What does it mean to eat ethically?
Food can be a surprisingly touchy subject. People make food choices for a wide variety of reasons, and often hold strong opinions about those choices (Exhibit A: consider the recent uproar over recommendations to Edmonton City Council by the Youth Council in June 2015 that council consider switching any catered meals to vegan or vegetarian options for reasons of ethics and sustainability.).
People may choose to only eat locally, or only eat organic, or only eat meat and eggs from producers who follow certain best practices, or to not eat meat at all. We wanted to satisfy our curiosity and explore all the different ways to eat ethically, and how they might impact our food system, without it becoming a cage(-free) match.
This post is the first in a series of email interviews with members of Edmonton-area food organizations to explore what ethical eating means to them, in their own words.
First up: Christina Prokopenko, co-director of the Vegans and Vegetarians of Alberta (VVoA). Watch for their Meatless Monday festivities at Taste of Edmonton on July 20.
TLG: Tell us a little about the Vegans and Vegetarians of Alberta.
We are a not-for-profit organization completely run by volunteers. We promote vegan and vegetarian lifestyles for personal health, the environment and animal rights. The group is a diverse group coming from many different backgrounds. Every vegan or vegetarian that you meet will have their own lifestyle and their own reasons behind that choice. Everyone is different; embracing that diversity makes the community stronger. It has been a great experience working with everyone and I am proud to be a part of a group that is so active in promoting the vegan and vegetarian lifestyle.
TLG: What does ethical eating mean to you and your organization?
To me personally, understanding the impacts of our decisions and how they influence the environment and community around us is paramount. My path to veganism began at a young age when I realized that my meat consumption was being fed by the lives of animals. Once I made that connection then the only ethical eating option for me was a vegan diet.
As I mentioned before, VVoA is a diverse group and ethical eating can mean something different to every person. VVoA provides information to those who want to know more about veganism and vegetarianism, and support to those who are making or have made the transition. Through this the organization educates people about the impact their decisions to eat animals has in terms of animal rights and the environment, while allowing them to define what ethical eating means to them personally and the options they have should they choose to act on it.
TLG: What practices do you follow or recommend?
I am a strict vegan and I am very conscientious of my lifestyle choices. I mostly cook from home, as I found it has made me feel more in control, in terms of knowing what goes into my food. It also is rewarding downtime to make everything from scratch. Living a vegan lifestyle is not only a dietary choice — for me it extends to all of my actions. In addition to doing research on the places I buy groceries or meals from, I extend this consideration to all of the products I buy (including cosmetics and clothing). I find that making the eating and purchasing processes more salient is really important. I try to support businesses that align with my values, because I think that every dollar we spend casts a vote in a sense. We all need to be aware of that.
For those wanting to move towards a vegan or vegetarian diet it may seem daunting at first, but taking small steps is how many people start. Many are making the transition by reducing meat consumption; one couple I know have moved from eating vegetarian one day a week (i.e., “Meatless Monday”) to now only consuming meat once a week. Speaking of Meatless Monday, the VVoA and the vegan community in Edmonton are collaborating with Taste of Edmonton this year to host events on Monday, July 20. It would be a great first step to anyone interested in vegan and vegetarian options in the city.
TLG: What changes would you like to see in the food industry?
Transparency. There would be a remarkable shift if the information provided to the public was driven by facts and not primarily driven by profits. I think if people knew more about what they were eating and the impact it had, we would see more of a change in their habits. Most of my conversations with omnivores surround the myths or misconceptions regarding veganism and the true impact of animal products on our health, our environment and our animals.
TLG: Why did you make the decision to become vegan or vegetarian?
I initially made the decision to become vegetarian when I was around 12 years old. I have spent my whole life around horses and was shocked to hear that people ate horse meat; there were a few rescues at my barn at the time. My father pointed out that eating horses was no different from eating pigs, cows or any other animal. I don’t think it was his intention to flip that switch, but he did. I confronted the cognitive dissonance that so many of us have with regards to animals and realized that I could not continue to eat meat.
I became vegan years later, when I realized that my vegetarian diet had ethical implications as well. The transition to vegan was also supported by the environmental implications of animal products. I study wildlife ecology and the issue of human impacts on the environment and climate change has really solidified my dietary choices. We aren’t just impacting the animals inside the food system, but nature and wildlife outside of it. I am doing a graduate degree in the same field and I truly think we need to make some big changes to our lifestyle to alleviate the stress we are putting on our world.
I am now turning 25 so it has been a journey, and I recognize that it is important to be sensitive to those at any point in the spectrum. I have seen many friends — and even my father who triggered my decision long ago — make the shift from less meat to meatless, either as a vegetarian, plant-based or vegan. I think people have been understanding and receptive of my dietary choices because I never shy away from those tough conversations about why I am vegan. But I also let people have time to think about it for themselves, because lifestyle decisions need to come from within a person for the change to be resilient over the years.
TLG: How does being vegan or vegetarian affect your day-to-day life?
You have to be vigilant about what you consume but I think everyone should feel that way about what they put in their body.
I eat mostly at home and try to plan my meals weekly and prepare things on the weekend, for dinners throughout the week. I have a smoothie every morning, leftovers for lunch and I try to keep my dinners diverse — there is a never-ending list of recipes that I want to try, which might surprise people who think veganism is generally bland or merely a series of constant salads. When I am in need of something quick and filling I turn to lentils or buckwheat. Power bowls are always an easy go-to. Two favourites in my house are cashew mac-n-cheese and peanut pad Thai.
I am very lucky to have friends who are aware of my diet, and even if they don’t follow it are willing and happy to go to places that I have options. If you don’t have friends willing to do that then I would argue they aren’t being friends.
In places I am familiar with, it is really easy to be vegan. For fellow Edmontonians looking to explore all of the options in the city, the VVoA has a diner’s guide that is updated bi-annually. It is available online at www.vofa.ca/diners-guide
Travelling is sometimes challenging. Chefs are usually willing to work with you and your needs if you talk to them. It can sometimes take effort but I am willing to make that effort because I know that it will help highlight the need for vegan options and that there are vegans out there.
If vegans never go to non-vegan places or situations then I feel like the diet and lifestyle choice will get less exposure overall, and that doesn’t help spread the message. Plus, the more people are exposed to veganism, the more accepting they become, and the easier it becomes to find options!
TLG: What alternative protein sources do you recommend our readers try?
I think it is a misconception that protein is difficult to obtain in a vegan diet. There is protein in almost everything I make or eat. I put protein powder in my smoothies every morning (either hemp, or Vega One), and I always add beans and lentils to my meals. I eat a lot of traditional soy products such as tofu and tempeh, but avoid highly processed soy products like faux meats.
I would say plant-based proteins are integral to a healthy diet and shouldn’t be an alternate option. Many people and cultures rely on beans and plants to satisfy them and they are fine. I think North American culture has gotten really disconnected from what is and isn’t healthy or normal. I would say plant-based proteins are integral to a healthy diet and shouldn’t be an alternate option.
TLG: Can you recommend a couple of resources for readers wanting to learn more?
The book that cemented my decision to be vegan was Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals. It provides an excellent ethical discussion. Cowspiracy is a documentary that makes an excellent case for the environmental aspects of meat consumption and I recommend it to everyone.
Depending on the aspect you are interested in there are many resources that speaks to the health, environmental and ethical reasons behind a vegan and vegetarian diet. No More Bull is a book and Mad Cowboy is a documentary, both by Howard Lyman that discuss the health aspects of veganism. Forks Over Knives is also a great movie discussing the health aspects, it refers to The China Study as another resource. Ghosts in Our Machine is a compelling film about the animals being the living and dying cogs in the machine of the food industry. Brendan Brazier’s book entitled The Thrive Diet provides specific information comparing the environmental impacts of a meat eater’s diet versus a vegan diet. It also discusses the health benefits to veganism.
For those in Edmonton, check out Earth’s General Store. At the Whyte Avenue location, VVoA has a library where you can check out books and films on the topic (free for members). Another resource that VVoA provides is the veggie buddy program where we match up an experienced vegetarians, vegans and raw vegans with someone interested in pursuing those respective lifestyles.
Christina Prokopenko is co-director of the Vegans and Vegetarians of Alberta and is currently completing her MSc at the University of Alberta researching elk movement and habitat selection in response to human disturbance. She is the fur-mother of a one-of-a-kind cat, Bird, and a loveable senior horse, Hugh.