July 25, 2011

On Being a Vegetarian: Does it Make a Difference?

Some of my recent reflections on vegetarianism and my diet:

This post is not about teaching or running, but is again about my thoughts on a vegetarian lifestyle and my own experiences as a vegetarian.  I'm not sure why my veggie diet has been on my mind lately, but in writing this I hope to breathe some life into the thoughts that have been swirling around in my head lately.
In June, I read an amazing book entitled Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer.  While I’d been giving my diet and vegetarianism in general a considerable amount of thought in recent months, this book changed something in me.  I’ve felt for a long time now that I cannot morally justify eating meat, which is why I ditched the meat in 2007 and never looked back.  That being said, Eating Animals shocked me.  I knew how terrifying the meat industry is in the United States.  If I thought it was rainbows and sunshine, I probably would still be eating meat.  But I was astounded when I learned how ignorant I truly was.   When people asked me in the past why I live a vegetarian lifestyle, I’ve always answered that my choice is based on a respect for life; I am ethically opposed to eating another living creature.  Sweet and simple.  But even though I've always been convinced that this choice is important and worthwhile, a question I've asked myself many times is,

“But what difference will one vegetarian make?”  

See, I’ve always been something of a bleeding heart.  I am passionate about many things and would idealistically daydream as a teen and college student about one day “changing the world.”  Can my diet, the diet of just ONE person in the world, actually make a difference?  Is it even worth bothering?
Gandhi famously said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”  This is a favorite quote of mine, and I know it is a favorite of many others too.  It is especially meaningful to me when I think about my diet.  It’s true that when I order pasta primavera at a restaurant or bring my own veggie burger to a barbeque I am doing nothing radical.  I am not fighting a great battle against factory farms or the meat industry.  But I am doing what I can, one person, to work for change in small ways.  Foer beautifully addresses this idea towards the end of his book:
It might sound naïve to suggest that whether you order a chicken patty or a veggie burger is a profoundly important decision.  Then again, it certainly would have sounded fantastic if in the 1950s you were told that where you sat in a restaurant or on a bus could begin to uproot racism.  It would have sounded equally fantastic if you were told in the early 1970s, before César Chávez’s workers’ rights campaigns, that refusing to eat grapes could begin to free farm workers from slave-like conditions.  It might sound fantastic, but when we bother to look, it’s hard to deny that our day-to-day choices shape the world.  When America’s early settlers decided to throw a tea party in Boston, forces powerful enough to create a nation were released.  Deciding what to eat (and what to toss overboard) is the founding act of production and consumption that shapes all others.  Choosing leaf or flesh, factory farm or family farm, does not itself change the world, but teaching ourselves, our children, our local communities, and our nation to choose conscience over ease can.  One of the greatest opportunities to live our values—or betray them—lies in the food we put on our plates (258).
Don’t mistakenly take Foer’s analogy to mean that he equates his fight against inhumane treatment of animals to the noble, brave fights of King, Chávez, or our founding fathers.   He understands, “Human oppression is not animal abuse…. [but] we interpret the Chávez and King legacies—we interpret America’s legacy—too narrowly if we assume in advance that they cannot speak against the oppression of the factory farm” (259).  I don’t think anyone can deny that even the smallest of choices we make on a daily basis can have great effects on both our own lives and the lives of others.  I am not naïve enough to believe that I can “change the world” in the way I dreamed of someday doing as a teen.  But I can make a difference, and I have seen firsthand the smallest of ways I have inspired change through my choices.  Foer writes, “…the influence that this simple dietary choice has on what others around you eat can be surprising” (261).

I’ve noticed when I eat at restaurants with friends or even stop at Subway for a quick lunch with a coworker, they tend to be more likely to order a vegetarian dish when with me than they normally would be.  Let me clarify—I don’t criticize others for eating meat or comment when they do.  Vegetarianism is a personal choice and I dislike when others criticize my food, so I extend to them the same courtesy that I expect in return.  But even though I don’t push for it, I have seen it happen naturally that friends will reconsider their usual meat preferences in favor of a vegetarian entrée when dining with a vegetarian.
Also, while I don’t demand others cook special vegetarian fare when I’m coming to dinner and always offer to bring my own food, it tends to happen naturally that meatless food will make its way to the table at dinner parties when a vegetarian is invited.  I meet with a two girlfriends every few weeks to share food and talk about books.  Neither are vegetarians, but every meal we’ve shared together has been completely vegetarian.  I don’t ask for this special consideration, but it’s the pattern we have fallen into, and I assure you that none of our meals have ever lacked substance or flavor.
Similarly, my diet has resulted in my parents’ eating vegetarian more frequently than in the past.  I lived with my parents after graduating for two years, only just recently moving out, and my diet prompted my mom and dad to make small changes in their cooking.  They now cook vegetarian chili and always use vegetable stock in soups and other recipes.  Dishes like pasta are always meat-free.  Neither of my parents will ever be a vegetarian—it’s not important to them in the way it is to me.  But when I think about how much less meat they have consumed out of their own volition since my choice­­­­­­­­­­­­­­ to stop eating meat, I know that my choice to eat vegetarian has made a difference.
Last but not least, choosing to eat vegetarian sets an example for others that it is possible to give up meat without sacrificing nutrition or taste.  When I eat spinach ravioli or leftover tofu stir fry or quinoa with black beans in the teacher’s lounge at school, it invites questions.  It invites intrigue.  It might expose someone to a new vegetarian dish or plant a seed of thought about the ethics of eating animals in their head.    
It has always been a pet peeve of mine when someone comments that someone else’s food is “gross” or distasteful.  As I’ve said, food is deeply personal.  When I made the decision to become a vegetarian, I made a pact with myself that I would never look down on others for their food choices; I can only choose how I will eat and live.  It’s true that the only ones we can really control are ourselves, but even making a change on a personal level can inspire more tiny effects than we may ever have dreamed.  
Remember there's no such thing as a small act of kindness.  
Every act creates a ripple with no logical end. 
-Scott Adams

If you are thinking about becoming a vegetarian and are unsure that it is worth the “hassle” to make what might feel like is such a minuscule difference in the world, think again.  One person cannot change everything that is wrong in the meat industry, but by changing ourselves, we can make a difference.


  1. Wait...you are a teacher, reader AND runner? Sign me up!! Love finding your blog!

    -Katy @ http://runningtheclassroom.wordpress.com/

  2. Wonderful post! I am also a teacher and a runner! Eating animals is something I have been struggling with for awhile now, although I have not taken the leap into vegetarianism. Thank you for re-inspiring me :)


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...