Household Barriers To Veg*n Diets
Eating isn’t just about survival. Food bears meaning for our social relationships: when we “break bread together,” for instance, we both share a meal and forge a connection. It also plays a part in our identities, both personal (“a lifestyle, not a diet”) and national (“as American as apple pie”). In this study, the authors reflect on how the symbolism attached to food can prevent dietary change, looking specifically at barriers within the home. Drawing on numerous scholarly articles, they looked at how factors such as gender roles, power dynamics, and meat’s perceived centrality to a meal can support or stymie dietary change.
Given the central importance of food in our lives, it’s perhaps not surprising that food choices can be a source of friction in both romantic and familial relationships. Often family members will discourage an individual’s decision to go veg*n, which can damage relationships. The authors note that strategies like avoiding confrontation, emphasizing the health benefits of veg*nism, and leading by example, could help diffuse tension. A more gradual transition (e.g. moving from pescatarianism through eventually to veganism) also seemed to make things easier and less frictious.
The authors observe that, more often than not, women (i.e. mothers) were the ones to provide food for the family, and that veg*n diets appeal more to women than men. Together, these facts seem promising for promoting veg*nism within households. But how much influence do women have over their family’s food choices?
Despite being closely involved in processes like food shopping and cooking, women may have less control than expected over what the family eats. For one, it seems that women prioritize what their male partners want (although this may be changing, thanks to the rise in egalitarian and nontraditional family structures). Additionally, a recent shift in parenting to favor greater independence and enjoyment for children means that today, children have more say over what the family eats. Even so, women are far from powerless over family food choices. One study found that, in contrast to what women believe, their husbands and children felt that the women largely controlled food choices.
As well as among families, gender roles influenced food choices among couples. Women were more likely to follow their male partner’s food choices in more traditional couples. The authors cautiously suggest that more egalitarian couples may be more veg*n-friendly – yet another reason to avoid sexist imagery in veg*n advertising.
In Western culture, meat is often thought of as integral to a “proper meal”. The Sunday roast, Thanksgiving dinner, and Christmas dinner are all important traditions, and all involve meat. Such holidays can thus create conflict for veg*ns and their families: veg*n food flips the script, redefining the concept of “a proper meal.” To present a compelling alternative, veg*ns need to model positive relationships with food. Since food is richly symbolic, veg*ns need to demonstrate that a veg*n diet means changing, not losing, one’s connection to food.
Although household barriers to veg*n diets are significant, the authors emphasize that there are other problems we need to address. Race and class can create structural barriers to veg*n diets. An affluent white family living near a Whole Foods and a Trader Joe’s, for example, is better positioned for veg*nism than a low-income family living in a food desert with little access to fresh food. This type of lack of access disproportionately affects people of color: the authors point to a study from 2002, which found that white neighborhoods in several U.S. states had four times as many supermarkets than black neighborhoods. Additionally, those on tighter budgets might be less willing to experiment with new foods for fear of waste.
Based on their findings, the authors suggest how advocates can lessen the barriers to veg*nism: they recommended focusing on men to break the connection between meat and masculinity; investigating men’s and children’s openness to veg*n substitutes as part of a “proper meal”; and they highlighted the importance of greater diversity in research, noting that their own analysis was unavoidably skewed towards white, middle-class, traditional family structures. As animal advocates, we need to take issues of diversity and racial justice seriously. Most importantly, we must remember that this is not simply a strategic point, but rather is integral to our vision of equality for all – humans and non-humans alike.