Last month GW participated in “The Great American Meatout,” a day-long celebration of all things vegetable in which several J Street stations abandoned meat in favor of vegetarian and vegan dishes, while Provisions doled out samples of meatless treats. Many students could be overheard grumbling about the lack of cheesesteaks and chicken Caesar salads, rolling their eyes and wondering aloud, ‘Who eats this veggie stuff, anyway?’
Good question. Kitchens across the nation have slung out fast cheap slabs of meat for so long that the cheeseburger is a national icon, a kind of dietary solidarity. Television tells us that beef is “what’s for dinner.” It’s so deeply tied into the national consciousness that even with the threat of bovine hormone treatments, mad cow disease, and e. coli poisoning lurking behind every steak, meat consumption continues. Walk into any food court and the burger is still king. So if cheeseburgers are as popular as ever, then what’s with this “meatout” nonsense?
According to a recent study by Time magazine, 10 million Americans are practicing vegetarians and another 20 million have experimented with it. Vegetarian restaurants and activist groups are popping up all over the country. Even Burger King, a company that got to where it is today exclusively by peddling animal flesh, has tapped into the trend by becoming the first national fast food chain to sell veggie burgers. For a growing number of people, the meatout was just like every other day.
If steak is as great as everyone else says, though, then what makes a person give it up for a life filled with eggplant and tofu? The response depends on who’s answering; vegetarians are diverse group, filled with sub-divisions and disagreements.
“I decided to (become a vegetarian) with a friend of mine because we were having an argument about sport hunting and environment issues with her parents’ friend,” said junior Hannah Lemon, who has been a vegetarian for seven years. “He said, ‘well, you guys still eat meat,’ and we made a pact that night to stop.”
Lemon said certain favorite foods were hard to give up, such as turkey chili, and that a lot of restaurants still do not have many vegetarian options
Many vegetarians embrace the meatless life out of a love for animals, preferring to think of their eating habits as embracing a “non-violent diet,” forgoing all animal flesh for the animals’ sake.
“I became a vegetarian because, first of all, I didn’t like meat that much, I didn’t like the way it tasted, but I also couldn’t conceptualize eating the flesh of an animal for ethical reasons,” said freshman Charlie Morris, who has been a vegetarian for over eight years.
On the extreme end of that spectrum are vegans, who, like many other vegetarians, are incensed by the way farm animals are treated, but take their beliefs one step further. Vegans do not eat any meat, cheese, milk, or any other dairy products. They do not wear wool, leather, silk or any other material that comes from an animal. Some won’t even eat honey, because it too is technically an animal-made product.
“I actually tried to go vegan for a little while,” Lemon said. “Because I became a vegetarian for environmental and cruelty/exploitation issues and those issues don’t change with eggs and dairy.”
Lemon said she thinks it is a really impressive decision to go vegan, partially because it is so difficult to do so.
“It’s just really hard because I don’t think people realize how much animal product (are found in various food items),” Lemon said, noting that she found herself eating only sushi and fries. “I couldn’t even find bread that didn’t have dairy.”
Then there are the “pesco-pollo vegetarians,” walking contradictions of the veggie world who don’t eat flesh unless it comes from a fish or a bird. Pesco-pollo vegetarians (pesco= fish, pollo=poultry) typically adopt their dietary taboos for health reasons, because fish and chicken have less saturated fat than beef or pork.
“I really dislike when people claim that they are vegetarians and then eat fish and chicken,” Morris said. “You can’t call yourself a vegetarian if you eat flesh.”
Whether or not pesco-pollo vegetarians count among the veggie-elect, they share the health consciousness that drives much of the vegetarian movement. Vegetarians often claim they live longer, have healthier hearts and consume fewer chemicals, all of which goes into consideration when deciding to stop eating meat.
“I am not really comfortable with the idea of eating foods that contain tons of chemicals that (the farmers) don’t even report about,” Morris said. “The health reason wasn’t my priority, but I definitely think that being a knowledgeable vegetarian can provide you with a much healthier lifestyle than eating meat all the time.”
While it has long been touted as healthier lifestyle, vegetarianism is not a dietary magic bullet. It can be easy to resort to bread, cheese and pasta while ignoring healthier veggie options.
“It is easy to be a vegetarian and eat tons of carbohydrates, but you have to work a little bit harder to diversify your diet and get everything you need,” Morris said. He also noted that it isn’t hard to get protein, which is found in soy products, nuts and beans.
“I want to debunk the protein myth,” he said, referring to the long standing complaint among meat eaters that they have to eat meat to get enough protein to stay healthy.
Being a successful vegetarian means paying attention to one’s diet, otherwise vitamin deficiencies and carbohydrate overloads can frustrate hopes of a healthier lifestyle.
“Vegetarians are not necessarily healthier than meat eaters. It’s better to be a meat eater who eats intelligently than a vegetarian who makes poor choices … the trick to eat balanced foods, to make sure you get all the different vitamins,” said Jeannie Williams, the Assistant Director of Wellness and Fitness at the GW Health and Wellness Center.
Williams said that vegetarians should research their nutritional needs and make “smart choices” when it comes to eating to ensure that they receive the appropriate amount of calcium, iron, vitamin B12 and other vitamins that some vegetarians may sometimes not get enough of.
“I think that to be a healthy vegetarian, or non-vegetarian, you have to learn about what your body needs,” said Lemon, who gets most of her protein from beans and soy. “(Being a vegetarian) makes you more aware of what you’re eating.”
GW is no different than any other community in this respect, its vegetarians proving to be a diverse group, with many different concerns. These conflicting views have had a direct impact on Duane Riley, a man who might not be a vegetarian himself, but who deals with them everyday.
Riley works at the “Veggie Virtuoso” station at J Street. He has stood there, tucked between Taco Bell and Bene Pizza, for two years, serving vegetarian food with a smile. When given a choice of work stations, Riley chose the veggie stand, citing it’s healthfulness and freshness, and has since seen it through four major overhauls, with a possible fifth in the works.
“Everything you see here, it’s here because the students ask for it. They say what they want and we change to fit that,” Riley said. The stand began with a rotating menu of vegetarian dishes including salads, pastas and macaroni and cheese that Riley cooked himself. Then one day it began serving nothing but Caesar salads, even offering meat for those who wanted it. The stand eventually went back to its roots serving a set menu of vegetarian foods, and eventually re-incorporated rotating dishes, though Riley no longer does the cooking.
Riley estimated roughly half of the students who buy food from the Veggie Virtuoso are regular customers, with chili and loaded baked potatoes being the most popular items. That isn’t to say to the stand is busy – there’s almost never a line – or that primarily vegetarians eat there. Most of its patrons just like the food or think that Caesar salads and loaded baked potatoes are healthy. In response, Dining Services is currently targeting veggie patrons with surveys, trying once again to peg down what it is students want out of their vegetarian location.
Despite the perpetual lack of a crowd, Riley isn’t worried the next round of evaluations will shut down his stand. “Even if there were only three (vegetarians) on campus,” he said with a smile, “they’d still keep it open. You guys gotta eat somewhere.”
There are many reasons why people choose to give up meat and the growing popularity of vegetarian eating has boosted the health food movement and become an option for a healthier lifestyle.
“More and more, vegetarianism has become a trend and a way to live healthier,” Lemon said. “I think that’s a positive thing.”