The Cost of Compassion

Veganism is all the rage, but some skeptics are calling into question its feasibility for the general public

Max Garnot waits for customers on a quiet Wednesday morning at Cafeteria Coffeehouse in downtown New Paltz, New York. Photo by Sam Manzella.

At first glance, 23-year-old Max Garnot doesn’t necessarily scream “vegan.” He’s slender, soft-spoken, and unassuming despite being heavily inked. A barista and college student at SUNY New Paltz, Garnot boasts arms filled with bold, colorful tattoos.

Garnot, who transferred to a college closer to his hometown of Millbrook, New York via Westchester County’s SUNY Purchase, says he’s practiced veganism for almost three years. It was an easy switch, he says. When he learned about the cruelty inflicted upon animals in the livestock and dairy industries, the choice was clear. “One day, I just woke up and went vegan,” Garnot says. “It makes so much sense for myself, for the animals, for the planet.”

“The ideals really clicked with me. There’s just no reason in my mind that I should be anything but vegan.” — Max Garnot, 23, New Paltz, New York
Garnot at work at Cafeteria Coffeehouse in New Paltz, New York. Photo by Sam Manzella.

But the high costs associated with being a college student, coupled with the minimal amount of financial support he receives from his family, have left Garnot ill-equipped to splash out on the locally-grown, organic produce many vegans hold sacred. Garnot lives in a shared house with roommates in the village of New Paltz close to his job and the college’s campus. In a pinch, his family might spot him for rent, he says, but he provides almost entirely for himself. “My folks pay my phone bill and car insurance, so I can’t take anything else from them in good conscience,” he says. “Plus, they have two other kids and themselves to worry about.”

Garnot earns a meager salary and decent tips at his full-time coffeehouse job, which affords him about $50 a week to spend on food and drink, give or take depending “what’s going on that week.” If his tips are good, Garnot might splurge on some Chinese take-out. Most of the time, though, he cooks meals for himself. It’s all a matter of timing. As a full-time barista and a college student with a full undergraduate course load, Garnot works around his busy schedule to prepare meals. He rarely eats lunch, a byproduct of running around frantically to get to class or work on time, he says. Most of his meals are simple, quick, and cheap, the tenets Garnot abides by to fulfill his dietary needs.

What does Garnot think about the notion of “vegan privilege?” For better or worse, he hasn’t given it too much thought. The diet-slash-lifestyle has never been out of his reach, even between paychecks.

“I do realize I’m speaking from a privileged position, but [being vegan] is not always an expensive thing to do,” Garnot says. “If you’re buying Chao cheese, Field Roast stuff, [and] a lot of fake meats and cheeses, that’s when it gets expensive. But if you learn how to cook real foods based around vegetables and grains, you can do it cheaply.”

A 2012 study from Gallup Poll News Services surveyed a pool of approximately 1,000 adult Americans about their eating habits. For the first time since Gallup’s previous telephone survey in 1999, the organization asked respondents if they practiced a vegan diet. A notably small 2 percent of respondents replied in the affirmative.

There are signs that veganism is gaining traction among young people. A 2014 national study by the Vegetarian Resource Group found that half a million 8–18-year-old Americans — about 1 percent of the 46 million Americans in that age range alone — eat a vegan diet. Curiosity about vegan eating may also be on the rise. Google analytics run for the search terms like “vegan,” “vegan recipes,” and “vegan food” reveal an incline in vegan-related search inquiries across the country between 2006 and 2016.

Google Trends analytic data reveals an uptick in vegan-related search inquiries over a 10-year timespan. Screenshot up-to-date as of Dec. 3, 2016.

Why is veganism so attractive to so many Americans? Listen to the audio clip below to find out.

Today, veganism is in the midst of its media heyday. Notable figures, such as President Bill Clinton and singer Beyonce Knowles, have brought what was once an alternative lifestyle into mainstream culture, with outlets like The New York Times and USA Today covering veganism’s explosion into the public eye.

But vegans know well that not all press is good press. Many a culture critic has penned a blog post or article about “vegan privilege,” or the notion that a vegan diet and lifestyle is inherently inaccessible to the hundreds of thousands of Americans living below the poverty line. Adding geographic location into the equation only complicates the debacle: Food deserts — areas of the nation where affordable, healthy whole foods are next to impossible to find — are a harsh reality for much of America’s poorer populations, according to information from the American Nutrition Association.

Even in areas of the country that aren’t food deserts, pre-prepared, ready-to-go processed meat and dairy substitutes often cost more than conventional meat and dairy products. After all, a pack of 12 ready-to-go Amy’s Vegan Vegetable Lasagnas from Food Service Direct will set you back $5.59 per lasagna, but a box of 27 precooked, flame-broiled beef chuck steak burgers — roughly the same weight as the 12 Amy’s lasagnas at approximately 10 lbs — will cost you $3.12 per burger.

The Shawangunk Mountains in Ulster County, New York. Photo by Sam Manzella.

New York’s Hudson Valley is a lush, sprawling region flanking its namesake, the 315-mile-long Hudson River. The valley consists of over 10 counties and more than 140 cities and towns, stretching north of Yonkers to south of Albany. Like Garnot, more than 1 million people call this region home, and it’s a more economically diverse area than it seems at first dreamy glance.

Take Ulster County. The region boasts the luxury upstate summer homes of some of the country’s most famous celebrities, including award-winning actors Daniel Craig and Anne Hathaway. But low-income people and families also reside in Ulster County, with 13 percent of its individual residents — over 22,000 people — living below the poverty line, according to data from the 2015 New York State Poverty Report.

The Hudson Valley is also home to a “vibrant, community-supported agriculture sector,” says SUNY New Paltz sociology professor and Ulster County resident Brian Obach. Obach studies the sociology of food, a field he says has only gained prominence in recent years. He says that eating a vegan diet just isn’t possible for everyone.

“Vegan foods don’t necessarily have to be more expensive depending on what one chooses to eat, but much of it would need to be prepared,” he says. “Many people don’t have time for that.”

Jessica Greenebaum, a sociology professor at Central Connecticut State University and a practicing vegan of over 20 years, writes extensively about the notion of “vegan privilege” for Sage Humanities’ journal Humanity & Society. A vegan for “moral and ethical reasons,” Greenebaum, like Obach, acknowledges that not everyone can live a fully vegan lifestyle.

A truly tight budget with no wiggle room, plus the stress and busyness of working around the clock to make ends meet, limits a person’s food choices in a very tangible way. After all, making decisions about food — what to eat, when to buy it, when to cook it — is a pressure-filled process, especially for those who have to feed themselves and a family. Decision fatigue, a term that encapsulates the stress and anxiety we feel when faced with a seemingly endless amount of decisions every day, is exacerbated by poverty, according to a 2013 study from the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s weekly journal, Science. For people living in poverty, every decision is a high-stakes one, tacking on even more pressure, the study’s authors found.

At its core, having the ability to make choices about the foods we purchase and consume is a luxury in and of itself, Greenebaum says. Veganism is just one of many options out there, and people who have the privilege of choice — without the added burden of decision fatigue and subsequent burnout — can choose that option.

Garnot walks me through one of his weekly grocery shopping trips at Tops, a New York supermarket chain, in the town of New Paltz. He drives to the market, Garnot says. His driver’s license and car are some of the luxuries his middle-class upbringing affords him. It’s been a heavy week for Garnot, jam-packed with school assignments and long work hours. He has to be in Brooklyn this weekend, too, so saving some cash is of the essence.

The first things in his cart? Ingredients for a tofu scramble. Garnot likes to buy enough veggies and tofu to make three days worth of dishes. It saves him time and money. Today, he adds a block of tofu, a jalapeno pepper, some shallots, and a bunch of kale in his cart. The produce isn’t particularly expensive, but the preparation takes time, something Garnot has to take into consideration. When he cooks, Garnot will add in spices and seasoning he has at home.

Two cans of condensed black bean soup come next. They’re easy, cheap, and simple, Garnot says, and having some canned soup on hand saves him time if he’s super busy but too strapped for cash to swing take-out. In terms of snack food, Garnot stocks up on bananas. “They’re a relatively filling and inexpensive snack,” he says, chucking a bushel of six or so ripe bananas in his shopping cart. He throws in two cups of coconut milk yogurt, a sweet and affordable treat at about $1 a pop, and calls it a day.

We head to the till. Our little excursion has hardly set Garnot back: his total is $13 and change. “For roughly three lunches of tofu scramble, plus bananas, an apple, and two cans of soup, $13 is not expensive,” he says.

Of course, his totals at checkout vary. “When I buy more than this [at once], which is rare,” he explains, “it kind of follows that pattern, of being cheap. You know, nothing extravagant.”

Obach and Greenebaum agree that a variety of factors, including geographic location, family size, and larger socio-cultural traditions all impact any given individual’s ability to abstain from consuming or using animal products and byproducts. But there’s a bigger player in the “vegan privilege” debate who often gets overlooked, they claim: institutions.

The food and agriculture system in the United States makes unhealthy, animal-based foods cheap and accessible, Obach says. The literature supports his claim, too: recent research from the JAMA Internal Medicine review found that adults who consume high numbers of calories from subsidized food commodities — including heavily-processed foods such as corn, wheat, soy, and animal-derived culprits like dairy and livestock — face a greater risk of cardiometabolic issues over the course of their lives. Notably absent from the list of subsidized food products are vegetables, legumes, or fruits.

Despite the health risk, the study’s authors found that more than half of the average American’s daily caloric intake comes from these subsidized foods, likely due to their omnipresence and affordability at supermarkets across the country. It’s entirely unsurprising: A November 2016 study from the Journal of Nutrition found that the majority of low-income people in a simulated model made choices about buying and consuming food based on price per calorie — in other words, the biggest bang for their buck.

Like Obach, Greenebaum advocates for government subsidies of whole, plant-based foods, which she believes could help low-income people and families across the country to eat a healthy vegan or vegetarian diet.

“We place so much emphasis and responsibility on individuals when we should place more responsibility on institutions.” — Dr. Jessica Greenebaum, Central Connecticut State University, New Britain, Connecticut

What would be the first steps toward institutionally-supported access to healthy, vegan-friendly foods? For starters, it would involve government support of local and organic farming, Greenebaum says. Right now, meat, dairy, and egg industries, along with soy, wheat, and grain production, are subsidized to reduce costs for producers and consumers. But Greenebaum isn’t optimistic about a change in heart among the nation’s agricultural leaders any time soon.

“[We’d need to see] economic support given to small farmers and organics rather than big corporations,” she explains. “But this will probably never happen, as Big Agriculture companies have lobbyists to shape agricultural policy.”

In Ulster County, hungry vegans in a bind can turn to Family of Woodstock, an Ulster County-based nonprofit organization that owns and operates food pantries in towns and cities across the region, including towns of New Paltz, Ellenville, Woodstock, and the city of Kingston. The organization partners with local farms and food co-ops, like the Rondout Valley Growers Association, to bring produce that farmers can’t sell to mass market retailers where it is needed most: Family of Woodstock’s 10 food pantries and other food pantries, soup lines, and homeless shelters in the region. They call it their “farm to food pantry program,” says Beth McLendon, a representative from Family of Woodstock.

Since the program’s inception in 2009, Family of Woodstock has brought over 63,000 lbs of fresh produce to 28 food pantries, soup lines, and homeless shelters across Ulster County, McLendon reports. The foods the organization receives from local farms vary seasonally, but the selection includes many protein-rich staples of a contemporary vegan diet, including fresh broccoli and other green vegetables. Dried goods, like rice and beans, are almost always available for the taking.

Statistics about how many households receive SNAP funding in the Hudson Valley versus how many households are living below the poverty level. Information from the Food and Nutrition Services of America’s website.

McLendon says 66 percent of Ulster County lives below the Nutrition Assistance Program’s 200 percent poverty threshold. Information from the Food and Nutrition Services of America breaks the Hudson Valley into its three congressional districts: the 17th, 18th, and 19th. Just less than half of the region’s households live below the nation’s poverty level, according to the agency’s online database. Comparatively, only about 10 percent of households in each congressional district receive nutrition assistance through the federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Family of Woodstock doesn’t ask questions, though. According to Program Director Domnic Pidone at Family of Ellenville, anyone shows up hungry to a Family of Woodstock food pantry or soup line gets fed. “We trust [guests] to be responsible for getting their food needs met,” Pidone explains. “We try to accommodate requests, whether they’re required by medical, moral, or religious needs or simple preferences.”

Pidone says that Family of Ellenville gets “the rare vegan.” More common are people who are diabetic, gluten-free, or halal. Staff at Family of Woodstock food pantries aren’t trained to handle guests’ particular dietary needs, Pidone says, but it’s more a matter of resources and practicality than anything: the organization can’t feasibly prepare every staffer, many of whom are volunteers, for any given situation. And besides, most people who come hungry to food pantries are just grateful to receive food and drink at all.

“On a regular basis, we also get families that are staying at the local motel, and need food for six that can be prepared in the motel’s one common microwave. The rest of the meal should require no cooking because other families need the microwave. It takes coordination, planning, inventiveness, and a bit of pioneer spirit to help figure out how to feed a squatting family without refrigeration or the ability to heat foods. Those families are much more common in the real world of poverty than hungry, gluten-free vegans.” — Domnic Pidone, Family of Woodstock, Ellenville, New York
The breakfast soup at Commissary! in New Paltz, New York. Photo by Sam Manzella.

Even local vegan businesses have the interest of patrons who might be down on their luck in mind. Lagusta Yearwood of Lagusta’s Luscious fame, a vegan of 23 years and a professional vegan chef and chocolatier for most of her adult life, offers a “Socialist Sliding Scale Soup” at her New Paltz cafe, Commissary!. Customers can pay however much they want for a bowl of mixed vegetables and noodles in miso broth, which Yearwood calls “the breakfast soup.”

“Originally, I wanted to have everything be sliding scale,” the business owner says. “But in a bougie, middle class town like New Paltz, it gets sort of old because [most] people just pay the suggested price, and then you have to keep asking people what they want to pay.”

Yearwood is honest about the fact that the sliding scale offering is “sort of a bullshit thing.” She’s hopeful, though, that she can help feed people with healthy, hearty vegan meals, even if they only have a few dollars to their name.

“Once in awhile, it works,” Yearwood says. “Maybe that’s all you can ask for.”