Breaking Vegetarian: The Privilege of Ethical Eating

Paste's column on eating meat mindfully

Food Features Vegetarian

A few months ago, I wrote about how to eat ethically on a budget, and since then, I’ve been bothered by the sense that I didn’t address something as fully as I would have liked to: the privilege inherent in being able to make the decisions detailed in that piece. Eating ethically without breaking the bank is possible, but it often requires visiting multiple different locations for different parts of your grocery list, or spending time learning how to work with whatever new ingredients were on sale that week.

The reality of our current American food landscape is that not everyone can afford to do that.

There’s a reason why vegetarians, organic food consumers, or customers of Trader Joe’s have a cultural reputation for being rich and white: there are significant barriers to access for fresh, local, and healthy food, and many of those barriers disproportionately affect low-income populations and racial minorities.

Recent research conducted at the Harvard School for public health found that eating a healthy diet—one rich in fruits, vegetables, fish, and nuts—costs more than eating primarily processed foods and meats. The researchers note that this added cost isn’t arbitrary, but a result of food policies that have focused on “inexpensive, high volume” food production, and a national infrastructure that “favors sales of highly processed food products for maximal industry profit.” The increased cost is compounded when you include sustainable or ethical food in the mix: organic produce is priced higher than conventional, and hormone-free, grass-fed steaks cost more than their factory-farmed counterparts. But the problem isn’t only that healthy food costs more; it’s also that healthy food is much more difficult to acquire.

“It’s a common misconception that low-income people don’t care about their diets,” says Harmony Cox, program manager for Columbus, Ohio’s Fresh Foods Here initiative, “but the truth is that food access can be very difficult for a typical low-income individual.”

Perhaps the most well-known barrier to healthy, sustainable eating is the food desert phenomenon. In recent years, food deserts have become a recognized problem, and thought there are many municipalities addressing the issue, the problem remains. Getting fresh, healthy food can be very difficult, depending on your neighborhood.

For urban residents who rely on public transportation, or who live in areas where temperatures drop below freezing during the winter months, even a mile may be too far to walk or ride the bus for groceries.

Liz Clift, a volunteer with Denver Food Rescue’s No-Cost Grocery Program, sums up the problem, saying, “where in the country a person lives—in many areas, both urban and rural—access to healthy, local, fresh, and sustainably grown foods is simply not an option because of limits to what can be produced in the region and what store(s) are available.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines a food desert as a city or urban tract more than a mile from a grocery store, or more than ten miles for a rural area, and in which more than 20 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Based on those standards alone, The USDA’s Economic Research Service estimates that 23.5 million people live in food deserts, and more than half of those people are low-income.

But those numbers alone don’t fully represent the issue of local access to healthy food. Access to transportation, the availability of fringe food options, and the racial profiling of low-income neighborhoods all undermine access to fresh, healthy food. A mile may not seem that far for someone who lives in a suburban area, or who owns a car. But for urban residents who rely on public transportation, or who live in areas where temperatures drop below freezing during the winter months, even a mile may be too far to walk or ride the bus for groceries.

Over the last 50 years or so, grocery stores in the United States have gotten exponentially larger, and have trended towards big-box discount models, rather than neighborhood convenience store models. In addition, store owners are often concerned with the perception of a neighborhood’s crime rate, as it impacts their insurance rates and economic viability; as a result, corporate owners tend not to build stores in communities of color.

Clift notes that “smaller stores may not be able to feasibly meet the minimum order requirements of major food distributors, and therefore will not be able to stock as much, in terms of both quantity and variety, fresh food.”

Compounding the problem of limited access to groceries is the fact that many food deserts do include access to food—it’s just not high-quality or healthy. Food options in low-income neighborhoods may come from gas stations, liquor stores, pharmacies, and fast food restaurants, that sell ready-made, boxed, canned, and other types of food products that have long shelf lives and low nutritional value.

The grocery store trend away from mom-and-pop corner stores also means that the convenience stores and bodegas located in food deserts must charge more for their food; according to the USDA, groceries sold in food deserts cost an average of 10 percent more than groceries sold in suburban markets.

Low-income communities, urban neighborhoods, and populations of color also face a slew of other barriers to access, including, according to Clift “disability, ankle bracelet monitoring that limits how far from your home you can travel, and restrictions—including what may be purchased, and barriers to enrollment — to the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP).”


Decades of experience struggling to find healthy food, or not being able to afford food at all, means that low-income and food desert populations also face more abstract hurdles, including time, food literacy, and cultural stigma, when trying to access sustainably-grown options.

Decades of experience struggling to find healthy food, or not being able to afford food at all, means that low-income and food desert populations also face more abstract hurdles, including time, food literacy, and cultural stigma, when trying to access sustainably-grown options. According to Cox, in areas where healthy food access has been limited for so long, “residents may not retain knowledge of how to prepare those foods or include them in their diet regularly.” Simply making healthy food more widely available, then, won’t be enough. We need community and school-based workshops to help families learn to cook with new ingredients, and to learn how to do so with limited kitchen space, culinary resources, and little cooking time.

Moreover, we need to shift the focus of the cultural conversation regarding food choices; rather than blaming low-income communities or populations of color for their lack of access, we need to see this as indicative of the institutional influence of large agricultural corporations on national food policies. “Low-income people,” Cox says, “bear a lot of judgment because they’re perceived as not trying to access healthy food, but we don’t currently have a food system in place that allows equitable access to begin with.” As a result, blame remains unfairly on those whose food choices are limited, and that blame translates into yet another barrier to accessing healthy food. With such pervasive cultural shame associated with any kind of government assistance, Cox says, “clients of [programs such as SNAP] face judgment when they try to use their benefits to purchase more expensive foods, even if those foods are ultimately healthy choices.”

The impact of this shame is significant. “It can genuinely prevent shoppers from going to retail establishments outside of their neighborhood when they don’t feel welcome.” Misunderstandings and stigma associated with using SNAP benefits at farmers’ markets may cause low-income families to choose to shop at convenience stores, where it is easier or more socially acceptable to spend those food dollars.

All of these barriers, when added together, can seem insurmountable, and it’s important that food advocates do the work to truly understand the complex puzzle many people face when making food choices.

Cox paints a picture like this:

Think about the food access scenario from the point of view of a single mom who has a low-income family struggling to make ends meet. If you earn minimum wage, it takes over 90 hours of work a week to meet your basic needs. That’s two full time jobs. If you live in a neighborhood that doesn’t have a full-service grocery store and you can’t make it to the community garden, it takes a special trip outside of the neighborhood every time you want to access fresh, local food. That’s transportation you have to line up, kids that need to be watched or brought with you on an errand, and facing real or perceived shame or stigma when you buy food that isn’t ‘for you.’ And that trip needs to take place around your job and everything else you need to do to take care of yourself and your family. You know that fresh local foods are the best healthy option for you, but accessing them is expensive, time-consuming, and difficult. There’s a McDonalds down the block where you can buy dinner for the entire family for $10. What are you going to do?

Fresh, healthy food shouldn’t be a luxury; food is fuel, and it impacts every other corner of a person’s life. Food makes us capable of being more productive, in our schools, jobs, and communities. Giselle Fetterman, founder of the Braddock Freestore, and co-founder of 412 Food Rescue articulated these connections in a recent interview, saying, “When kids are hungry, they have a hard time focusing in school. When they can’t focus, their grades slip, they get into trouble. But food is at the heart of the problem.”

According to a 2011 report from the Center for American Progress, hunger costs the United States more than $165 billion a year in unnecessary healthcare costs and undermined lifetime earnings from poor education outcomes. It’s easy to see how being full of healthy food improves mood, which may also reduce criminal activity and drug use.

A recent Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article on food deserts by Melissa McCart puts it simply: “When people are hungry, the city suffers.”


Ethical eaters, Cox says, should also be concerned about the impact lack of access can have on their local food economy: “A food system that does’t support access to low to moderate-income folks means that two out of ten Ohioans are cut out of the consumer market right off the bat. That should be concerning to local food advocates for the long-term sustainability of local, sustainable agriculture.”

As always, the first thing ethical eaters should try to do is vote with their forks. By shopping for local, fresh, sustainable produce at our farmers’ markets, and signing up for CSAs, we help make those markets, those foods, and those distribution models more viable. We help drive costs down, which benefits our entire community. Find out what local food producers support increased food access—in Denver, for instance, the non-profit indoor farm The Growhaus runs community education workshops on cooking and growing produce, and offers a free food distribution model. Shopping at a local farm like this one does double-duty, in that you are supporting a local food producer, and all the advocacy work they do.

But in addition to how we eat and shop, we can also spend time working in our communities to learn the food landscape, and change it. Food rescue programs are springing up all over the country, and can work broadly in many different sized cities and neighborhoods, but they require food donations, financial donations, and volunteers to work. Donating a few hours of your time a month to help deliver rescued food is just one way to make a hands-on impact in your immediate community. If your community sustains urban or school gardens, volunteer to maintain the garden, help with harvest, or educate young people on how to grow their own food, or learn to cook what they grow.

Finally, we can advocate, both within our communities, and on the national level, for changes to problematic food policies. Learn how SNAP recipients can use their benefits at farmers’ markets in your region; in many regions, benefits are doubled at markets, to encourage recipients to spend their food dollars on fresh, local food, and you can advocate for legislation that makes this possible in your neighborhood.

At the national level, Clift says, “[we] can insist on legislation that puts healthy food options in schools.” In addition, we need national policies that help support free or low-cost food rescue programs, like legislation recently passed in France that makes it illegal to throw away edible produce (thereby incentivizing large-scale donations).

Cox says that the most important thing food advocates can do is “fight stigma against low-income people when they try to engage with the food system,” and reminds even us food advocates that “the question of food access for low-income people is more complicated that it initially appears.” More than anything, we need a country of eaters demonstrating that we care about what we eat, and what our neighbors can afford to eat, too.

Marissa Landrigan’s work has appeared in The Atlantic, Creative Nonfiction, Orion, Guernica, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She received her MFA in Creative Writing and Environment from Iowa State University, where she completed a food memoir titled “The Vegetarian’s Guide to Eating Meat.” She currently lives in western Pennsylvania, where she runs the food-themed reading series Acquired Taste, and teaches writing at the University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown.

Bus stop photo by Tony Webster CC BY
Community garden photo by Charles Roper BY
Main photo by Alameda County Commununity Food Bank BY-ND

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