Advocating for veganism needs a tactful approach

New Zealanders need to push for more affordable vegan and vegetarian options in supermarkets. Photo: Getty Images
New Zealanders need to push for more affordable vegan and vegetarian options in supermarkets. Photo: Getty Images
As a perpetually bored young millennial, there's nothing I like more than scrolling endlessly through social media, refreshing Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat over and over again until my eyes glaze over and the cellphone falls from my hand.

But every so often, a post on Instagram will capture my attention, for example, a self-righteous, uber-wealthy white woman from Chelsea promoting her most recent vegan cookbook.

It's important to understand how the consumption of meat, dairy and eggs impacts our planet - need I go on about the appalling treatment of animals, the sheer quantity of water and land needed to produce one serving of beef, or the health impacts of consuming too much fatty red meat?

But unfortunately I've begun to notice that many social media posts advocating a vegan diet portray anyone who doesn't stick to a rigidly animal-free diet as immoral, impure and unethical.

Don't get me wrong - I wholeheartedly believe in the compelling reasons to reduce one's animal consumption, but what upsets me is the ignorant and explicitly classist attitude portrayed by those pushing for veganism.

I grew up as the oldest of nine children, with only one parent working and a never-ending onslaught of bills. My childhood was a veritable higgledy-piggledy mess of hand-me-downs, fist-fights, darned clothing and cheap, budget meals. And more often than not, these meals involved animal products - because cage eggs are dirt cheap, and we couldn't afford fancy vegan egg substitutes.

Precooked sausages fed nine children and their friends in a way cauliflower steaks couldn't. A packet of ''best value'' beef mince could be stretched out with kidney beans and nacho chips, with no complaints. Plain old cow's milk (blue top) was significantly cheaper than soy milk - and the children didn't turn their noses up at it.

In fact, the only truly vegan meals in my childhood were served when my mother wrapped up hunks of raw swede for us to take to school, on account of the cupboard being otherwise bare.

And yet, compared with many families in New Zealand, we weren't even that poor. We had friends and the church community to help us, loading us up with plastic bags of grapefruit and home-killed meat most Sundays. For a while, we could afford to keep chickens, although they weren't very forthcoming with their eggs.

We hardly ever went hungry, even though most meals consisted of tins of canned chicken soup, luncheon sausage and white bread. Proponents of veganism will argue that the vegan diet isn't expensive. And to an extent, they're right - lentils, chickpeas and cabbage will hardly break your bank.

But fresh fruit and vegetables are often awfully expensive, and difficult to come by. Moreover, the veganism promoted on social media is aggressively middle classed - think of the obscure, expensive ingredients being promoted on your Instagram feed - avocado oil, coconut flour, cashew nut milk and goji berries.

Accessibility is important when deciding what to eat, and where. Most people the country over simply don't have the time or energy to whip up an ultra healthy green kale smoothie, when McDonalds is just down the road, and a Big Mac only costs about $4. And as anyone who has interacted with small children will know, it's awfully difficult introducing new food options at times.

Switching to a vegan diet might be healthier and arguably far better for the environment, but struggling parents at the end of their tether will usually go with the staple foods they know their children will eat, rather than introducing foreign vegan foods that might be wasted.

We need to make sure that veganism doesn't alienate those who aren't Western, white and affluent. If veganism continues to be portrayed as a rich white food fad, vegan outreach efforts simply aren't going to be welcomed by people who have experienced a history of being pushed out of their family lands and food zones.

Instead of promoting the non-meat food of other cultures and religions, such as Jainism and Hinduism, vegan companies worry about reinventing traditional foods which rely on animal products to be edible. Hello vegan hot dogs - yours for only $10.50 a pack (compared with $2.99 for the meat equivalent).

So how can we make veganism more inclusive? First of all, we need to pop our bubble of privilege and pay attention to the less advantaged communities around us. Let's put aside our beluga lentils caviar and focus on the problems that impact global food systems, like how to support sustainable diets within food deserts, or how to feed our school children so they can focus throughout the day.

There are a number of incredible foodshare programs being enacted across the country, from Kiwi Harvest in little old Dunedin to Social Pantry in Wellington. Community potlucks, healthy eating workshops and affordable food markets can also help our people eat healthier and more sustainably.

Let's also push for more affordable vegan and vegetarian options in our supermarkets. And while we're at it, can we please stop making racist comparisons between groups of people and the current meat industry? I've seen far too many vegan posts comparing chattel slavery to a freezing works, or the Holocaust to a battery farm.

Rather than demonising poor people and those unable to access fresh fruit and vegetables, we should advocate for animal product reduction from a place of compassion and respect.

Simply speaking, it's unethical and tactless to demand that people overturn their eating habits when they are in survival mode, living from one cheque to the next, with bills hovering overhead and hungry children to care for.

-Jean Balchin is an English student at the University of Otago.

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