OPINION: Veganism and racial awareness

If you go to Sweet Earth’s website you will find recipes for dishes such as chipotle seitan empanadas, seitan matar and a curry ‘buddha’ bowl. What does Buddha have to do with the last dish? Absolutely nothing. In fact, Nestle, the owner and distributor of Sweet Earth, probably shouldn’t have anything to do with the dish either.

Veganism is often a lifestyle choice that involves being more conscious or ‘woke’ when it comes to animal rights and environmental issues. These beliefs are commendable. However, this does not excuse a couple of glaring issues within the plant-based community: cultural appropriation and limited access to veganism in non-white communities.

Over the last couple of years, the issue of mainstream white veganism has gained a bit more buzz on the internet with publications like Thrillist and Vice publishing articles on the issue.

Thrillist writer, Khushbu Shah, argues that mainstream veganism tends to overlook vegan POC by excluding them from the dominant vegan discourse. Vice writer, Anya Zoledziowski, pleads with white vegans to stop appropriating food.

Vegan companies like Sweet Earth or Gardein have been mimicking cultural dishes for years without contributing to the cultures they are taking from. To make matters worse they casually throw names such as ‘buddha bowl’ onto products that are nothing more than hodge-podge mixes of cultural ingredients.

The buddha bowl includes ingredients cultural to Thailand such as red curry paste, yet Sweet Earth products are not sold in Thailand, nor does the company have anything to do with Thai people.

Gardein offers a sausage and okra gumbo, common to black communities in the American south, however, Gardein was founded by a white man in British Columbia, Canada.

Companies such as Gardein and Sweet Earth are prime examples of what some would call, culture vultures — people who adopt something from another culture and make it their own.

Perhaps consumers don’t see an issue with vegan brands mimicking cultures the founders have never been a part of. Some may argue that the inclusion of other cultures within vegan cuisine is a noble endeavor. However, the situation takes on a more insidious nature when you consider vegan food’s lack of accessibility within POC communities.

POC communities are more likely to experience poverty. Food deserts—areas with limited access to affordable and nutritious food—exist more often in minority neighborhoods. Considering these factors, it is not a stretch to say that veganism is in many ways an inaccessible and white movement.

Food deserts limit the amount of produce that many communities have access too; and what is a vegan recipe without fruits and vegetables? To make matters worse, pre-made vegan meals and vegan meat substitutes are often more expensive than their non-vegan counterparts.

Banquet’s frozen “Classic Mac and Cheese” can be purchased for $1.25 at Giant eagle. Amy’s frozen vegan macaroni and cheese is nearly quadruple that price at $4.99 a box.

A pound of chicken in America averages around $3. Sweet Earth’s Mindful Chik’n is more than double that price at Giant Eagle who sells it for over $8 when not on sale.

For accessibility and inclusion’s sake, vegans should focus on supporting community gardens and similar initiatives as a means of bringing more produce to food deserts. Costs of vegan products need to be cut, if possible, in order to accommodate for the impoverished.

Vegans should also strive to support local vegan businesses owned by POC such as Squash the Beef Catering, or Mo Bite Products, black-owned vegan establishments in Northeast Ohio.

For many people, veganism is a way to better one’s self and the world around them. It only makes sense that veganism should therefore be as accessible and inclusive as possible. All communities deserve access to a vegan lifestyle, and cultural dishes that vegans enjoy should give credit to those cultures as well as include them in the process of production.

Cultural appropriation is an issue within mainstream veganism, but it does not need to be.

Anthony Elder is an opinion writer. Contact him at [email protected].