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Veganism on a Budget: Myth-busting, truth telling, and why food access needs to be addressed

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In outreach conversations, debates with family members, discussions with hesitant friends, and dialogues with passionate keyboard warriors, we have all heard the familiar phrase: veganism is expensive. Though a great volume of marketing campaigns and meat lovers have done a stand-up job of reinforcing this sentiment, I’m here to confirm, once and for all: veganism is not expensive, rather it can be expensive based on what you’re choosing to eat.

Let me be clear on my stance and personal context. I have been vegan for 11 years, come this December. Within the majority of this time, I’ve had a steady income; however not for the duration. I have lost employment in unexpected situations, and I have had emergencies come up which have demanded unexpected financial investment. Throughout these instances, though the foods I was buying definitely changed, my ability to purchase vegan food of some kind was never compromised.

We can't have this dialogue without acknowledging many conversations around access to food (and even this list is not finite): considering a wide range of budgets, the fact that some folks are obtaining food with stamps or related community programs, the variety in grocery options based on location and transportation, and the like. It ‘s crucial to mention that some food subsidy programs aren’t providing a variety of foods, aren’t providing nutrient-dense foods, and/or aren’t even offering vegan folks the choice of food that it suited to their ethical preferences. This is part of a much larger conversation around food access, community programs, and how the vegan community can work towards expanding current options and diversifying food access.

The Role of Marketing, and ‘The One’

Let’s take pause, and return to the aforementioned statement: veganism is not expensive, rather it can be expensive based on what you’re choosing to eat. Believing veganism is inherently expensive isn’t your fault. One major component of this is the result of a familiar discourse, which presents itself in a lot of vegan outreach and product marketing.

This discourse is one strategy vegan advocates utilize to lure the un-switched population to veganism: the promise that you can find ‘The One’. The One is the alternative item that will replace your 2% milk in the coffee, your beloved lunch meat (flesh), or the perfectly scrambled eggs you’ve been eating every morning for five years. The kicker? These alternatives can often (not always) be the most expensive items in the aisle.

Vegan burger

Though admittedly delicious (and important to show that certain things can be options without eating animal flesh or secretions), vegan faux products such as cheeses, meats, yogurts, spreads, loaves, frozen nuggets, and burgers patties are going to rack up your grocery bill if you’re getting them in abundance, and if you’re getting them on a regular basis. Enjoy the occasional veggie dog, but don’t feel pressure (or assume) that you need to have five types of vegan meat alternatives in your fridge at any given time. The strength of marketing is undeniable in all industries, especially when it comes to food. A successful marketing campaign is the end result of strategy, case studies, great deliberation, expert minds, stakeholder contribution, and often: lots of money. Food marketing is designed to play on our appetites, our ethics, our perception of health and wellness, and our desires.

Seeking out ‘The One’ is not the only marketing campaign that has infiltrated the vegan food community which great success; but is one of many falsities that consistently present themselves, and need to be dismantled to further bring us to the main point: vegan on a budget is feasible. We need to constantly work to ensure that message stays on the forefront, is supported by facts and the addressing of inconsistent and incorrect information, including some of the most popular (and absurd) myths that are perpetuated within this discussion.

Vegan On A Budget Myths: Debunked!

False: You need to find one, perfect replacement for each item you stop consuming when you arrive to veganism.

True: You now have multiple options, where you would have had one before. (Your food possibilities have literally, multiplied.) Case in point: ground beef (cow), can be replaced with lentils, walnuts, a combo of both (for a great Bolognese), baked or scrambled tofu, seitan (very cost efficient when you’re making it from scratch).

There’s an underlying pressure to “switch” and find the perfect replacement. The reality is you might not, and you don’t have to; rather think of all the diversity you now get to incorporate into your meals. The reality is that some folks move to veganism because they don’t like the taste of animal products, and they automatically won’t want to be consuming products that mimic the taste. (Chances are: their grocery bills will be lower!)

False: Vegan food needs to be organic.

True: Vegan does not inherently mean buying organic, nor is it defined as such.

Purchasing organic groceries may or may not be an option for you, depending on your budget. You should feel no pressure to, and likewise no guilt if you’re not in a position to do so. Organic is not synonymous with vegan! Some folks who go vegan are looking for a healthier way of eating overall, but that isn’t automatically negated if you aren’t buying organic items. The heightened price tag of organic items is merited, due to the fact that product certification is rigorous, cumbersome and expensive for any business. Do some planning in advance, and you can find organic items on sale, or organic produce that is the same price as its conventional cohort. Instead of buying everything organic, buy some groceries of the organic varietal, specifically the Dirty Dozen. The Dirty Dozen is a list, released annually, which outlines fruits and vegetables that have been tested and have the highest traces of pesticide. The 2020 list include strawberries, spinach, kale, nectarines, apples, grapes, peaches, cherries, pears, tomatoes, celery and potatoes. (If you aren’t using organic produce, always make sure to do a good wash and rinse pre-noshing.)

Vegan diet facts

This is not intended to throw shade at raw vegans (I was one), or those who focus on more of a WFPB (Whole Foods Plant Based) diet; however this “False” is meant to serve as a crucial reminder.

Vegans not only exist in a wide range of budgets, they all have different items in their grocery carts, pantries and refrigerators. These choices are informed by access, budget, taste preferences, allergies, and ultimately: what we enjoy and what we can afford.

There is no holy grail-level of veganism that you reach when you manage to eat a WFPB diet, with no packaged or canned food, nor should it be the focus. Our collective reasoning for being vegan is to avoid unnecessary mass suffering, and killing, of millions of animals. You honour that whether or not you’re sipping celery juice, eating chickpeas straight out of the can (raises hand), or dipping into the “junk food vegan” realm on occasion.

False: No ethical vegan should ever shop at Wal-Mart, Superstore, Costco, (et al).

True: Larger stores make vegan choices accessible for a wider range of budgets. Cut the classist shame around shopping at these places.

There is some subtle berating (mostly on the good old internet), that I have seen directed towards folks who shop at Costco, Superstore, and the like.

This is rooted in financial privilege. Consider being a new vegan, and immediately being shamed because the only grocery store you can access is Superstore. Though there are definitely ethics to address behind each business, we need to acknowledge some individuals, plain and simple, don’t have other options.

Due to heightened demand, some of these establishments are quickly expanding their vegan grocery items and staple goods selection: almond milk, frozen fruit, protein powder, baking goods, vegan snack bars, and (of course) hummus. A large family or household with once income can access these items, in larger volumes, and simultaneously maintain their vegan ethics. False: A vegan grocery bill will always be higher.

Truth: Spanning a wide range of budgets, grocery stores, locations, and number of foods in the households, a vegan grocery bill will (almost always) be lower than a non-vegan grocery bill.

Marketing professionals estimate that our brains need to see something a minimum of 8 times before it registers in a place where we are compelled to act on it. Who does marketing reach? The shoppers. They decide what to buy, how often, which brands, and calculate based on their respective budgets. I put a call out and asked folks in my network to track their grocery spending for a week. This included a wide range of dietary preferences, including omnivore, vegetarian, and vegan.

Folks that participated had a wide range of budgets, and went to different stores. Some bought in bulk, some did not. Based on those variables, I calculated an average spend per week, for each individual in the household, using and consuming said groceries. Households included a variety of items, including goods in bulk, organic items, and farmers’ market purchases. These households also included a variety of appetites, including adults, teenagers (inherently consuming more food), vegan athletes (consuming a higher number of calories to fuel their training), and some folks with lighter appetites.

Compared dietary grocery costs

These calculations did include some specialty items, and some folks who were buying higher volumes of organic items. With some adjustments, the vegan amount could hypothetically be even lower.

False: Veganism is only for a certain economic bracket. Disadvantaged folks won’t want to be vegan.

True: When we talk about veganism on a budget, we need to acknowledge different levels of access to food, different incomes, means, and not speak for anyone else. Avoid making the arbitrary conclusion that folks in varied financial positions, or with varied access to food, should be expected to abandon their ethics, or put them in a situation where they feel like they have to.

The true issue is that the idea associated with being on food stamps, receiving food from food pantries and other aid programs, is that you are poor and have given up your right to choose what to eat,” writes Aisha Robinson, who runs Five Loaves Atlanta, a vegan soup kitchen that offers hot meals and basic necessities to houseless folks in the community. Robinson started Five Loaves after observing a great lack in support options for disadvantaged folks, and speaks from her personal experiences living in community housing and using food stamp programs. “All of the knowledge on how to prepare vegan meals that consist of shelf stable foods and a few fresh options in limited or no space is completely non existent. The videos on YouTube and Instagram paint an image of veganism being reserved for a very particular demographic and that alone leads to feeling down on yourself and your situation. Fresh food options are very scarce when the corner store is your only option. Consider limited transportation, ex: depending solely on public transportation, you are at a serious disadvantage to get fresh food. It may take you two buses and a train to reach a farmers market and how much can you truthfully fit on the floor of the train ride home? I feel like the systems in place to psychologically damage people living in lower income neighborhoods made me want to abandon my ethical stance. I feel like the vegan community needs to learn to embrace everyone on every level of the socioeconomic ladder. Balance has to be established for each and every person to become more receptive to veganism from their own stance.”

Robinson didn’t abandon her ethical stance, nor did she “ give up her right to choose what to eat”, despite the systems expecting her to do so. Using innovation and creativity to design her meals, Robinson adapted, and years later, started her business. Choice is the pressing theme here. It’s imperative that choice remains for individuals in all economic brackets. Choice, and the right to it, should not be assigned to a particular class. Offering this to folks is reflected in the format exhibited by the Greater Vancouver Food Bank. Pre-COVID, the Food Bank had a grocery store model, where clients using the service could “ shop” for their items. During the pandemic, the Food Bank had to adapt their model, however they still honour the importance and poignancy of the element of choice.

We are aware of the different dietary restrictions and dietary preferences of our clients, so we try to have as many different types of foods as possible,” explains Jodie Ou, Communications Officer at the Greater Vancouver Food Bank. We plan our menus four weeks in advance. Our menus include a balanced supply of proteins (animal and/or plant-based), dairy and alternatives, grains, fresh veggies and fruits and more. If a client is a vegan or vegetarian, there will always be options for them.

Grocery shopping as a vegan maybe a brand new realm for some of you reading, and for others, perhaps you’re looking to fine-tune your skills. Being budget-conscious may appear as another layer of challenge to already unfamiliar territory. Don’t be discouraged!

Write this down, screenshot it, and reference it: these few tricks will help you every time if you’re budget-conscious.

Budget-friendly vegan grocery shopping tips

As with any new practice, we hone our skills for budget-friendly, vegan grocery shopping over time. Through trial and error, discovering new stores, products and ingredients; and adapting, new vegans, hear me now: you will have a huge impact on reducing the number of animals being killed for human consumption. You will save money. It will be cost-efficient, and this will be budget-friendly.

There will always be another criticism to veganism, and another school of thought trying to dismantle what we believe in, and how we live our ethics. Addressing those criticisms, and working directly to prove them wrong is how we move past them.

Use this article as a guide to do just that, and may this information support your vegan grocery shopping, budget-friendly successes for many (many) years to come.


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