Recently I completed a challenge with another friend, where, for a summer only, I would lead a vegetarian diet. Though the duration of the challenge was short in the scheme of life, it was still substantial enough a time to get a glimpse of what it’s like to be on the vegetarian side. I completed this challenge while working at the Adventure Trips program at camp, where I was responsible for planning and cooking meals with a group of up to 12 active teenaged campers. Thus, my vegetarian diet was lived in the context of daily sharing meals with others, and faced both the benefits and difficulties of communal food.
The summer transition to being ‘officially’ vegetarian was not hard to make for me. In general, my meat consumption has been pretty low ever since my junior year in college when I shared a house with six vegetarians. Learning to cook for myself in this household, I became accustomed to making a variety of satisfying dishes using just vegetables. In the years following, I seldom bought meat for myself, and just as often I would consume meat I salvaged from a dumpster. Bacon, perhaps, was my most commonly used meat, but only as a spice and not as a meal. On the infrequent occasions I would visit a restaurant, I did freely order and partake of meat on the menu, and I also would eat meat when it was served by company. Otherwise I lived a near-vegetarian lifestyle.
So what was my motivation to undergo this challenge for the summer? Part of it was just to see if I could completely do it—that, and the curiosity of what would happen if I did abstain from meat for so long. But when talking about vegetarianism, it seems common that others will want the vegetarians to justify the rationale behind their food choices, as if only vegetarians are to be held accountable for the reasons they eat the foods they do. Though many people go vegetarian for health reasons, this was not one of my reasons; I am convinced that meat can be a healthy part of a balanced diet. Many people also go vegetarian out of a compassionate welfare for the animals themselves. Again, this was not part of my motivation for going vegetarian. Biologically speaking, animals must die and be eaten in order for the ecological world to continue on, and humans have long participated in the tradition of eating meat as sustenance. Though I do not feel that it is immoral to consume animal products, I do feel like if you do consume meat, then you should be willing to see where it comes from—if not even kill it and prepare it yourself. Though a vegetarian this summer, I did watch in vivid interest as one of the camp’s chickens was cleaned and butchered. The transition from live animal to food is an interesting one, and one that not many people get direct experience with—meat-eaters included.
If there was an underlying motivation for my low meat consumption in the past, and for me to try the completely vegetarian lifestyle this summer, it would be environmental. This was my attempt to eat lower on the food chain, and thus limit the impact my diet has on the planet. Factory farmed meat, as it is produced commercially in the developed world, is resource intensive and wasteful. More energy goes into producing animal proteins that could more efficiently be converted into plant foods. This wanton use of resources—a byproduct of our cultural desire to have meat readily and cheaply available—contributes to even greater environmental degradation. Plus, this industrial scale meat system comes with the added externalities of increased chemical and antibiotic use, greenhouse gas emissions, land-clearing, animal mistreatment, and the like. In sum total, cheap meat comes at a high price. Becoming a vegetarian for the summer was my way of exempting myself from the corporate meat system. Perhaps, idealistically, just by reducing my demand for meat, the system will begin to change to offer more sustainable alternatives
So how challenging was going vegetarian? Overall, not too bad.
As mentioned above, it was not too hard of a transition to make practically. Being used to eating mostly vegetable dishes, I was able to feed myself and survive the whole summer. I found that I actually didn’t miss meat that much, if at all. Rummaging through the fridge for leftovers as I commonly do, if I saw a container full of meat, it actually began to look unappealing to me. True, the smell of freshly fried bacon did always tempt me, and I did eat a slice of pepperoni that fell on the ground. Otherwise, my vegetarian commitment was not terribly difficult to keep.
The more challenging part of vegetarianism was psychological. It was a challenge to see my identity as a vegetarian. Nor over the course of the summer did I ever feel that I realty owned up to the label either. When I had to explain my dietary restrictions to others, I would always try and qualify my vegetarianism: “it’s only temporary,” or “it’s just a challenge I’m doing over the summer,” I would say. Never was I just Ty the vegetarian. I was Ty the vegetarian*. But although it was difficult to apply the label to myself and feel authentic about it, it was easier when others applied the label to me. Campers at summer camp somehow found out without me telling them, and they would thus call me a vegetarian on their own initiative. Knowing me for only a week at a time, vegetarian Ty was the only side of me they ever knew, so they never questioned me about my transition to it. So only once other people started calling me a vegetarian and asking me all kinds of curious questions about what it is like, did I finally come to start feeling like I too could own the label. Nevertheless, I never fully felt authentic as a vegetarian, since my endeavor was only temporary and experimental. Though there is not just one kind of vegetarian, I never felt like I could fully own the label and subscribe to the identity politics of vegetarianism.
Additionally, and somewhat expectedly, being a vegetarian also made me think about food options a whole lot more. Previously, as a food opportunist and a not too particularly picky eater, I didn’t think about what exactly I was eating with a whole lot of thought. Back then, so to speak, all options were literally on the table. If it was edible, then why not eat it? But I found that excepting myself from any carnivorous partakings made me dwell on the limits of what I could and could not eat. Instead of always being assured of having enough food, I started to worry if there would be enough vegetarian options left over for me to eat; sometimes there were not, and I had less than my desired fill even when there were plenty of meat options left over. For perhaps the first time ever, I also found that I had to be a staunch advocate for my food as well. I don’t really like to make a fuss over food things, especially since I’ll eat just about anything. But this summer, in order for me to make sure there would be food for myself as well, I had to advocate for a non-meat option at each meal. This was challenging at times, especially because I often felt like a ‘fake’ vegetarian who was just being ‘picky’ about meat. Add to that, I’d much rather not encumber or inconvenience people by adding more dietary restrictions to the chefs, especially when I was the only professed vegetarian partaking in a meal. But at the same time, if my rationale behind going vegetarian was environmentally based, then causing a fuss at meal times would be a start to greater change. Abstaining from meat at one single meal might not seem like it makes a lot of difference, but it does work to challenge the assumption that every meal must contain meat. After continual meal-time fuss, eventually less meat will be demanded and ordered per meal, and the negative environmental impacts will diminish with it.
Unfortunately, though my rationale for going vegetarian was environmental (i.e., to reduce waste associated with food), going vegetarian seemed to have unintentionally increased my personal food waste. When defining the terms of the vegetarian challenge at the start of the summer, my friend and I both agreed that ‘Trash Meat’—that is, meat that was going to be thrown away anyway—would be within the bounds of our vegetarianism. Though Trash Meat was fair game, I felt like it would be cheating to partake of it. Rummaging through the fridge for leftovers, I often came across containers full of good, edible meals that just happened to have a little bit of meat mixed in. Out of vegetarian principle, I avoided consuming those leftovers. And, as my niche at camp was to finish off all the leftovers, those containers of food continued to sit in the fridge untouched until the food inside spoiled. Whereas previously I would have eaten a meal and simultaneously reduced food waste by eating other people’s leftovers, I was instead inclined to throw the food out. I began to realize that meals are more accommodating to all when the meat is served on the side, and not mixed in with the main dish. Thus, it would be less wasteful if meat were an opt-in thing, rather than an opt-out thing.
Now that the summer has ended, my commitment to being a vegetarian has elapsed. What has happened since that time? Well, I’ve gone back to the pattern of food consumption that I previously was in, where no particular food item is off limits. I have eaten meat again—though primarily meat leftovers. I still don’t eat a lot of it, but I’m a food scavenger at heart. If I can save a food item from getting thrown in the trash, whether it has meat in it or not, isn’t that the better option anyway? I’m fine leaving the label vegetarian behind too. I never felt fully comfortable with that label anyway. But overall, I will continue my commitment to eating low on the food chain and to reducing my environmental impact in whatever form that takes, whether it be going completely vegetarian again in the future or continuing to eat trash meat out of the dumpster. Perhaps a more suitable label for me other that vegetarian would be freegan.
As a timely thought-piece during my experiment, NPR published an article about how an all-vegetarian world is not necessarily a better world—or even a practical world. In any case, mindlessly consuming any type of food without thinking broadly about its impact is the worst way to go. Perhaps all it does take to make a positive change towards a more sustainable food system is a group of people who want to challenge the status quo by saying ‘no I don’t want your industrialized meat’. Vegetarians have their place, but it is not for only vegetarians to make a difference in the food system.