I’ve lived in Portland, Oregon, for 25 years, and I’ve noticed two dramatic changes in the city since I’ve lived here. The number of vegan businesses has skyrocketed, and secondly, the number of homeless has increased. Veganism has proliferated, and I understand why. Portland’s history of counter-culture was (and still is) a hotbed for change and activism. Around the 60s and 70s, new ideas were taking hold. Frances Moore Lappé’s book “Diet for a Small Planet“ (1971) suggested that what humans ate mattered to the planet. She advocated new, compelling ideas that humans could omit feeding soy (and other grains) to livestock and eat it ourselves. This behavior, in turn, would produce more food to feed more people, among other ideas. Lappé’s book, published 40 years ago, represented veganism as a solution to the ever-present problem of hunger and food scarcity. Since then, it has inspired food entrepreneurs, biotech companies, authors, videos, and veganism to this day.
Food Scarcity, Hunger and the Toll It Takes on Society
The second change is heartbreaking. While I’ve been lucky not to have experienced food scarcity or hunger (although I sometimes wonder how I avoided it), the issue has touched my life in unexpectedly close ways. My sister experienced food scarcity when she was between jobs that paid a living wage. When her husband abandoned her and her son, the unexpected turn left her wondering how she would afford food. It was a harrowing experience of her life and one she will never forget. Fortunately, she had a family to fall back on, and life worked out. But what if it had not? No doubt homelessness and hunger aren’t new problems, but we shouldn’t stop searching for answers.
Homeless individuals fight stigmas, hardships, and hard decisions, i.e., between expensive medicine or fixing the car. It takes a toll on the mind and body. The homeless population who experience hunger and food scarcity are six times more likely to develop emotional, behavioral issues, disease, and disability. The pandemic has exacerbated the problem. In the last two years, data collected from the USDA Economic Research reports 34 million people and 11 million children experienced hunger and food insecurity before COVID-19. The virus has doubled these numbers!
My friend, who witnesses this disparity as she commutes to work, decided to get involved. Her worksite kitchen that feeds over 200 residents generates significant food waste. After consulting local food organizers, she started packaging what was left and handing it out to the community. Because curious minds want to know, I started wondering about the connection veganism plays in food justice.
Non-Vegan Food Justice
Food justice groups advocate for a wide range of issues. Labor, land disputes, status, class issues, environmental justice, and educational and political policy name a few areas. Searching the internet reveals varying definitions, but one thing is clear: food justice advocates want to eliminate disparities and inequities that exist embedded within our current food systems. In 2016, Food Tank identified 20 food justice organizations that fight for these values. Food Chain Workers Alliance and Agricultural Justice Project tirelessly focus on workers’ rights and injustice. Students organized a group called Real Food Challenge. Migrant Justice group calls for Milk with Dignity.
Out of the 20 food justice organizations listed, Food First and the Food Empowerment Project are the only groups that link veganism to food justice. So, aside from the vegan food justice groups, most groups don’t adequately address animal agriculture’s impact. For instance, Food Chain Workers Alliance posted several articles on the deplorable ethics of meat-processing plants, workers, and COVID-19. They even filed legal action against USDA. But there is little that points to a plant-based diet as an option to ending these issues. Since eating meat and dairy isn’t necessary for human health or happiness, why don’t we stop eating them? I don’t believe veganism would solve all the world’s food problems, but it would solve a lot.
Michael Pollan, a popular author on a labyrinth of food and capitalism issues, defends his meat-eating diet because he picks from small farms where animals are raised with integrity and care. Recently, he has said, “I have the ultimate respect for vegetarians and vegans. For they have actually done the work of thinking through the consequences of their eating decisions, something most of the rest of us have not done. My own examination of those consequences has led me to the conclusion that eating a small amount of meat from certain kinds of farms is something I can feel good about.” I greatly admire Michael Pollan’s writing and opinions. Still, I believe that our capitalistic society doesn’t regularly afford us that (elitist) option and would only keep the door shut on real change our planet. For instance, my Montana parents consistently like to espouse this view. But contrary to what they say, the roast beef they partake in is purchased from a regular old grocery store down the road, and there is nothing special about the meat they’ve been buying for years. It takes a special type of knowledge on food to aspire to those meat-eating ideals similar to vegan ideas. After all, these particular farms are small and rare for a reason, and capitalism is the driving force of animal agriculture. And last but certainly not least, meat from small “sustainable” farms actually are worse for the climate crisis than that from factory farms: so while it may be an improvement from an animal-rights perspective, it is worse from the climate perspective.
Veganism as a mechanism for change extends to the root (pun intended) problems of food systems. It widens and enhances food justice views to reflect compassion and passion for humans and animals. Veganism is activism that courageously stands up to mega food corporations that seek to fatten their purses with false marketing and entitled consumerism while feeding people false ideologies about what happiness is. It’s a form of gaslighting that disconnects us from each other, animals, and our planet.
The ills of capitalism aren’t going away anytime soon. If food activists fight for better wages, racism, inequality, hunger, and food insecurity while living in a capitalistic society, capitalism is the tool we should work with. It’s more effective to achieve a goal in this system by just not supporting it. Transform the land to grow diverse crops and feed more people. Plant crops that save water re-create diverse habitats that were destroyed by animal agriculture. It promotes wildlife diversity, helps prevent raging forest fires and climate change, and stops mega-dairy/animal companies that profit from environmental pollution, worker abuse, and animal torment. Plant-based capitalism focuses on the right issues for the right reasons to feed people and preserve our planet.
Veganism and Food Justice Intersections
- Factory farms aren’t safe working environments. Migrant workers have language barriers, and many work in isolation. They are frequently underpaid and little employee rights. The industry is a cesspool of abuse. Non-vegans may argue that the same could be said about Monsanto and other mega-GMO corporations that hire migrants and immigrants to harvest crops. But there are significant differences. Meat and dairy drive our culture and thus are the mainstream of the food industry. Money flows into animal agriculture, which in turn drives the food and plant industry. Without this model, plant agriculture would diversify and stop merely emulating the same business model. Ending factory farming focuses on integrity, people, regenerative farming, and the planet, not human and non-human abuses. What is bad for animals is bad for humans.
- Slaughterhouses are bad for animals and humans. Trump’s presidency’s environmental failures are too long to list, but the increased line speeds for slaughterhouse workers were one of the most dangerous and callous. Regularly, workers suffer from chronic stress, chronic and acute physical injuries, and have a high risk of severe psychological trauma. PTSD and other mental distress are correlated with killing farm animals for hours a day. Many immigrants and migrant workers do the dirty work Americans won’t do (but will eat) because they have little recourse for other jobs.
- Lastly, environmental racism is real. Pollution from factory farming, slaughterhouses, dairy farms, and animal agriculture impacts low-income people the most. More black farmers focused on plant-based foods are needed to bring back health and wealth to communities. Mega-corporations drive the meat and dairy industry and do little to invest in the communities they pollute in, using meat and dairy as the vehicle.
In the past, I ate meat, lots of it. I began my journey for health reasons, and during my journey, I realized I didn’t need meat (or dairy) to be happy. Quite the opposite, I am happier because my values are aligned, and I know I am doing all I can to minimize my contribution to the endless cycle of abuses related to our gastrointestinal preferences.
Veganism isn’t a fool-proof solution to America’s food problems, but the fact is that human health and happiness don’t depend on (or rely on) a diet of meat and dairy. It’s quite the opposite, and the future depends on plant-based policies.
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