“Vegetarianism is a choice of the wealthy”
Recently I was part of a clergy group that was eating dinner together at a community space. Our hosts were a group that provides a monthly free meal in that community space to those experiencing homelessness. The hosts were used to providing a meal for a crowd, so feeding a group of clergy was easy for them—with one exception, which the head chef shared with us:
The meal tonight is the same as what we serve the homeless with one exception: the vegetarian entrees. There are no vegetarian homeless people. Vegetarianism is a choice of the wealthy. When you are homeless, you eat what you are given. You can’t afford to be picky. So we are happy to serve vegetarian meals to you tonight, but know we don’t offer it usually because vegetarianism is a choice of the wealthy. Think about that.
The meal was great and the service was terrific. The community is blessed by those serving and those willing hearts who donate time and food to it.
But I couldn’t get that off-the-cuff comment out of my head. And I wondered if other community meals had the same sentiment.
Serving Vegetarian meals to those experiencing homelessness
My local church has a longtime program called Shared Breakfast, serving around 300 hot meals every Sunday—over 15,000 plates each year. It is a crazy efficient operation funded entirely by donations, with 20 volunteers each Sunday—some there from kitchen prep at 6:30am to cleanup at 9:30am. The breakfast is plated and served to each person. If you are in the Seattle area, click here to volunteer or to donate.
So I asked our leaders if any of the breakfast guests (which includes both homeless and housing vulnerable persons) requested vegetarian plates. What I learned was that a small but consistent percentage of meals on a given Sunday are requested to be vegetarian. By replacing the sausage and gravy, typically the hot plate is eggs, biscuit, jelly, cold cereal or oatmeal, coffee and orange juice. Other donations of fruit or extras round out the plates.
How many plates? A volunteer replied:
I would guess that there is somewhere between 10-25 hot plates that are requested to be vegetarian on any given Sunday of 250-340 people that come through.
Others concurred and pointed out that number doesn’t include those who do not request vegetarian plates—but nonetheless eat only the vegetarian portions.
So around 5-10% of a free community meal for the homeless and hungry chooses to eat vegetarian. I doubt any of them would consider themselves to be wealthy.
Privileged Barriers to Vegetarian Diets
While in the Eastern and Southern Hemisphere vegetarian diets are commonplace, in the Western majority culture, vegetarian diets are not as socially encouraged. Meat is mass-produced, marketed, and widely available—and animal agriculture receives enormous government subsidies—-so it makes sense that people would assume that meat is standard and meatless is a glamour choice.
It is true that the wealthy can choose to be vegetarian easier than those who are not wealthy due to some vegetarian specialties costing higher than a McDonalds meal.
But privilege is more than money. Vegetarian diets are often inaccessible to socially marginalized persons because:
- Urban food deserts mean healthy, fresh non-processed food are not found in all communities without driving (which requires a car)
- Part time workers who work multiple jobs often have longer commutes and thus less time to cook healthy meals at home. Feeding a family at Wendy’s takes 15 minutes.
- Having the awareness and taking the time to take stock of vitamin supplements (such as Iron, Calcium, B12, etc) to ensure a vegetarian diet is fully sustainable are not as commonplace (even among meat-eaters, who don’t have to know them because they get them automatically with their meat).
So it is true that with privilege comes an ease in the barriers to a vegetarian diet—but it is also true that those with privilege can use their privilege to get more accessibility to vegetarian diets to an entire community.
Supporting Vegetarian Diets in Homeless/Hungry Ministries
If a church or non-profit wants to provide vegetarian meals and support vegetarian diets in their community, here’s some ideas to especially help those who are housing vulnerable, homeless, or hungry.
- Plant and maintain community gardens to provide fresh fruits and veggies to the local community, especially ones that don’t have a supermarket in their urban area.
- Fundraise and supplement membership fees for CSAs or food co-ops so that families or community housings have regular access to vegetables and fruits.
- Provide Education on quick, inexpensive meals and what options provide a complete protein. Even a flyer on a served meal table or in a food bag can be helpful. Enlist a dietician’s help!
- Advertise, provide, and serve vegetarian plates at free community meals so that people who are vegetarian know they are welcome at community gatherings and they won’t just have leftovers or salad.
Vegetarianism is a choice. But the refusal of social services to provide vegetarian meals is also a choice. I bet if the vegetarian meals were offered, you’d find a lot more vegetarians in your breadlines and in your free community meals.
Offering such hospitality to honor a person’s dignity—rather than merely satisfy a need—is a mark of the mission to which we are called.
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