WHY I'M NOT A VEGETARIAN
WORDS & IMAGE: KATE WEINER
I love to eat: homemade loves of bread studded with onion and sundried tomatoes, felafel patties christened with garlicky yogurt sauce, crisp apples with bite, kale smoothies sweetened with dates, spiced rice with marinated veggies and Portobello peach sliders and ginger-flecked immunity soup redolent of potlucks with my girlfriends.
Food has always been central to how my family shows love. Nothing makes me feel quite as cared for as coming home to platters of pumpkin chocolate-chip muffins made by my mama. If I want to brighten my father's day, I know just the everything bagels to bring back. Even my brother, a down-to-the-marrow meat eater, has made it his mission to cook more veggies because he knows how much it means to me. Food is fundamentally a joyful experience, a way to connect with those that I love and to savor the respite of a shared meal.
In this sense, my food philosophy is fundamentally about nourishment. I want to eat in a way that nourishes my body (and sometimes, that means tangles of french fries and a generous slice of lemon cake). There really isn't "good" food and "bad" food. There is food that nourishes you, that brings you contentment and connection. And there is food that doesn't nourish you, that wedges a distance between your hungry soul and the world we are in.
For this reason, it is important to me to eat in a way that nourishes not just my body but also the environment. Healthy soil is vital to a healthy planet. Without flourishing stratas of topsoil, silt, loam, and bedrock--the basic building blocks of our food system--we have no way to grow green. To invest in healthy soil is to eat a primarily plant-based diet that supports sustainable agriculture and local farmers.
This isn't always the cheapest option nor is it a cut and dry decision. I definitely spend more of my paycheck at the co-op and farmers' market than I would if I shopped at supermarkets. That said, considering where I shop and what I eat is one of the strongest strategies for environmental sustainability that I have at my immediate disposal. Because it isn't true that the cost of food from farmers' markets is artificially high; it's that the cost of food at supermarkets is so damn low. The price tag on a pound of store-bought potatoes rarely takes into account the cost of human labor, of massive soil erosion, of monoculture. Human life is inextricably intertwined in systems of agriculture. And as consumers in a landscape scarred by processed food and industrialized meat production, it is so easy to forget that choosing what we eat isn't just about us. It's about the farmers too, about their lives and lands.
If you want a hometown peppered with independent businesses and homegrown cafes, you have to buy from the bookstore and not from Amazon. If you want a holistic system of agriculture--one that values the lives of animals, vegetables, and minerals in equal measure--you have to buy local and sustainable whenever you can. The more I support farmers' markets, the closer I am to the community I'm in.
Cultivating mindful consumption practices can't be quantified: you don't have to get it "right" 100% of the time to be "good." Being more mindful might mean buying imperfect produce when possible (a little blemish never hurt anybody). It might mean getting most of your veggies from the farmers' market and scooping up the rest of your list from grocery outlets that sell soon-to-be expired stuff. It might mean buying more grains in bulk and less processed dairy. When I tune into my internal understanding of nourishment, I find myself better able to make decisions with a positive resonance.
The only "right" thing to do is to keep striving, to keep talking with farmers and tending to your window sill garden and remaining receptive to new ideas.
Because no one person or philosophy has a claim on the total truth. Most of us can agree that America's mainstream system of agriculture is unethical. Government support for corn and soy subsidies is quickly eroding our very precious soil. Monoculture and the widespread application of toxic pesticides has created environments devoid of the diversity and resiliency inherent in natural ecosystems. Horrific factory farming practices are hugely responsible for climate change and many farmers, trapped into indentured servitude by Big Ag, rarely have the resources to challenge these socially and environmentally corrosive practices. In the face of these atrocities, pursuing a primarily plant-based diet is ethical. It's both a practice grounded in greater compassion for the earth and a challenge to industrialized production and consumption processes.
But that doesn't mean eating meat and dairy is in and of itself unethical. Many indigenous cultures throughout the world consume meat and dairy out of a deep sense of respect for the creature and for the environment. When I reflect on a fundamentally sustainable food philosophy, I think of the Dalai Lama's words on consumption. I think of my mentor Lynn and the buttery yellow eggs that her hens lay. I think of my brother's friend Roko, a Masaii who eats almost exclusively meat and milk and whose carbon footprint is far smaller than that of anyone I know.
There are many ways to live in this world, many ways to nourish and be nourished. When we affix our identities to labels, we make it much harder to learn, to grow, to resee what surrounds us. We risk shutting ourselves off to the generosity of others.
I don't consider myself to be a vegetarian or a locavore or plant-based (although I not-so-secretly love the term. It makes me feel like I am growing, green and flowering from the ground). I consider myself an eater like everyone else.
I go to sleep dreaming of what I will have for breakfast the next day: granola seeded with dried cranberries, toast with jam from summer's bounty, hot cinnamon tea, leftover risotto from last night. I am calmed by the thought of a good meal, and am enormously grateful that this is a given in my life.
My hope is that during my waking hours, I do everything I can to make this simple pleasure a truly nourishing act, one that feeds my body and community and the loamy, life-giving soil underfoot. My hope is that I always make room in my food philosophy for change, that I always honor the interconnectedness of all living things.