Monday, June 15, 2015

Why Vegetarianism Didn't Work For Me

Ok. So- Disclaimer: We get asked this ALL the time, as former vegetarians turned ethical meat producers. We also know that this subject gets A LOT of heat, especially on the internet. So, if you're looking for a debate, this isn't the place. This is just a full length description of my food journey, in case it's helpful for those investigating their own choices, or interested in what makes our growing practices different. Please refrain from sending us, or commenting here with anything from militant veganism sites or references, these things are combative and highly alarmist. But anyone thinking and talking about food is alright by us, so feel free to share our post.

I was 16, going on 17 when I stopped eating meat. I was getting sick all of the time- the kind of sick no one wants to read about. Anytime I had a meal, I would be ill for hours afterwards. My home life was complicated, and the food we had available was mostly quick and cheap. I had stress related health issues that affected my digestion, so it wasn't clear why I was getting sick despite medication. During a particularly rough time period of sickness, I decided to stop eating meat because I was kind-of sure it was part of the problem, and I had started learning about factory farming which was upsetting to say the least. I had adult mentors who were vegetarian, and it seemed like I should at least give it a try. The last thing I ate was a chicken nugget from a fast food restaurant on a school field trip. I bit into it, and came back with a mouth full of gristly chicken by-product and that was that.

I've always been relatively interested in the kitchen and cooking. I started making my own food instead of buying school lunch, using wages from my part time job to buy my substitute meat products. I did feel better. I still had issues, but they were less frequent, and I also felt like I was on a good path environmentally, and ethically. I still ate a lot of taco bell, though. I've always danced around restrictive eating, I was really grouchy at this point in my life. I was not a pleasant teenager most of the time, which was in part due to my food issues.

Then came college. Our dining hall was notoriously bad (seriously, it made the "worst of" lists)- and I lived basically on french fries w/ranch dressing and/or tomato soup. I came home after my freshman year and was diagnosed with minor malnutrition. That's how bad my eating habits were (and the options at school). I was wrapped up in a world walking a dangerously fine line between an eating disorder and vegetarian activism.

Over that summer, I started cooking in earnest. I made all of my meals, and ate regularly. I worked in a factory, so I was able to make better choices and my physical work demanded I be more careful. I started to become a better cook- paid more attention to my Grandmother's lessons. Grandma modified her recipes for me, taking time to make marinara instead of Sunday gravy, and making these super tasty eggplant meatballs (as well as all the manacotti I could eat). I fell in love with food. A love affair I have often described and referenced at length on this blog and to anyone who will listen.

Back at school, I did better at minding what I ate. My health was better.

And then my world view exploded.

I went to Imokalee Florida, to work with migrant farm workers who were advocating for better working conditions and a one cent pay raise. This was at the time of the national taco-bell boycott, and the Coalition won their pay increase just a week before we got there. This was a pivotal trip for me. The realities of agribusiness, fast food, and subsidized cash crops hit me with a deadly force. I spoke with humans who had risked life and limb in an attempt to make a better future, and now were living in overcrowded trailers, exposed to deadly chemicals, working 16 hours a day for not enough money to live. It was astounding. I couldn't un-see anything from that point on. Industrial farming treated those workers like commodities, and not very valuable ones. I met so many incredible people during this time, and I was forced to look at the way in which our food system allows us to leave these workers invisible. The privilege of ignoring the source of the food on your plate.

It was also in Imokalee that the reality of the difference my upbringing to the other students hit me. We participated in this exercise which made you step forward and back based on markers of privilege, and at the end, you were supposed to realize how different your lived experience was to other students. It's hard to talk about this. In my group of students from our small, liberal arts, private college, I was dead last in line. I'm white, and afforded white privilege. But the realities of my upbringing became painfully, startlingly apparent in comparison to my fellow students' experiences. The politics of class warfare became very, very personal. It was hard to confront these things in the presence of other students, but it was critical for me to realize that no matter what I ended up doing- my background would play a factor- I would work to be an advocate for change. And that my experiences in childhood were colored by many of the same oppression politics that rendered farm workers invisible.

I began reading about food, farming, agricultural practices- and feeling more steadfast in my decision to be a vegetarian. Modern meat production is horrifying. The abuses of animals and people, farm workers who I now could picture, solidified my decision to avoid meat. I became a great vegetarian cook, but I did use a fair amount of meat-replacement products. And tofu. And tempeh. I left school, joined (and then worked at) a co-op, and made a million Quorn roasts for holidays and the best damn nutritional yeast gravy off of a recipe from my friend, Cathryn.

I started a garden. Gardening brought me closer to my food in a new way. The feel of my own hands in dirt reconnected me to a body that had often been sick. I hate talking about this point in my life, and I'm hesitant to share it now. There is so much judgement in our culture about chronic illness or even people who just get colds more often than usual. I was mostly fine, and functional. But gardening was a way for me to feel more at home and able after struggling with weight and health issues. Really, the control over my food in this very tangible way was important to me. Also, it was delicious.

I started weeding out things that traveled for long miles on trucks. I bought local milk where I could see the cows. I met a lot of local food producers while working at the co-op. They would come in with deliveries, still in the farm boots and with their kids carrying boxes of produce to the back. I'd chat with them, and I admired how... sturdy they all were. Not in appearance, but in presence. Even when they were in a terrible mood, they all looked strong, like they were fully inhabiting their bodies rather than just hauling them around everywhere.

As I've mentioned, I've had a few serious health crises in my life, and I came upon one of the worst during this time period. Let's just say I was really, really, sick. And then I got sicker. It took me ages to recover, almost a full year. And then it would be several more years before I was actually healthy on a regular basis (and I had several other unrelated but necessary medical treatments during this time). I wasn't desperate for some kind of holistic cure, or wrapped up in the notion that food was the only solution. I was just looking for ways to feel better, in every corner possible.

I've always bee active, and I've always been engaged. I was eating almost exclusively local, and reading a ton about how soy, corn and wheat were essentially robbing the soil, killing small farms, and consuming vast amounts of fossil fuel. There are hundreds of articles, films, and resources on this topic. If you don't know how farm subsidies work, or how corn and soy are in EVERYTHING- start reading. It's the lynch pin in understanding how/why our food system works the way it does. I also started steering away from processed foods, after a long time of struggling, I learned that I had a sensitivity to food additives. Don't get me wrong- I friggin love an Oreo. I really do. But whole, unprocessed foods helped me lose weight, have energy, and kept the hangry at bay. I still eat crap, but less often, as an indulgence (and with gusto). My girlfriend of the time was working on improving her health, so the whole household was shifting to eating more complete foods.

I had drawn the conclusion, that for me, it was important to eat as much local as possible to ensure I knew about the labor practices, environmental practices and fossil fuel consumption involved in my food. I also felt like food tastes better when it was that fresh, and felt healthier. Science backs this up. But, the elimination of many of the foods I'd counted on to maintain my vegetarian diet for being environmentally unsound and overly processed really did limit my options. What to do?

After nearly a decade, I started literally dreaming about chicken. Mouthwatering dreams. I could smell it, and I'm not kidding. I increased my protein, cut back my carbs, and still- vivid chicken dreams. I tried an iron supplement, I ate more at meal times. I was lethargic. I was... hungry. I added back in some of the processed vegetarian proteins, Quorn brand specifically. But, it was coming from Europe, and made of a million ingredients. And it did kind of taste like cardboard.

I started digging deep, really thinking about how I had decided that killing animals for food was wrong. I took up some hobbies that put me back outside. I started thinking of humans as animals within ecosystem. I met more farmers. It's hard to say *when* exactly, my thinking shifted, but it did. First, with fish. This is kind of typical for someone moving out of vegetarianism. I had more energy eating ethically farmed fish, but I felt weird about eating something caught by someone I never met.

And finally, I bought and raised some chickens. The deal was, if I could start to finish raise chickens, I would eat them- but only if I was mindful about where it came from. Friends helped me build my first little coop and fencing. The chickens were pampered (overly so). They were funny. I liked them. I respected them. But I realized the work had to have a pay off. They were not pets. We had no deep emotional connection. My relationship with chickens is not the same as my relationship with dogs. Our species understand each other differently. And then, we ate them.

Raising and then processing that first batch set me on my farming course. The first chicken processing was... not smooth. We were scared, basically. It was hard. It was dirty. I'm not ashamed to say my hands shook. Life became a harvest. The first chicken processing left me with an unparalleled understanding of myself, and what I believe in. I believe we should be lifting up farmers in our communities. I believe in small farming. I believe in ending dependence on monolithic crops. Food products are not to be understood in the same way as whole foods are. Not that they don't have their place- but not in the volume we eat them now.

It does not work for me to buy a synthetic, food-like substance instead of the products from a carefully tended field. It does not makes sense to me to ship tomatoes from across the country, from a drought ridden state, rather than freezing my garden extras or going without. I'm not saying that I know how to solve the problems of food deserts and world wide hunger. But the earth is not meant to grow strictly one variety of anything. Biodiversity, reducing fossil fuels, protecting bees from pesticides- these things are tantamount to protecting the planet.

Eating meat, for me, is the most ethical choice I can make. We grow 90% of what we eat, and I have seen (as have others) how you can rehabilitate pastures with responsible grazing. We don't mow all of our pastures, to leave room for the birds and bees. We let flowers happen. We run poultry after grazers when we can. We serve the community.

That's the other piece of the puzzle for me- farming is a dying art in our country. As pointed out again recently by This American Life, only 1% of our population live and work on farms. And, most farmers are over the age of 60. If we continue to rely on current farming practices, we are going to forget as a country how to grow actual food- but instead only grow crops that we can synthesize down into ingredients we glue back together and ship across the country. As much as there as been a resurgence of farming, small farms fail daily. It's dire. Every purchasing decision we make goes into the pockets of a small farmer (who, almost exclusively puts it back into their local economy) or, goes into the pot keeping things as they are- environmentally unstable, nutritionally incomplete, and with little consideration for the rights of farm workers.

I'm not sick any more, and I'm not tortured by my own food politics. I'm strong. We're healthy. Kim can carry a feed bag nearly the same weight as her with minimal struggle. We can work 16 hours and get up the next day. I do think Americans need to eat less cheap meat. Cheap meat is the opposite of the work we do. It doesn't not protect the environment, it does not care for its consumers or producers. And we have a long way to go to get more of our animals off of soy and corn. But whole foods, including meat like ours, are not the enemy. Ethical and sustainable meat, sourced locally, is one cornerstone to revitalizing food economy and restoring health. I believe that, and I'm living proof. Also, it tastes better. And eating is not supposed to be just something you do to survive, why the hell would we have such extensive taste buds if not to enjoy it?

My meals used to consist of now-debunked ideas of heart conscious products, synthesized into familiar meat shapes. Now, I eat actual bacon, with lower cholesterol and a sturdy immune system. I'm not saying meat healed me- a lot of things have contributed. But vegetarianism did not work for me, either in my world view or in my dietary needs. So I grow and eat meat. I eat joyfully, and respectfully.  Sometimes with that nutritional yeast gravy, which is still damn good.

1 comment:

  1. It would indeed be a better world if everyone truly exposed themselves to what our "food" really is and made just one small change- whether it be buying local meat or growing a tomato plant on their back porch.