From both within and outside of the vegan community, it can feel like the standard of what it means to be vegan gets pushed ever higher. Some even argue that vegans shouldn’t dine at non-vegan restaurants, because by supporting them, vegans are funding businesses that profit from animals being killed. Today I explore that idea…
A few years ago when David and I moved back to Iowa, we ran into some folks we hadn’t seen in many years at a mall food court. They were asking how difficult it was to be vegan on the road or here in small town Middle America.
I said that we’d driven across the country from Los Angeles to Iowa twice in the preceding months, taking two totally different routes each time, while we were packing and moving. Both times, we didn’t have any problem finding vegan food while on the road. Before the trip, I made a point of mapping vegetarian restaurants – at least one for each day we were on the road. Plus, along the way there were plenty of grocery stores where we could pick up items for the cooler and have an impromptu picnic.
There was even an instance in Middle of Nowhere, New Mexico, where we came upon a convenience store on a two lane highway with fruit, rice milk, cereal, avocados, chips, and salsa for an (admittedly) weird but filling lunch. (With smart phones and a Happy Cow app, which we didn’t have then, it would have been even easier.)
Then I mentioned how the amount of vegan fare seemed to be picking up all over. As an example, I noted that even in the mall that day a person could easily have a vegan meal at Chipotle just around the corner.
One of the guys, who was eating some kind of mall food court chicken chow mein at the time, chimed in that Chipotle would be problematic for a vegan because it is owned by McDonald’s. (Chipotle actually ended their affiliation with McDonald’s in 2006, when McDonald’s, an original investor in the company, divested. However, it is a common misconception.)
Now, I have no particular allegiance to Chipotle. In all truth, I’ve only eaten there once and that was 6 or 7 years ago. I don’t avoid the business because they’re not vegan. I avoid them because based on that experience, I don’t think the food is particularly interesting. I’m not saying that I would never eat there. It’s just not a place that I seek out.
He continued with something like, “If vegans are going to care about where their food comes from, then it needs to be consistent and not fundamentally supporting that which they disdain.”
While it would be easy to chalk this up to a case of people holding others to a higher and higher standard in an attempt to show hypocrisy, I think there’s more to it than that. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard this argument, and it’s not always from non-vegans and it’s not always about Chipotle. I’ve heard from both vegans and non-vegans that vegans shouldn’t eat at typically vegan unfriendly places like barbecue joints. Some even argue that vegans shouldn’t support any restaurant that’s not vegan, because when a person supports a non-vegan business, they’re supporting a business that profits from animals being killed.
It’s interesting to ponder. Should vegans eat at non-vegan restaurants?
In a few cities, the assertion that vegans should only eat at vegan restaurants would be easily attainable. I have a girlfriend in Los Angeles who only eats at vegan restaurants. Her mindset is that she wants vegan businesses to thrive, and so as a way to ensure those businesses stay afloat and excel, she visits them exclusively. I think it’s terrific that she has that option. She never has to ask a bunch of questions or make special modifications. She has entire menus to choose from and no worries that dairy-based cheese will end up in her quesadilla. That proposition is attractive. (Plus, in the time that I’ve been in Iowa two long-time vegetarian restaurants have started serving meat in the aims of making more money. In our current economy, restaurants are having a tough time of it, especially niche restaurants. It makes sense to support businesses that mirror your values and that you want to do well.)
That said, even if eating exclusively at all-vegan restaurants is doable in Southern California, what about everywhere else? In Iowa there are two vegan restaurants in the entire state. If you throw in vegetarian restaurants, you may hit nine or ten. So it’s possible that a person living in Iowa is several hours away from a vegetarian or vegan restaurant. Does that mean that they can never go to a friend’s birthday gathering at the local sushi joint or business lunch at the Mediterranean place?
One thing that can keep people from even considering veganism is that they worry about becoming a social pariah. Food is a major part of our social dynamic. Friends meet for lunch, celebrate at restaurants, grab a meal after church… And it’s not always the vegan who is choosing the restaurant. Of course, I advocate for vegans to speak up when meeting with friends and to offer suggestions for a place that will have satisfying options. (Obviously a falafel shop or curry place are going to be more enticing than a steakhouse.) However, there are going to be times when it’s your nephew’s birthday, and he’s going to pick his favorite restaurant, and it may well not be the Thai place with the spicy basil rice noodle dish. Sometimes there will be an office party at a T.G.I. Fridays or Chili’s.
Another choice for a vegan without access to vegan restaurants would be to never eat at restaurants and only cook at home. Let’s put aside for a second how isolating that would be and ask ourselves first is that a “purer” choice? Does that mean that person can only shop at vegan grocery stores too, because obviously most grocery stores also have animal products for sale? Vegan grocery stores do exist, but they are an even rarer commodity than vegan restaurants (and they tend to be located in vegan meccas anyway).
And at those vegan grocery stores, do they only sell products from exclusively vegan companies? I was at Viva La Vegan recently, a vegan grocery store in Santa Monica, and they had my favorite chips from Garden of Eatin’. (I love their Pico de Gallo flavor.) However, Garden of Eatin’ isn’t a vegan company. They make non-vegan chips too. So if a person thinks that vegans should only eat at vegan restaurants, isn’t it equally problematic to buy products from non-vegan companies?
The person could just shop at the farmer’s market… However, those aren’t always available year ‘round, and many fruit and vegetable sellers also sell animal products. In the summer I buy 80% of my food from the farmer’s market, but the majority of the farmers there don’t exclusively sell vegan products.
And wait, what about those vegan restaurants? Where are they getting their food? Solely from vegan farmers?
And outside of food, what if that person goes to the store to buy a sweater? If the store also sells sweaters made with wool or with leather patches on the elbows, do they have to leave and go to a different store with only vegan clothing?
In this non-vegan world in which we live, if the goal is a path to purity, it is riddled with obstacles.
The goal to me is not to get a gold star for purity. It is to save lives. And which one saves more? Making veganism more and more exclusive, and limiting, with an ever-expanding aim of finding the purest choice for everyday minutiae? Or trying to create a world in which veganism is easy and attainable? We have to ask ourselves…
Are animals saved by overwhelming people with the idea that they could never be vegan enough?
While I totally support the idea of putting your money where your values are, supporting vegan businesses and helping them to thrive, there is something to be said for visiting non-vegan businesses in the hopes that they will expand and improve their vegan offerings. I think it’s good to vote with your dollars and show non-vegan businesses that there is a demand for delicious cruelty-free fare. Then who knows? If vegan options become commonplace everywhere else in the way they are in cities like Portland, New York City, and Los Angeles, maybe people in towns like Pella or Pleasant Hill will find it just as attainable to entertain the idea of going vegan.
My point to all of this is that if there’s anything that we’ve learned from the internet it’s that no matter who you are and no matter what you do, there will simultaneously always be someone out there to whom your actions are too much and someone to whom your actions are not enough. Some will think I’m too much by being vegan at all. Some will think I’m not vegan enough by supporting non-vegan restaurants. Knowing that criticism exists, there are those who would view that as stifling. I view it as freeing. If I know that no matter what I do there will be critics, I may as well live my truth.
*The main photo above was taken at Doomies, a vegan restaurant in Los Angeles. It is a cruelty-free take on the Big Mac from their secret menu.