Thursday, July 16, 2020

Checking ‘Check Your Privilege’ for Veganism

Checking ‘Check Your Privilege’ for Veganism:

Why the ‘Privilege,’ ‘Food Deserts,’ and ‘Cost’ Excuses Usually Don’t Excuse

Written in January 2020. Posted July 16, 2020. Feel free to repost this, if you know of audiences who would benefit from it.

A too-common objection to veganism, vegetarianism and otherwise plant-based eating is that it’s a privilege: “Go vegan? ‘Check your privilege!’”

A narrower version of the objection is that not everyone can be vegan since, even in well-off countries, there are “food deserts,” urban and rural areas where there are too few food options to eat vegan in healthy ways.

A related objection is that vegan diets are just too expensive: not everybody can afford to eat vegan.

While I call these “objections,” it is unclear how they are objections to veganism in general, or to veganism for many or most people. If a person can’t do something, they need not do that thing. Is there anything you must do that you literally can’t do? No: “ought implies can,” philosophers observe. 

Arguments for veganism apply only to those who can eat vegan: they don’t apply to those who cannot because, say, there just aren’t vegan food options for them or because they have a (rare) medical issue that just prevents them from being vegan or there’s any other good reason that they cannot.* (Someone not wanting to eat vegan doesn’t mean they can’t).

In general, moral appeals apply only to people who can do what they are asked to do. Should you donate to a food bank? Not if you lack food yourself: you can’t donate. Arguments to, say, donate to charities are directed only towards people who can give. Yet we (fortunately, hopefully) don’t hear this: “Donate to help a women’s shelter? ‘Check your privilege!’”

It is a privilege to be able to help others by donating: not everyone can do that. But these appeals to “privilege” are clearly self-serving: “I don’t have to do this because not everyone can” and “I’m not giving since not everyone can.” These are too convenient ways to keep your own comfort in response to a real need. The “privilege” objection to veganism is equally self-serving: “I’m going to keep eating how I’m doing, and not do better, because some people cannot do better.” Right.

Concerning "food deserts," we should first notice that these are better described as places of "food apartheid": deserts are natural and, for many plant and animal species, viable ecosystems where they can flourish; "food deserts" however, are the result of either intentional planning or knowing neglect. So rethinking the re-framing of this vocabulary is important. 

But it’s worthwhile to notice those who appeal to food deserts to justify their omnivorism rarely seem to find food deserts to be a problem worthy of solution. You never hear critics of veganism arguing, “Look, everyone’s being vegan means there should be healthy foods for all. I agree and so we should work to eliminate food deserts!” The typical response is to “go low” and conclude that veganism is not a proper ideal, instead of “going high” and begin strategizing on what would effectively meet that ideal for everybody.

Food deserts for omnivores are nearly the same as food deserts for vegans: both are missing a variety of fresh vegetables, fruits, legumes, and grains. (Missing B-12 tablets or drops doesn’t make for a food desert). So the food desert-based objection to veganism, coupled with apathy about food deserts, really seems to be just a lack of care about people with inadequate food sources in general: the concern comes up only when arguments for veganism are on the table.

Food deserts then are a problem used by people who don’t live in food deserts to justify their rejection of veganism. Perhaps they don’t see food deserts as a problem to be solved since this rationalization for not eating vegan would dissolve if everyone had enough good food to eat. Check your privilege?

Some recent economic research, summarized in “The Conversation” as “Eliminating food deserts won’t help poorer Americans eat healthier,” helps us better understand and respond to the food desert objections to veganism.

First, researchers found that:

local neighborhood conditions don’t matter much [to what foods people have access to], since [people] regularly venture outside [their] neighborhoods. [T]he average American travels 5.2 miles to shop. Low-income households aren’t that different: They travel 4.8 miles. Given that we’re willing to travel that far, we tend to shop in supermarkets even if there isn’t one down the street. We found that even people who live in ZIP codes without a supermarket still buy 85% of their groceries from supermarkets.
So, if this is correct, for most people who live in food deserts, that doesn’t much impact their food choices. At least, it doesn’t have the impact that many vegan critics and vegans assume it does.

What happens though when people who live in food deserts gain better food access? This was the focus of the research and they found this:

From 2004 to 2016, over 1,000 supermarkets opened in neighborhoods around the country that previously had been food deserts. We [the researchers] analyzed the grocery purchases of a sample of 10,000 households living in those neighborhoods. Did they start to buy healthier food after the supermarket opened nearby? Although many people began shopping at the new local supermarket after it opened, they generally didn’t buy healthier food. . . . Lower demand for healthy food is what causes the lack of supply.
Poor nutrition is a serious problem, and these researchers urge addressing this by taxing sugary drinks, subsidizing vegetables and providing better education on food choices: merely increasing food options doesn’t improve nutrition, since that doesn’t increase demand for those better options.

Would these better food options cost too much, as vegan critics sometimes argue? No: there are affordable ways of being a vegan as there are affordable ways of being an omnivore, and there are expensive ways of being a vegan, just as there are (more) expensive ways of being an omnivore. And there’s research that being vegan is often more affordable than being an omnivore. And recipes and cooking guidance are freely available online and at libraries, and many vegan cookbooks can be found for free or for cheap at thrift stores.

A potential lesson for vegan advocates is that people who currently live in food deserts are, fundamentally, just like people who don’t live in food deserts: they like what tastes good to them and they are accustomed to. The task of showing how veganism helps address animal abuse, impacts climate change and environmental degradation, will likely improve personal and public health, and help families pay less for food ‒ and how this can all be done with new foods that taste great and new customs and routines that people soon enough find enjoyable and worthwhile ‒ is the same also. Making this case can be nearly everyone’s privilege.

Note: many arguments for veganism are founded on the facts that, at least in the parts of the world where these arguments are often presented and discussed, most people these have adequate access to vegan foods and so they are able to be healthy vegans. It is though worthwhile to think about what we should think if that were not the case: e.g., what if we had to eat, say, meat to survive or to have an adequate level of health? I discuss and answer this question in my (2018) "Xenotransplantation, Subsistence Hunting and the Pursuit of Health: Lessons for Animal Rights-Based Vegan Advocacy," in Between the Species: Vol. 21: Iss. 1, Article 8. To get at the issues, it's worthwhile to think about the "what if?" of "What if some people, say due to some medical condition, had to eat human babies to survive or to be healthy? Would their need to eat babies to stay alive or be healthy justify harming those babies?" Most people would probably think "no," and the view that these babies have the right to life, also suggests "no," and the reasoning here suggests some relevant implications for animal cases, in circumstances that are likely very different from the circumstances of anyone reading this. 

Nathan Nobis, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Morehouse College, Atlanta, GA. He is the author of Animals & Ethics 101, co-author of Thinking Critically About Abortion and a co-author of Chimpanzee Rights.


  1. I agree with most of what you say here. (I am vegan 14 years.) But, I wish you would have pushed back against the researchers' suggestions of taxing certain foods. This will do nothing but harm the poor while ignoring the actual issues of food insecurity. The solution for poverty is never charging someone more money.

    While it is true that putting a grocery store in a place with a long history of not having food other than a gas station or McDonald's doesn't automatically cause healthy eating, taxing the foods and drinks poor people have become accustomed to is not the answer. You can't take people, often descendants of centuries of oppression, not just their present food desert circumstance, and assume that an introduction of a grocery story will change everything immediately. There are vegan food justice heroines like Brenda Sanders and Food Empowerment Project who work with people to both give them access to food and to healthier options. Many people do want them, it's just that lifetime and generations long habits are hard to break.

    A common thread among people who have ever grown up with food insecurity is that we love the taste of garbage food, even when something fancier and better becomes available. What is your favorite food? Is it perfectly healthy? Would you stop eating it forever if someone offered you a salad instead?

    Food access is very complicated. Food choices are often embedded in one of the strongest survival mechanisms of our brain and body. I agree with ought implies can and have dealt with many years of non-vegan garbage arguments that make me want to leave the planet. So, I really appreciate your post. I just urge you to be more careful with the solutions you recommend.

    1. Thanks for reading and for your comments. I do want to make sure that it's clear that this is what those researchers recommend, from that The Conversation article:

      ". . we would recommend tweaking prices as a better approach to encouraging healthier habits. Taxes on sugary drinks can discourage their consumption, while food-stamp programs could be modified to make fruits and vegetables cheaper."

      So they don't think an adequate response is just taxing certain foods: they see the need for a more systematic and systemic response.

      About "garbage food," as you put it, I only have time at this exact moment to point out that almost *everyone,* of every income level or any kind of social classification, *loves* "garbage food." So, in that way, we are all the same, and that shouldn't be denied when engaging anyone on these issues.

    2. This still supports the tax on drinks and thus my criticism still stands. Decreasing the price of healthy foods is something I am all about. My city has a ton of farmers markets that now accept SNAP (food stamps) and they give you extra tokens when you spend a certain amount of your stamps there. That's an incentive that allows me the option of buying healthier food in cheaper ways and rewards me for it. It should not then be coupled with taxing something I may want for dessert and then thus off setting the benefits of cheaper healthy options by again, taking more money from people with the least.

      Often when programs are implemented to "encourage" poor people to buy things a certain way while placing none of the same limitations on everyone else, it results in oppression and control of the poor. They almost never actually consult the poor and usually involve wealthy or middle class people assuming poor people are all ignorant and need to be saved. It's a colonialist approach. WIC for instance forces parents to buy large quantities of cow dairy products, but does not include non-dairy milks despite a huge quantity of Black and Brown folks being lactose intolerant even more than the average adult human who is not a baby cow. Now, you of course are not suggesting dairy, but what I am saying is that poor people- like everyone else- are fully capable of making decisions about what they want to eat. Yet, it's only poor people that people often discuss "encouraging" to eat a certain way. And when you have the government mandating something like that, you bet the animal agribusiness industry is getting in on that. Again, it's tackling a huge problem in a microscopic way that will backfire most if not all of the time.

      And, yes, everyone likes unhealthy food of some sort. But, I am talking about choosing a cheap boxed version of something rather than the gourmet version. Even with healthier foods, poor folks are often used to the cheaper, less nutritious version. People tend to like what they are used to. There are exceptions. My diet massively expanded when I became vegan and I became exposed to so many new cuisines. It's complicated though and took time.

    3. Thanks for your response. About the effects of various types of paternalism, for example, about taxing, say, cigarettes and other harmful substances, I really don't know. It seems to me that few people are in principle opposed to these kinds of interventions, so we'd have to know how they work or would work out in these particular cases. I have never looked at any research about this.