on very little. Because their commitment was based solely on principle, these early vegans persevered, despite physical hardships and compromises to their health due to inadequate nutrition.
Today in North America, the United Kingdom, Australia, and numerous other industrialized countries, we can find countless vegan convenience foods in natural food stores and mainstream supermarkets. Although these products are handy, they are not essential for a wholesome diet. They also can be very pricey. We seem to take for granted that these products are readily available and often forget that only a few years ago many were nonexistent; however, vegans were able to manage just fine without them.
To those who are white and middle-class, veganism may seem to be a lifestyle for only the very advantaged. Many people overlook the fact that in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, meat was a luxury item, primarily affordable only by the wealthy. Daily consumption of meat and other animals products was the exception, not the rule, and these items certainly were not a staple of every meal. In less affluent countries where industrialization and corporatization have not yet established a stranglehold, and where meals remain a cultural and community event, meat generally is served in very small portions or reserved for special occasions. In many of these regions, people's diets are predominantly animal-free by default. All the same, if they have regular access to grains, fruits, vegetables, and clean water, their diets often are healthier and more sustainable than the diets of their more wealthy counterparts.
In affluent countries, the poorest groups generally also are the ones with the fewest resources and the least access to education. This includes information about community and personal empowerment, health, and nutrition. Fast food chains heavily market their high-fat, artery clogging, animal-based products to lower-income populations and people of color. This highly insidious and dangerous form of corporatized racism goes largely unchallenged. Furthermore, these foods are costly. It would be far less expensive and significantly more healthful for lower-income populations to be encouraged to purchase or grow their own vegetables and fruits and buy whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds -- foods that are the staples of a balanced vegan diet and that also are the cornerstone of a great variety of ethnic cuisines. For many groups, adopting a vegan diet would be a return to the healthful diet of their ancestors. However, government subsidized food programs (in cahoots with the meat, egg, and dairy industries) set up another stumbling block. They predominantly provide rich, fatty, animal-based foods to which many groups have become accustomed. This further limits interest and access to more nutritious, animal-free products for the hungry and impoverished.
In addition to food items some of the priciest clothing and outerwear are animal derived, yet animal-free personal care products, fabrics, shoes, and other essentials abound. Finding reasonably priced alternatives for the majority of necessities is not difficult, and second-hand shops often have great selections of clothing. Nevertheless, in countries where personal worth is based on materialism and power is equated with the accumulation of wealth, persuading poorer populations to follow an ethic that counters these beliefs is an enormous challenge, particularly if that ethic is promoted by the privileged.
Affluence is not a prerequisite for being vegan -- it takes education, awareness, and a willingness to change in order to expand our compassion. Those of us who are privileged and vegan can reach out with information and a caring heart to those who have fewer resources. We cannot and never should force our beliefs on those who are not open to them.
Bear in mind that not all vegans are white and privileged, and that veganism is a movement of global proportion. The message of veganism -- as with any message that counters accepted perspectives -- will be heard best by those from within individual cultures and communities. Outsiders surely will be seen as further taking advantage of their privileged position and will be viewed with skepticism and mistrust.
It is not up to vegans to transform the world. That is a daunting and impossible task. All we can do is be the finest example of the beliefs we espouse, provide access to information for those who are interested, and be understanding and accepting of those who are closed to our message. There are many reasons why certain groups and individuals are unwilling or unable to change their habits and lifestyles. Our responsibility is to educate, not impose. When people, regardless of their station in life, see sufficient value in becoming vegan, the price of change will be worth the cost in effort.
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