“You’re such a picky eater! I never would’ve guessed — you’re pretty easy going.” I smile half-heartedly at my friend and then glance down at my meal — a Wendy’s side salad, a bag of apple slices and some fries I’d snagged from him — literally the only vegetarian option I could find at Wendy’s. I left the restaurant feeling unsatisfied and annoyed, but also unsurprised. I mean, it’s Wendy’s.
In the United States, meat-free meal options at restaurants are an afterthought at best and often nonexistent. Our meals are generally centered around meat. A meatless meal might even feel incomplete. This is not a worldwide phenomenon by any means. When I was young, some friends from China visited my home and ate dinner with my family. As this was their first time in America, they stared with wide eyes at the slabs of steak on their plates. In Chinese cuisine, meat is generally chopped up and added in small amounts to dishes to make them more flavorful. They went to bed that night with upset stomachs and a peek into American culture.
Entrée and meat have become somewhat synonymous to most of America. This has resulted in the idea that vegetarians are picky eaters, that they can’t possibly be getting their required nutrients and, thanks to fast food, that vegetarianism is an upper class privilege. Thanks to our government’s huge subsidies towards meat and dairy, and the boom of fast food establishments since the 1950s, meat is cheap, widely-available and culturally-expected.
We all know about the link drawn between the fast food industry and the boom in obesity and the spike in heart disease. Maybe some of us have even watched the documentary Food, Inc. But, these food-related problems are not merely dilemmas, or even epidemics; they are culturally ingrained realities. So how can we make a change? Can eating consciously ever be mainstream? Can it ever even be affordable?
Bill Stinson, a Williamstown local, owns and runs Peace Valley Farm with his wife, Susie. I was fortunate enough to spend some time with him in his fields on Saturday during the Great Day of Service. Despite the fact that bees are dying at an alarming rate and his crop is only a fraction of what it should be, we spent hours harvesting. On my knees, in the soil, rooting around for fingerling potatoes, I listened over my shoulder while Bill chatted with another student. I came to learn that Bill has lived on and worked this land for over 30 years. In fact, his daughter was even married there. He feels a connection to his land and his food that most of us will never experience.
I imagined the satisfaction I would feel if I took those very same mud-covered potatoes that I held in my hands, washed them in my sink, boiled them on my stove and ate them with my family. I then thought back to those French fries at Wendy’s, and my stomach turned. One of the students digging next to me joked, “Sometimes I forget our food actually comes from the ground!” I laughed until I realized how far removed those French fries are from these potatoes. It’s an easy connection to forget, and his joke is not uncommon.
I once explained the reasoning behind my vegetarianism to someone, and she said, “but I mean … why don’t you eat chicken? I mean I know it’s an animal, but it’s not an actual bird! You know, like a bird-bird.” The repetition seemed to mean something to her, maybe a veiled reference to The Trashmen’s song, “Surfin’ Bird,“ but I hope she has since realized that chickens are, in fact, birds. Jokes aside, she demonstrated that same lack of connection to her food that is prevalent in many Americans. Unfortunately, people like Bill are few and far between, and the idea that chickens are not bird-birds is frighteningly common.
I don’t have a solution to this problem. I don’t think anyone does. Vegetarianism has become somewhat trendy in certain circles, but trends aren’t what we need. We need a new collective mindset towards our food. We need to care about what goes into our bodies — whether it’s sustainably and ethically produced meat or Bill’s organic veggies. I’m not saying that we all need to be vegetarians and organic farmers, or even that we need to stop those late night snack bar runs. We just need to think about what we’re eating.
Grace Murray ’20 is from Lawrence Township, N.J. She lives in Sage.