Monday, April 22, 2013

Are You a Vegetarian?

When I order food in the dining hall at my school, my orders sometimes provoke a strange reaction. When I ask for a sandwich with cheese, spinach, and tomatoes, I'll get answers like "That's it?" or "Are you sure?" Then, often enough, the person asking the sandwiches will ask, "So, are you a vegetarian?"

I never know quite what to say to that. No, not exactly. Neither my diet nor my belief system specifically prohibits meat, but it's true that when I'm presented with lots of options, like I am in the dining halls, I prefer to choose meatless options.

I stumbled through that explanation earlier this afternoon and the girl making my sandwich raised her eyebrows. "So you're a flexitarian?"

I was a little baffled by the girl's desire to label my behavior. As someone who's lived a lot of my life in the majority culture, I'm not used to people noticing and categorizing the ways I act differently.

But I was acting differently. The food choices I made were unusual. Eating meat at every meal has become so normative in the United States that a single vegetarian sandwich provokes comment.

So am I a flexitarian? I think it's funny that there's even a word that means "never eats meat except for sometimes." Isn't that how our bodies were designed to be? Meat can be nourishing, but it was never meant to be the center of every meal. There are so many other options for protein that Americans tend to eat much more of it than they need.

And the way meat is produced in America should prompt pause as well. It takes about two and a half pounds of corn to produce every pound of beef, hundreds of gallons of water, and about three-quarters of a gallon of oil. Our farming system isn't perfect either, but a pound of soybeans doesn't have nearly the environmental impact.

There are many voices campaigning for a vegetarian diet that are much more informed than I. And there are people who defend meat that is produced responsibly. I think both arguments are valid.

Not everyone has to be a vegetarian. But everyone should be aware of what they're eating. And cutting out meat, even for a week, is a good way to force people to think about where their nutrition is coming from. It's not as hard as you might think when you're aware of other options. I would eat meat if someone gave it to me, but most of the time I don't even miss it.

Am I a vegetarian? No, and that's okay. Do I eat meat? Rarely, and that's good too. It's more about choices and awareness and flexibility.

Then am I a flexitarian? I don't know, is that what you call it when you never eat meat except for sometimes?