When I’m talking to meat eaters about veganism, either in an actual outreach scenario like tabling at an event, or in simple conversation with someone through work or a party or whatever, I often hear this:
“Yeah, I thought about trying that, but it’s way too expensive.”
This isn’t just a meat-eating misconception either: if you’re a vegan who thinks that you’re spending too much on food, you’re a vegan who’s at risk of saying “screw it, I can’t afford to be this awesome.” Sure, dried beans and rice are super cheap, but I don’t know very many people who purposely try to eat as cheaply as possible, so I thought it’d be a good idea to go over the three main areas where people in general think a vegan diet costs more than a “normal” North American diet.
Like I said, there are three main areas where people get this idea of the cost of veganism, and these are based on discussions I’ve had over the past 15 years or so. You might have had different discussions, so if you have other ideas, please share them in the comments!
This is a little messed up when you get into it: I haven’t done the math, but I’m going to put forth that there are a massive number of items in the average grocery store that are vegan. I’ll even submit that maybe 80% of them are vegetarian (I’m guessing there are more dairy-containing products than meaty ones, actually.)
And yet, most grocery stores I go to have a section where most of the mock meats tend to gather, and that section might even be labeled “vegetarian,” so lo and behold, that’s clearly what vegans and vegetarians eat. If you want to go vegan, therefore, you “have to” eat a ton of packaged, processed, expensive food – veggie burgers, veggie dogs, mock chicken, fake cheese, and so on.
Before I go further, let’s just point out the obvious – you don’t have to eat any mock meats, and while most people I know at a fair bit out of convenience, it’s really best to think of these as transition foods to make going vegan easier, as well as events like barbecues and picnics in a mixed meat and veg diet setting.
But anyway, I did a bit of research, and it turns out that in Canada, anyway, packaged vegan products are often cheaper than their meat equivalents. If you’re in another country, I’d love to hear your results (please actually check, don’t just assume,) but here, a box of frozen chicken breasts is a buck or two more expensive than the Gardein-based version, and the same goes for chicken nuggets. Even sandwich fillers (cold cuts and their alternatives) seemed to be about even.
Where meat tends to be cheaper is in the hot dog and burger department, and let’s face it – it’s hard to compete with what’s essentially a waste product like the typical hot dog.
When it comes to mock meats, here’s the deal: a lot of them are cheaper, we don’t have to eat them to keep our “membership card,” and despite the ruts we find ourselves in sometimes, they probably shouldn’t form the majority of any balanced diet anyway.
Another easy way to believe veganism is more expensive is at the fast food counter. I don’t know what it’s like in your neighbourhood, but I can’t walk more than a block or two without seeing a billboard for some ridiculously cheap beef or chicken product from McDonalds or some other fast food chain.
Even if these chains offer vegan options, like a veggie burger or a salad, odds are that they’re not going to be the cheapest item on the menu.
You know what? I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. Maybe the film Supersize Me really struck a chord with me, but eating fast food on a regular basis is putting price, convenience, and yes, flavour ahead of good nutritional sense. That might sound like a no-brainer in favour of fast food the way I’ve written it, but in the bigger picture sense, that’s like saying you can get a lot more done and have more fun if you never, ever sleep. Your body really can’t handle that kind of treatment in the long term.
It really sucks that really cheap fast food is almost an economic necessity in some people’s lives, and there’ve been studies linking poverty to obesity for just this reason (here’s one about energy density: junk food has more calories per dollar than whole food, among other issues.) It sucks even more that a vegan diet that meets all your nutrition requirements might cost more than a fast food diet that can cause a ton of health problems, and what sucks most of all is living in a society that’s more willing to think of the fast food diet as normal and an equivalently-priced vegan diet that might be deficient in some nutrients as the irresponsible one.
(And before you get all mad at me, I’m sure it’s possible to manage a fully adequate vegan diet for the same price as cheap fast food, and I’m not trying to put all low income people in the same bucket, but if you’re in a situation where you feel fast/junk food is your only option, there are most likely other things that’ll need to be overcome (both in your mind and in your physical reality) before you can plan an adequate vegan diet on a budget.)
So yes, I’ll concede that meat-based fast food is probably cheaper than vegan fast food, but here’s my answer to that: stop eating so much fast food, and hey, if we’re talking restaurants, let’s compare checks at a sit-down establishment, where I have to drink an awful lot of (vegan friendly) booze to match the price of a meat-based meal, especially at the fancy-pants places.
The last area where veganism can be seen as expensive is the idea that vegans eat nothing but organic produce. This isn’t too far out there. For starters, meat eaters thinking about veganism are going to have to buy more fruits and vegetables than they might be used to – the meat in the middle of many plates doesn’t leave room for much else. “Organic” just happens to be mixed into “healthy” which gets associated with “vegan” in a lot of mental word association games.
But really, “you have to buy more vegetables” or even organic vegetables isn’t a “going vegan” expense; it’s a simple price of healthy eating. I’m sure there are vegans out there who eat mostly grains with very little green on their plate.
And kudos to those who do, but we don’t eat exclusively organic in our home. We’ll pick out the bargains, but prices vary on any given week, and if the price difference is significant for something like celery or broccoli, we’ll go for the conventionally grown version. For us, I’m happy that there are more options available than there used to be, and that I often can find organic stuff for even cheaper than the regular items, but I don’t stress too much over it.
Your own decision process might vary, but my response to this line of attack on the cost of food is along the lines of “well, that’s just part of a healthy diet even if you eat meat.” I think we’ve got enough to talk about without getting into debates that aren’t central to the main issues.
It’s 90% perception
If I was to eat nothing but filet mignon and lobster, a meat-based diet would be really expensive, and I think a lot of the cost arguments around veganism fall into the same group. If you go into anything with assumptions about what you “have” to eat, you’re going to be limited in how you can end up.
I’m confident that a vegan diet is possible on a wide range of budgets, just like a meat-based one. Hopefully I’ve addressed the big items that come up when this idea is challenged, but if you have any other ideas that you’ve either wondered about or encountered in discussion, let’s talk in the comments!