Reflecting on Vegan Privilege

On my bookshelf, I have a book that I’ve been meaning to read called Kisses From Katie.  It’s about a 18 year old who left her comfortable upbringing in the United States and went to Uganda, adopting thirteen children and establishing a ministry that feeds and sends hundreds more to school while teaching them about Jesus.  Her story (although I haven’t yet read it) seems similar to that of Maggie Doyne, a 23 year old mother of 30 formerly orphaned children in Nepal.  Although watching the video evoked many thoughts and much introspection, I couldn’t help but think about how I would survive if I were living in Nepal.  When I saw the little boy holding the goat, the first thought that came to my mind was, “What would I eat if I were there?”  I suppose my life would consist of eating all of the edible plants that I could get my hands on, and seasoning them with… salt I guess?  Not a very appetizing prospect.  And what would I do about my protein source?  Where would I find nuts and beans?  Then it hit me.  It’s a privilege to think this way.  It’s a privilege to eat the way that I do.  It’s a privilege to be vegan.

We often hear about white privilege and male privilege and heterosexual privilege and American privilege, but we don’t talk about vegan privilege.  Because that’s what it is – a privilege – a privilege denied to most and afforded and affordable to but a few.

It’s a privilege to be able to shop for pricier food at Whole Foods or your local natural health food store.  It’s a privilege to have the choice not to eat meat since, in many parts of the world, meat is a necessary and accessible staple in one’s diet.  It’s a privilege to have a “seasoning cabinet” like I do, to choose between Herbamare or kosher sea salt or Himalayan sea salt or iodized table salt.

It’s a privilege to have such a wide variety of food to choose from when I go into a grocery or health food store.  It’s a privilege to live somewhere where I can easily have a special diet.  One of my good friends is a vegetarian, and when she went to Nigeria for a wedding, she had to live off of rice, plantain and cassava.  That’s all that they could offer to a vegetarian.  Being vegan or vegetarian is simply not an option in many places.

It’s a privilege to live in a large city with health food stores within walking distance.

It’s a privilege to have the choice not to buy animal based clothing or use honey.

It’s a privilege to be able to afford my lifestyle.

Eating healthily (gluten-free, organic, locally sourced and/or in season) is, for the most part, expensive.   Ever notice the placement of these health food stores?  They are usually located in the downtown area, near to educated, financially well-off professionals and educated (and sometimes or somewhat radical) university students on campuses with their own food co-ops and vegan-friendly restaurants.  That’s their clientele.  The only Whole Foods in Toronto is in the Bloor-Yorkville area on Avenue Rd – the most expensive residential area in the entire city and one of Canada’s most exclusive shopping districts, close to the financial heart of Canada (update June 2015 — they now have one at Yonge and Sheppard in another affluent area of North York).  On the contrary, there are very few health food stores in Scarborough (where I’m from) – a Torontonian borough filled with low-income and middle-income immigrant populations and humble townhouses in the suburbs.

Maybe it’s just me, but health food stores do not have sales very often.  Or maybe it’s not me.  A Big Mac costs less than one of my favorite burgers at a vegan restaurant.  Lays chips are cheaper than Kettle chips.  A Swanson meal is more “time efficient” than making a brown rice, vegetables and tempeh stir-fry.  The Standard American Diet (SAD) is sad and it is killing us but it sadly becomes a viable option if we are hard-pressed financially.  If we compare apples to apples here, we soon realize that although one of the apples may not be the best for us, it is more readily accessible.  I remember what my mom told me one time: “I would go vegan, but it’s too expensive.”  Maybe it was my fallible witness – I don’t know.  But I do know that to eat the way I do is just not feasible for low-income families in Canada or in Nepal or in many other places in the world.  Some people don’t have the opportunity to think about whether or not food is organic.  Rather, they wonder whether buying bread means that they cannot buy milk this week.  Some of us ask, “Is it gluten-free?” while many others have to ask, “Is it free?”

These are just my thoughts.

We should think more about this before we go zealously foisting our eating habits on others (something that many vegans need to stop doing), turning veganism into a cult, acting as if there are tenets to which one should vehemently adhere, and shunning (or, at least looking contemptuously onto) those who do not comply.

I am truly happy with the way that I eat and what I eat, but I must never take my prerogative for granted.

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6 Comments Add yours

  1. Very interesting. And its interesting how privilege and extreme lack of privilege can overlap. There are many people who cannot afford meat (although this really pertains more to vegetarianism than veganism because it’s hard to argue that this point extends to all animal products) and therefore do not eat it, whereas other people literally pay not to eat it. The difference, of course, is having the choice and having the means to access nutritionally satisfying substitutes, but I’d argue this is really just a manifestation of class privilege. I’m not vegan but I have those same choices available to me due to socioeconomic status.

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    1. Simone says:

      Yes. Exactly. 🙂 You expressed my point more succinctly than I did. It really is about class privilege. You’re right.

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  2. I totally agree. We are privileged enough to have access to affordable options that do not harm any animals. However, there are many cultures that support a vegan diet affordably: take Ethiopian or Vietnamese culture for example. Livestock is expensive too, so plant-based proteins like lentils or soy often are much more affordable and accessible than beef. Rural areas in Asia often rely on plant-based foods to sustain themselves. Eating vegan in Canada is very different from eating vegan in Vietnam.

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    1. Simone says:

      I’m realizing that… It’s even easier depending on your geographical environment. i.e. eating macrobiotic is easier (or at least more fun) in Florida than it would be in Vancouver. I envy my parents who grew up eating “organically” without thinking about it because they lived in the country side and had easy access to mango trees, orange trees, ackee trees, breadfruit trees and the like. Thus, they don’t understand why I’m so insistent on organic food. They spent the most important formative and developmental years eating whole foods. I never got that opportunity.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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  3. Lisa Mai says:

    I think WordPress ate my comment. Here it is in case it did: I totally agree. We are privileged enough to have access to affordable options that do not harm any animals. However, there are many cultures that support a vegan diet affordably: take Ethiopian or Vietnamese culture for example. Livestock is expensive too, so plant-based proteins like lentils or soy often are much more affordable and accessible than beef. Rural areas in Asia often rely on plant-based foods to sustain themselves. Eating vegan in Canada is very different from eating vegan in Vietnam.

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