“I’d totally be vegetarian, but I like hamburgers too much.”

How often have you heard someone say something like the sentence above?  I know that I’ve said it in the past and that I’m not alone.

Being vegetarian means that meat or animal protein is not included in your diet.  Being vegan is the same thing, but takes things a step further and does not include animal by-products such as eggs, cow’s milk and even honey.  But why should we consider a vegetarian or a vegan diet for ourselves?  And if we do decide that this is a change that we want to make, how do we go about making those changes and making those choices stick?

Why Do Some People Decide To Be Vegetarian/Vegan?

Sarah Larsen, ‘17, a Secondary Education Major, has been a vegetarian for three years, ever since she went through her TRW class which had the theme of Food Ethics that she and her classmates spent the semester exploring.  In that class, they read a book called Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer which is his exploration of how we treat the animals in our lives, whether we raise them to eat, to be our companions or for conservation.  He also explores the same question of whether or not it is ethical to eat meat, which became extremely important to him in light of becoming a father for the first time.

“We spent the whole semester talking about, ‘Is it ethical to eat meat?’  I went in thinking, ‘Yeah, it is!’ and I left thinking, ‘No it’s not,’” said Larsen.

Larsen tried being a vegetarian on the condition that if she got sick or if she found that she was struggling to keep up with a vegetarian lifestyle, she would drop it.  She hasn’t eaten meat since.

Emily West, a professor in the Classics Department, loves animals, but was also experiencing a number of health problems that made it difficult for her to operate in her day-to-day life.  At one point her health problems were so severe that she thought she would need to leave her teaching post at St. Kate’s.  She gradually changed her diet to be vegetarian in 1990 and later transitioned to being full vegan in 2008.  She found that her health problems dramatically decreased within four months of being vegan.  She was shocked that such a simple change could have results like this.

Emily West, Philosophy Professor.
Emily West, Philosophy Professor.

Jeff Johnson, a professor in the Philosophy Department, was preparing to teach an ethics course and decided that he wanted that course to have a section on animal ethics.  He began his research and what he found was absolutely shocking.  He was watching undercover footage from factory farms and he even called a local Minnesota farm that was responsible for producing eggs and questioned them.

He talked about how animals like cows, chickens, pigs and other animals that we typically use as food are able to live much longer than their lives are now.  Cows and pigs can live as long as 20 years, but cows that are raised for the purpose of becoming the meat we eat is killed after about a year while pigs are killed after about five months.  Chickens can live between seven and 14 years but are killed after one and a half months because the breed we typically use for chicken is meant to become the chicken breast, wings or thighs that we like to eat for dinner.

The way we treat animals, especially in the U.S., is appalling.  Jeff Johnson described how animals in factory farms are given too little space, have parts of their bodies cut off to prevent damage to other animals without the use of painkillers, cows are artificially inseminated over and over again and calves are taken from their mothers very soon after birth so that we can have the milk the mother produces that we put on our cereal in the morning. If you consider just the animals that are used for food and not the animals that are tested on in labs or are euthanized when they can’t find a forever home, nine billion land animals die every year in the U.S. alone.

“It’s one thing to read about [how animals in factory farms are treated] and it’s another thing to see it actually happening.  It just broke my heart when I saw this,” said Johnson when he described what it was like to watch the undercover footage.

Johnson was a vegetarian for two or three days before deciding that it was better for him to become vegan.

What Are Some Of The Benefits To Being Vegetarian/Vegan?

“I found a really great community,” said Larsen.

She is Vice President of Advocating for Animals (AFA) on campus.  They work on educating others about how animals are treated in factory farms.  In the past, they have worked with Sodexo is trying to provide more vegetarian and vegan-friendly options in the cafeteria.  She also has a group that she cooks vegan-friendly dishes with during the week.  They all take a night and cook for everyone else in the group.

Sarah Larsen at a bake sale for AFA.
Sarah Larsen at a bake sale for AFA.

Larsen has also commented that cooking vegetarian food tends to be cheaper than eating food with meat or animal by-products.  A pound of beef can cost $4-$6 but a can of beans can be as little as $1-$2.  Both have a lot of the protein that you need to have a healthy diet, whether you’re vegan, vegetarian or an omnivore.

“I feel like I’m living in a way that more closely aligns with my values.  I really value compassion and kindness,” said Johnson.

Johnson also says that becoming vegan and thinking about the food that he’s eating has challenged him to think about other ways he has an impact on the environment.

Both Johnson and West have commented that their health has improved.  By eating healthier and in part by becoming vegan, Johnson’s cholesterol has decreased from above normal to well below normal.  West has experienced less pain and an increase in energy.

You’re also supporting less environmentally impactful practices by becoming vegan or vegetarian.  West says that 65% of the crops that we grow go towards feeding the animals that we eat.  If we didn’t have to grow as many crops in order to feed the animals that we will ultimately eat, we could conserve water and be able to feed more people.  It takes less land to grow the plants that go into our plant-based foods compared to raising chickens or cows who need the land that grows their food and also the land that they live on.

What Are Some Challenges To Being Vegetarian/Vegan?

“I think people automatically assume that I’m going to judge the if they’re not vegetarian,” said Larsen.  “But that’s not true.  I mean, I can tell you what’s best for the animals and what’s best for the environment and what’s best for me, but what I can’t tell you is what’s best for you.  Only you can do that.”

Sometimes other people will assume that Larsen is going to try and convince them to be vegetarian, so she has to tell them that that’s not the case.

As far as eating on campus goes, being vegetarian isn’t so difficult, but being vegan with a meal plan is really hard.  You’re not just looking to see which foods have meat and which don’t, but you’re also looking for other ingredients.  Milk is in a surprising number of food products, even vegetarian options.  The good news is that AFA is working with Sodexo to provide more vegan and vegetarian options for students.

Next Steps?
Over Spring Break, I will be trying to eat vegetarian or vegan meals.  Larsen, West, and Johnson have given advice and suggested resources for those who are interested in giving vegetarianism and veganism a try.  In part two of this story, I will be applying their advice and trying their resources.

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