VegOut or VegIn? A Study Into a Meatless Experience

A project by Yifeng Li, Melissa Schneider and Brian Wang

Introduction

          Imagine today is the last day you will ever eat meat. How do you think that will affect your lifestyle? eating habits? why do you think you would choose not to eat meat? The percentage of vegetarians in the United States is increasing; based on Manuel Rivera’s (1052) research, the percentage of vegetarians in the U.S. population increased from one percent in 1994 to three percent in 2000. Although the percentages seem relatively small, three percent of the current U.S population is approximately eight million people. Many people do not understand why someone would choose to be a vegetarian and seem to have negative views on the choice. However, based on the growing percentage of vegetarians in the United States, it seems more and more people are being informed and becoming one. Because of growth in the amount of vegetarians in the population, there is a heightened demand for vegetarian options in food markets. This mini ethnography will explore Vegetarianism according to college level students in the midwest, how it is viewed by non-vegetarians, and its influence on vegetarian options in restaurants, cafes, and grocery stores.

Vegetarianism in Scope 

          There are three main reasons why someone chooses to be a vegetarian. (Fox and Ward 422) The first major one is is for the health benefits. According the research conducted by Katie Ward and Nick Fox, they found that “the change to a vegetarian diet was associated directly with health improvement” (Fox and Ward 424). The participants in their research reported that their vegetarian eating habits positively affected things such as: cholesterol levels, blood pressure, weight, risk of developing diseases, attitude, and personality. One participant stated “I feel so much healthier and alive than I used to” (Fox and Ward 424). In an interview conducted by our group with Megan Turske, she reported “I had a ton more energy and was in a better mood” upon becoming a vegetarian. The wide range of health benefits encourages people to become a vegetarian and to remain one.

          Another reason why people become vegetarians is the ethical issue of killing animals for human consumption and the treatment of these animals. The video Earthlings written by Shaun Monson, vividly documents the mistreatment of animals in various meat processing and animal by product companies around the world. The problems addressed in the movie are the horrible living conditions for the animals and the amount of pain the animals endure, especially right before death. The living conditions depicted were small and overcrowded, with hardly any room for movement. The animals extraneous pain came from abuse from workers and methods used when beginning to precess the meat and or other byproducts. Because of the common mistreatment of animals in these situation many people choose to be a vegetarian to protest these behaviors and reduce the amount of meat consumed throughout the world.

         The third reason is to take a stand aganinst environmental issues. Most vegetarians do not originally become a vegetarians because of a environmental reason, but they often adopt environmental commitments to their list of reasons to be and stay vegetarian (Fox and Ward 427). As seen in the interview video below, Lauren added environmental issues to why she is a vegetarian/ vegan after already being a vegetarian for many years. Energy and solid wastes are the main environmental issues vegetarians strive to reduce and protest (Fox and Ward 427). People’s commitment to a vegetarian lifestyle help with these environmental issues and help to inform others about them.

          People are also vegetarians because their religion. Religions originating from ancient India are linked to Vegetarianism. Jainism requires members to be vegetarians. In Hinduism and Buddhism, vegetarianism is advocated and encouraged. Buddhism is associated with vegetarianism because they “ idealiz[e] the practice of compassion, the drive to relieve the suffering of others, including animals” (Barstow 74). Similarly Hinduism promotes vegetarianism because of their value in avoiding the hurting of other life forms. Jainism requires vegetarianism because of their strong belief in nonviolence as explained by Michael Tobias in his article “Jainism and Ecology”. Vegetarians by religion do contribute to the vegetarian population although less significantly to the previous three reasons.

Our Interviews with Vegetarians/Vegans and reasons for being one

Filmed by Melissa and Feng, editing by Melissa, Interviewing by Melissa and Brian

Our Interviews with Vegetarians/Vegans and perceptions on them

Filmed by Melissa and Feng, editing by Melissa, Interviewing by Melissa and Brian

          From the interviews, it is clear that vegetarians often experience negative comments about being a vegetarian. These derogatory comments and views may stem from high regard for meat and importance of meat rooted in U.S. culture. In early American society, meat was not consumed as much as it is today because mass production was not prevalent and many people of the working class had low wages and therefore could not afford meat. (Hanes 21) Eating meat used to be considered a luxury by many, and was received in small proportions only on special occasions. This fact perhaps instilled a subconscious value on being able to consume meat, which causes people to react in this way. Another reason could stem from that fact that meat seems to be at the center of most meals and is increasing in consumption in the United States as seen in the figure below. Because it is so common and and considered the normal thing to eat in the U.S., it is hard for people to understand why someone would voluntarily not eat meat.

Figure 1: Meat intake in grams per capita per day in the United States according to USDA Food Supply Data base 1909-2007

Figure 1: Meat intake in grams per capita per day in the United States according to USDA Food Supply Data base 1909-2007

Participant Observation 

          Do these negative views have some truth? Is being a vegetarian as hard and limiting as people think? To get a better sense on what it is like to be a vegetarian and what food options are available our group decided to be vegetarians for a week. Melissa explored vegetarian options at grocery store and restaurants in Lansing, Michigan. She found being vegetarian hard at first, particularly remembering they cannot eat meat. However, to her surprise, there were plenty of vegetarian options to eat that were just as tasty as meals with meat. Melissa’s week consisted of eating foods like grilled cheese, salads, black bean burgers, spaghetti, eggs, and vegetarian options at restaurants. The meals choice options at grocery store and local restaurants were different, but not as limiting as they suspected.

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PC: Yifeng, Brian

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PC: Yifeng, Brian

 

          We discussed several topics during an interview with one of the servers in a VegOut aisle, asking about why vegetarian/vegan options have become increasingly popular, and what kind of people he often serves. Feng and Brian tried the VegOut food, and we recorded our initial and final impressions of the food over the vegetarian week. The initial offerings included servings of baked Pinto beans on Mexican rice, as well as sides of vegetarian bean enchilada with lentil soup. Through the course of our 7-day trial,  the dishes served at VegOut generally substituted meat with beans, lentils, and tofu. One not-so-convincing tofu chicken imitation — aptly dubbed Chick’n —  provided at least some semblance of replacing the texture and taste of poultry. Overall, we found that VegOut alone was too limited in offering a diverse eating experience. As a result, we eventually found ourselves turning to cheese pizza, peanut butter jelly sandwiches, or the good old salad bar — meatless meals not specifically tailored to vegetarians. Even some entrees at traditional food stations — such as Homestyle or the Bistro — serve distinctly labeled “Vegetarian” or “Vegan” foods regularly. All in all, the wealth of options at our disposal meant enough variety to last us the whole week. It should be noted, that in forgoing meat, our primary concern was replacing the protein lost through other means. The mentioned meat substitutes generally proved adequate, but anything from nuts to protein powder also helped fill the gap. Ultimately, we found that week’s worth of meatless eating — although difficult at first — happened to be quite the enjoyable experience. None of our meals left us feeling unsatisfied like we originally thought , and we quickly even got over the absence meat’s savory taste. More importantly, the exploration of alternative options made for a innovative and deeply satisfying experience.

          It is interesting to note that Michigan State, or any undergraduate university for that matter, serves as an important breeding ground for the next generation of American youth. Although vegetarians in the student body may already be impacting how the MSU Culinary Services serve food, the university itself may not seek to benefit from this. Michigan State would stand to gain very little by supporting the elimination of beef or dairy products; namely those of which the school itself produces right on campus — indelibly taken in the form of the delectable MSU Dairy Store. The school has done an admirable job in catering to these students’ needs so far, but if these two vastly cognitively dissonant tenets come to a head, administration must decide between either preserving its historical identity of food, after all, is sewn into the fabric of MSU’s culture, or fully condoning this very mold of idealistic humanism/conservationism that a liberal arts education purportedly stresses.

Our Interview with a VegOut server

Film by Feng, Interviewing by Brian

 

 

Making Veggie Burgers

Film and work by Melissa

         

          The total process of making the black bean burgers took about an hour which is relatively similar to the amount of time it takes to make meals with meat. Based on the cook book the vegan/vegetarian club gave us, it seems meal preparation times all fall around fifteen minutes to an hour and half depending on the meal. This is the common range of preparation time that our group has experienced when making meat based meals. The taste of the black bean was not similar to a beef burger, but it had its own unique delicious taste. From our experiment with making vegetarian meat and being vegetarians for a week, we concluded that other than the main difference on what you are eating meal preparation and selection options are fairly similar.

Influence in U.S Food Production

          Even though the amount of vegetarians is relatively low compared to the non- vegetarian population in the United States, their numbers are increasing. With vegetarianism becoming more common are restaurants, cafeterias, food producing companies, and grocery stores supplying more vegetarian options? The general consensus of the people we interviewed was that there is a wide selection of vegetarian and vegan meals found in grocery stores, even sections specifically designated for vegetarian and vegan meals. In restaurants, there seems to be not as many options, and often times, waiters have to be asked what such options are available. One of the people we interviewed informed us that Oreos were recently changed so they would be vegan. Other companies are taking similar strides in converting some of their products to be vegetarian or vegan, and they are producing more vegetarian and vegan options. “There has been remarkable response on the part of retail food stores and companies to the growing demand of vegetarian products,” Manuel Rivera concluded from his research. Meat and dairy substitutes contribute to the large amounts of vegetarian options now available. Around four hundred meat substitutes and five hundred dairy substitutes were introduced in 2009, “representing a dramatic upsurge compared to previous years” (Rivera 1052). Another report collected by Rivera stated that the United States vegetarian food market grew from 646.7 million dollars in 1998 to 1.6 billion in 2003. Rivera also agreed with the people we interviewed that restaurants are behind on the movement to offer more vegetarian options, but he expects this will change soon (1052). From the statistics provided by Rivera, it is evident that vegetarianism and veganism are largely affecting the food industry in the United States. Some companies are changing their products by making them vegetarian and or vegan friendly in order to maximize consumer population and therefore maximize profit. Other industries are engineering alternative meats and other vegetarian meals to meet the demands of the growing popularity of the vegetarian lifestyle. Overall, vegetarianism and veganism are affecting what companies produce, how they produce, and what is available at restaurants and grocery stores.

Ethical/ Environmental implications 

    download  For a campus MSU’s size, it’s surprising that there is not a clear-cut student organization comprised of vegetarians. And yet, despite our research, we failed to find such a group in place. The one website we found was for a vegetarian club that folded six years ago and turned into an animal rights club. So why this massive discrepancy? There is no doubt that vegetarians are out there; the new VegOut in Case Hall should be perfect indication. Perhaps this lack of visible representation is an indication that vegetarianism is more of a casual lifestyle choice for most: its primary benefits being to eat healthier, or cut cholesterol, for example.  In this sense, being vegetarian seems more of a hobby, no different than jogging or singing.

         But for those who see refusing to eat good ol’ pork chops as a form of moral supremacy for our nation’s pigs, being vegetarian may run as a product of personal convictions. For these people, cutting meat of their diets serve a deeper purpose as a form of protest: the primary two issues being the unethical treatment of animals, and unsustainable food production. When talking about these reasons to go vegetarian, it become important to discuss vegans as well. After all, only abolishing poultry is unjust compromise to hens, when these hens’ eggs are still being produced and made for consumption. Simply not eating meat is an incomplete solution to the bigger issue of food production in general — not solely pertaining to just the animal’s flesh. To these people, veganism is the extension of these vegetarians’ core beliefs: it precludes animal products altogether, save — for some — “wild game”  not specifically bred for food consumption. We interviewed two members of an animal activist group: both of whom are vegan. One of these such members was Lauren, whose precocious enthusiasm for the subject made for a thoroughly insightful interview. In short, both members cite unethical treatment of animals and unsustainable agricultural practices as their primary reasons for going vegan, and insist that the absence of animal products have not drastically affected their diet and lifestyle.

  George Bernard Shaw once wrote: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” We can trace this aphorism to his 1903 book Maxims for Revolutionists, a verbose proclamation of his advocacy for socialism. It was also Shaw, himself a food aficionado, who exclaimed: “There is no sincerer love than the love of food.” In this context, vegetarianism/vegan is exactly what Shaw proposes: it is a defiant movement determined to uproot the hierarchy and norms of our current society, and in its place, establish its own regime. For these people, the decision to cut meat or animal products entirely out of their diet may be expensive, inconvenient, and may even subject them to social ridicule. The fact that they are more motivated by something intrinsic — be it through environmental or ethical reasons — is virtuous:  they truly believe their way is best for humanity. Though as Shaw so presciently notes, with progress must come adversity, and negative attention — warranted or otherwise — is an inevitable byproduct of forwarding their agenda ad nauseum. They are well aware of the stigma associated with their cause — either through the hypocrisy of organizations like PETA, or the overarching radicality of their reform. So who’s in the right here? For those who advocate animal rights, these activists’ efforts are seen as valiant and honorable. For the opposition, they may appear misguided and ill-advised. What is evident, however, is that this is no aberration brought on by faddism or vegetarians looking for the “next big thing”: their intentions are very much sincere.

Conclusion 

       To quote the Grateful Dead, “What a Long Strange Trip It’s Been.” Indeed, our one-week journey into the intriguing world of vegetarianism filled our stomachs with “Chick’n”, and our minds with insight into just how important the vegetarianism movement is. As it turns out, we found it more pleasurable than challenging to a meatless, yet a diverse and well-balanced diet. Be it through options prepared on-campus or made ourselves, it became evident that adopting a vegetarian lifestyle is hardly any different than the ones we currently live. Along the way, we enjoyed many meatless meals — some more delicious than others — but all different in taste, and just as nutritious. To non-vegetarians, it may not seem significant that a second VegOut had just sprung on campus, and that vegetarian/vegan options are being made more and more accessible in MSU’s cafeterias — but to those who are, these additions are definitely impactful. There is no doubt that vegetarians are affecting way food is produced and served here at MSU, and for those in support of animal rights and conservationism, the hope is that this is only the first measure of many more measures to come. Change, even in small steps, is incredibly powerful — adde parvum parvo magnus acervus erit: add a little to a little and there will be a big pile. We know now that vegetarianism is not just a fad culture, and that not eating meat was not the impossible task we thought it to be. Little by little, it would seem that many others will soon know this too. 

Sources

Barstow, Geoffrey. “Buddhism between abstinence and indulgence: vegetarianism in the life and works of Jigme Lingpa.” Journal of Buddhist Ethics 20 (2013): 74+. Academic OneFile. Web. 6 Dec. 2015.

Earthlings. By Shaun Monson. Prod. Libra Max. Perf. Joaquin Phoenix. 2005. DVD.

“Food 1929-1941.” Historic Events for Students: The Great Depression. Ed. Richard C. Hanes and Sharon M. Hanes. Vol. 2. Detroit: Gale, 2002. 21-49. U.S. History in Context. Web. 8 Dec. 2015.

Fox, Nick, and Katie Ward. “Health, Ethics and Environment: A Qualitative Study of Vegetarian Motivations.” Appetite 50.2-3 (2008): 422-29. ScienceDirect. Web. 4 Dec. 2015.

Rivera, Manuel, and Amir Shani. “Attitudes and Orientation toward Vegetarian Food in the Restaurant Industry.” Int J Contemp Hospitality Mngt International Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management 25.7 (2013): 1049-065. Emerald Insight. Web. 8 Dec. 2015.

Shaw, Bernard. Maxims for Revolutionists. Lexington: Zhingoora, 2013. Print.

Tobias, Michael. “Jainism and Ecology: Views of Nature, Nonviolence, and Vegetarianism.” The Bucknell Review 37.2 (1993): 138. ProQuest. Web. 7 Dec. 2015.

“U.S. Department of Agriculture.” U.S. Department of Agriculture. N.p., 27 Aug. 2014. Web. 07 Dec. 2015.

V, Jayaram. “Meat Eating or Vegetarianism in Buddhism.” Meat Eating or Vegetarianism in Buddhism. HinduWebsite. Web. 7 Dec. 2015.