I’m sure I’m not the first person you’ve heard of who went vegan for environmental reasons. We’re a growing community that often gets a bad (but sometimes well-deserved) rap for our self-righteousness derived from having eco-friendly diets. Recently however, I’ve been questioning my eating habits, and I’ve found that my lifestyle change was almost a cop-out and wrong in several ways.
In seventh grade I read Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” For the first time, I was exposed to the horrors of animal agriculture, including stifling warehouses of “free-range” chickens, the practice of bleeding live cows, and heavy water and air pollution produced by the industry. I was horrified, a little overwhelmed, and began to yearn for more ethical food options.
Constricted to the limits of living at home, I decided the best I could do at the time was eliminate red meat from my diet. After several years of annoying my steak-loving family, I ended up in an environmental science class that changed my mind all over again after learning more about the negative effects the food industry has on the planet.
That was the last straw. I had to go vegan.
Two years have passed, and I’ve been asked to explain myself many times. I’ll acknowledge that veganism isn’t the be-all, end-all solution to eating sustainably. I eat a lot of tofu packed in plastic, imported vegetables, and unnatural snacks. It isn’t always cheap. The diet I adopted in order to be more energy efficient, sustainable, and ethical hasn’t fulfilled those ideals, but I’m open to eventually revisiting my habits and improving them.
The number of flaws in our food system is nothing short of daunting. A vegan diet often fails to account for unfair labor practices in produce industries or carbon emissions that precipitate from global demands for non-local foods. It also relies on processed proteins, preservatives, soy products, and plastic. While “humane,” veganism may not be totally ecologically sound, local, or fair.
Alternatively, the Real Food Challenge (RFC) offers a different framework for a “healthy, fair and green food system.” RFC defines “real food” as food that is local, ecologically sound, fair, and/or humane. The UW’s chapter is pushing to bring more of these foods to campus.
“Systems-level change is what really counts,” Alex Wheeler of the Husky Real Food Challenge said. “In terms of the University of Washington, there are $18 million [spent annually on food]. We can decide to move 25 percent of that to places that actually matter.”
I’m probably not alone in finding this to be a comforting sentiment. If there were more local, fair, ecologically sound, humane, and cost-effective food options available to students, it wouldn’t be so hard to eat sustainably on campus.
There’s a key point here in the cost-effective piece: At the end of the day, real food choices shouldn’t become a matter of privilege. Here at the UW, the ASUW Food Co-op has created a food pantry designed to make access to healthy food options more equitable.
Before we exist within a more intentional food system, however, there are things that we can do. The ASUW Food Co-op operates the Bean Basket inside the HUB, where students can buy food in bulk. Volunteer Emma D’Orazio said that buying in bulk is a good way to reduce your environmental impact in your food choices.
“As long as people are trying to reduce the waste they create with food, they’re doing better than the average American,” D’Orazio said.
For those who feel that these suggestions are too daunting or polarizing, they’re not meant to be. We know that eating local, fresh, and home-cooked meals whenever possible will always be the healthiest choice. These are habits you can incorporate at any pace, at any time.
In addition to considering our own choices, we can can support efforts to make systemic change. This decision includes leveraging our position as students.
“We should hold our institutions accountable,” Wheeler said. “We support this university through our spending, so we need to hold them accountable. You can talk to HFS [Housing and Food Services], or talk to your administrators.”
At the end of the day, efforts to move toward real food will overlap between efforts to change the systemic level as well as changing our individual choices. We need to demand real food.
Diet is a complicated topic. I didn’t have it figured out when I went vegan. But I hope that someday, with a little more real food, we will be able to make more informed and intentional choices.
Reach contributing writer Serena Baserman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @serenabaserman