If you show up at a random vegan potluck in a random town in the US, is it likely that the vast majority of attendees will be affluent white yuppies? Unfortunately, YES, YES, YES. Let’s see what’s going on here.
Do you have to be rich to be vegan?
Yes and no — there are two separate issues here that often get conflated.
Affordability of plant-based foods and ingredients
It’s understandable that non-vegans think that vegan food is expensive, because often times the vegan food that non-vegans encounter consists of $10 green smoothies, or $15 raw pizzas that can be consumed in three bites. It’s absolutely true that there’s expensive vegan food out there, just as there is expensive non-vegan food. But it’s also possible (and even easy!) to eat cheaply on a vegan diet.
This is because many of the everyday staples of vegan food — like rice, beans, potatoes, pasta, and local veggies — can be bought very cheaply. You can get fancy and still stick to your budget, or you can keep it simple by throwing together a big bowl with rice, beans, fresh or frozen veggies, salsa, and hot sauce. The internet is full of awesome ideas for vegans on a budget.
Despite splurging on things like Miyoko’s vegan cheese, my grocery bill has gone way down since going vegan. Not to mention that the vegan entrée is typically the cheapest item on any restaurant’s menu. Woohoo!
For a deeper dive into this, check out “Is it more expensive to be vegan?”
Access, education, and “bandwidth”
Just because it’s possible to eat really cheaply on a vegan diet, that still doesn’t mean everyone has access to that option. Below are a few reasons why affluent people tend to be overrepresented, and low-income families underrepresented, in the vegan community.
Access: A startling number of areas across the US are plagued by food deserts — places where (primarily low-income) families don’t have access to a nearby grocery store, and instead must resort to fast food or processed food from convenience marts.
Education: Kids receive an average of 3.5 hours, total, of nutrition education in school per year. Meanwhile, the food industry spends $2 billion per year marketing to kids, 73% of which is for junk foods. (More info here.) While there are many great orgs working to correct this imbalance, it’s an uphill battle. Even though many families want to eat better, there aren’t always readily available resources to help with this, and there can be conflicting messages about how to do so.
Bandwidth: If a family is struggling to make ends meet, especially when caregivers are working long hours at multiple minimum-wage jobs, they simply don’t have the bandwidth to carefully assess their food choices — it’s a survival-mode situation.
These are huge, real problems that make veganism inaccessible to many Americans, even though a vegan diet would help relieve or prevent the painful and costly diseases that disproportionally afflict low-income families. But rather than considering this inaccessibility as a critique of veganism, I see it as a critique of how we treat struggling families in our country. We need to implement solutions to eliminate food deserts. Our kids deserve better education about how to grow into healthy adults. And good food should be affordable and easily accessible to working-class families. Whether you’re vegan or not, these are causes we can work together on, to help build better lives for ourselves and for our neighbors.
Do you have to be white to be vegan?
Black vegans do exist
In the US, typically the concern about the obnoxious whiteness of the vegan movement is centered around the lack of blackness specifically, so I’m going to focus on that here.
The concern is well founded. African Americans are underrepresented in many vegan communities, and famous white vegans have made some really bad, racist mistakes. And there are plenty of legitimate criticisms about why the vegan community doesn’t seem welcoming to African Americans.
Thankfully there are many black vegans who have devoted their time, insights, and energy to speaking and writing publicly about the black vegan experience in America, so they deserve your attention on this issue way more than I do. Some good resources to check out are Black Vegans Rock, these thought leaders, and this article.
If you’re looking for a laundry list of African American vegan celebrities, there are a bunch, ranging from civil rights proponents like Coretta Scott King, to lawmakers like Cory Booker, to musicians like Stevie Wonder, to athletes like Venus Williams and an NFL defensive lineman David Carter.
But the fact that the vegan movement is so white is definitely a sign that the movement has a lot of work to do, in terms of becoming more inclusive and incorporating more voices (some great ones to follow here). While this problem unfortunately applies to many progressive movements, we absolutely need to do better and to be more intersectional.
And, of course, the moment black veganism bumps up against ‘mainstream society,’ all hell breaks loose. Just one look at how Colin Kaepernick’s veganism is viewed by the media and the NFL, versus how Tom Brady’s veganism is, illustrates how a black guy eating vegan is deemed by society to be ‘radical’ and ‘dangerous,’ whereas a white guy eating vegan is seen as ‘healthy’ and ‘clean.’ It’s incredibly frustrating, and symptomatic of a much larger problem.
An often-overlooked non-white contingent of the American veg movement are vegetarians and vegans who were raised in Hindu or Buddhist traditions. Not only do these traditions have a lot to teach vegans — with the accrued knowledge from centuries of thinking about, writing about, living with, and cooking for non-meat-eaters — but it’s also really informative to speak with people who grew up in families that adopted vegetarianism as the default, rather than meat-eating as the default.
Of course, even within these cultures there are complicated and multifaceted debates about why we should or shouldn’t eat animals — no group is a monolith. But hearing people discuss these issues who come from different backgrounds and traditions can be really eye-opening. It’s unfortunate that many Americans seem to only get their vegan info from Gwyneth Paltrow lookalikes, when there are so many other diverse viewpoints to learn from.
Is veganism a yuppie fad?
When you see vegans dropping $300 on a three-day, organic, cold-pressed juice cleanse, it’s easy to suspect that this is just a yuppie fad. And plenty of people do adopt veganism for fad-related reasons, like trying to lose weight, and they will likely move on to something else in short order.
But at the same time, many of the reasons that people decide to become vegan are based on deep-seated ethical beliefs that are enduring and important across all demographics. Many vegans see clear ties between the ethical justifications for veganism and the ethical justifications for civil rights, women’s rights, disability rights, and free speech. For many vegans, we think that the world would be a better place if we treated our fellow creatures (human or otherwise) with respect. Not making food choices that unnecessarily harm animals is one small thing we can do every day, in addition to the other causes we advocate for, to work toward that goal.