Breaking the Myth: Veganism Isn’t Just for the Wealthy

Look at many of the modern depictions of a vegan person and you’re likely to be confronted with an antagonistic stereotype of a trendy urban hipster spending $15 an ounce on artisanal non-dairy nut cheese at their local natural foods market. If this is the image that comes to mind when most people think “vegan,” it’s not hard to understand the assumption that it’s more of an elitist fad for the middle and upper class than the simple, ethical lifestyle it truly is. 

In my five and a half years of being vegan, I have lived under the U.S. poverty line: approximately $12,000 in annual income for a single person. Though, this line can be much higher in many cities across the country. At times I have had to feed myself with the help of government assistance programs such as food stamps, while other times I had to pay for food out of my own pocket when I didn’t qualify for such benefits for one reason or another, unrelated to income. During this time, I was always able to find enough food to eat somehow and never had to give up eating vegan.    

It seems that part of the reason for veganism’s high class image is due to the recent explosion of faux meat and dairy products on the market in the last several years. Not only are these pre-made products unnecessary, but a majority put more emphasis on approximating animal flesh or dairy than actual nutrition; not to mention, many contain ingredients that might not be derived from animal products but are still unethically sourced. I and many other vegans consider these “sometimes foods,” and there are even those who choose not to buy them at all. Non-vegans in poverty also know the struggle of having favorite foods or convenience foods that would be nice to have around but are slightly outside of their budget, so they either don’t buy them or splurge on these treats on special occasions. Poor vegans eat the same way. It just so happens that our splurge foods don’t come from non-human suffering. If purchasing these items is literally not an option, then it is still possible, or even preferred by some, to make your own at home using simple, cheap ingredients. When I have time off, I usually make large batches of bean-based burgers, mock meats such as seitan, and non-dairy tofu-based condiments that last the whole week. An added benefit of this is that meat alternatives don’t go bad as quickly as animal products do, saving you money on wasted food. 

A well stocked vegan kitchen will have tons of inexpensive ingredients with a wide array of nutrients enabling you to make all sorts of delicious meals. There are thousands of different places on the internet that guide new vegans on what to include; foods like dry and canned beans, rice, potatoes, pasta, leafy greens, citrus, nuts, oats, flour, and much more. Most of these things can usually be found in a non-vegan kitchen as well. The difference is that we use plants to obtain many of the nutrients that non-vegans like to get from animal-based foods. For example, much of the protein in a vegan diet comes from beans. As it turns out, gaining protein in this way is actually much cheaper than getting it from meat, dairy and eggs. On the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ list of retail food prices, you can compare the current average retail price for different types of foods and see for yourself just how much more expensive it is to consume animal flesh to obtain this nutrient. Take away the U.S. government’s subsidization of the meat and dairy industry, and prices for animal-based foods would be downright exorbitant. This is because raising animals for food is far more expensive than growing crops with equivalent caloric and nutritive content. Raising animals for food actually costs us all more money. 

Another way that eating a plant-based diet can financially benefit an individual, as well as society, is through the cost of medical care. There has been a wealth of research on how consuming a diet devoid of animal products reduces the risk of heart disease, diabetes, certain cancers, and many other disorders that can reduce quality of life and even be fatal. Dealing with these health issues can cost people thousands of dollars over a lifetime and costs taxpayers billions. I personally found that many of the digestive issues I had while eating animal products vanished once I went vegan, saving me money on the various types of medicines I had been purchasing almost my entire life. Animal agriculture also routinely causes massive environmental damage that is hazardous to the health of all living things in the region, including humans. Contaminated drinking water, bacteria and viruses such as e. coli and hepatitis E, and higher cases of asthma, just to name a few things, have all been directly linked to nearby animal agricultural operations. 

Though diet is a big focus since eating is something we all do every day, it’s important to remember that veganism is not just about food. We also try to avoid animal exploitation in our purchase of other products and in the way we live our lives. As it turns out, most poor people are already living closer to a vegan lifestyle when it comes to these other aspects. Clothing made from real leather and wool is typically much more expensive than the synthetic versions of these same items. Even before I was vegan, I had only ever owned one leather jacket and one pair of leather boots, and they were both given to me by someone else. Animal exploitation in entertainment tends to be expensive as well with ticket prices for zoos and aquariums being outside of most low income people’s budgets. If you want to experience nature, it’s much cheaper to spend the day hiking or relaxing in a park than it is viewing stressed out captive animals in an unnatural environment. 

For most of human history, the majority of animal products were consumed by the wealthy elites of society while the rest of us sustained ourselves on grains and produce. This is still true today in many parts of the world where people are living on plant-based diets because raising and consuming animals is simply cost prohibitive. In societies like ours, the fact that poor vegans not only exist, but thrive, should be more than enough evidence that fears over the financial cost of going vegan are baseless. To live vegan is to truly live by the old adage, “It doesn’t cost anything to be kind.”