This post has been in the works for about six months now, but I've been dreading sitting down to write it because of the possible backlash. I know how passionate vegetarians can be - I was one for 12 years. Some of this post also touches a little bit on my religious beliefs, which I generally like to keep personal and private. So please as you read this, keep an open mind, and be kind in your comments even if you disagree.
First the backstory:
I became a vegetarian on the day I started college, a few months before my 19th birthday, but I had been transitioning into vegetarianism for several years. I first started thinking about becoming a vegetarian when I was a freshman in high school after learning about factory farms, but when I told my mom, her response was basically, "Fine, but I'm not cooking you extra meals." As in, if you don't want to eat what I cook, you can make yourself a peanut butter sandwich. So I stopped eating meat for breakfast and lunch, but I still ate it when my mom served it for dinner.
In my early years as a vegetarian, I tried explaining to people about factory farms and the mistreatment of animals, but I got a lot of disbelieving and even mean responses, and since I'm not a confrontational person, I gave up trying to spread the vegetarian gospel. When people would ask why I was a vegetarian, I always said, "I don't think it's necessary to eat meat to survive. If it ever were necessary, I would eat meat, but with all of our modern conveniences, I don't need to, so I don't." This is a true answer, but it's not the whole answer. For me, vegetarianism was always about the animals.
On the other hand, I'm not a believer in animal rights, per se. Animals are animals, not people. I believe that animals should be treated with love and respect because they are God's creation. As humans, we were given stewardship over the earth, including caring for animals, and we're doing a really crappy job of it. How can we return to our Heavenly Father and explain that we kept his animals in tiny cages, fed them food they weren't created to eat, and filled them up with antibiotics...because we really like hamburgers? Out of respect for animals, but mostly out of my love for God and his beautiful earth, I chose to opt out of that system.
Which leads me to...
Why I started eating meat again:
- I found new options. Back when I went veggie, there weren't any other options. Or maybe it just felt that way because I was living in rural Kentucky. Either way, for me the choices were eating factory farmed meat or giving up meat entirely. But when we moved to Raleigh a year and a half ago, we discovered all sorts of ways to obtain meat without supporting factory farms. There is an amazing farmers market and several CSAs with small family farms that care for the environment and raise their animals humanely. We have access to grass fed beef, pasture raised chickens (and eggs), and free range pork. One farm even has ostriches.
- You can blame Michael Pollan (or Joel Salatin, or my own CSA farmer, Richard Holcombe). The more I read, the more convinced I became that animals are an important, if not essential, part of agriculture. Vegetarians always make the argument about how many people could be fed if we all stopped eating meat, but the numbers they use - the amount of corn and soy that could go to people instead of animals - are based on the amount of corn and soy we're growing with conventional farming methods (think chemical fertilizer and pesticides). If we stopped feeding all that corn to cows but also stopped spraying the soil with tons of fertilizer, would we still be able to grow as much corn? I don't know the answer for sure, but I do know that when farmers rotate crops and animals, the soil is naturally fertilized. Pigs also make great rototillers, and chickens make good pesticides. I still know very little about farming, but the method that involves both animals and plants seems to me to be a very beautiful, perfectly designed system.
- My husband never wanted to be a vegetarian. I kind of forced him into it. The compromise when we got married was that we would have some vegetarian nights and some nights with a meat option (for example, I would eat spaghetti with marinara, he would eat spaghetti with meatballs). But as the years passed and I cooked more and more of our meals, the meat option nights grew farther and farther between until finally they disappeared all together. My husband never complained, but when we moved to Raleigh and suddenly had the option to buy ethically raised meat, he started asking for it. Finally, I asked him one day, "Do you want to drink Coke or do you want to eat meat? If you'd rather eat meat, I'll stop buying Coke and we can shift that money to a meat budget." He chose the meat.
- My iron was low. I absolutely believe that it's possible to eat a vegetarian (even a vegan) diet and be perfectly healthy. Because I was a vegetarian, I know a lot more about nutrition requirements than most people, and I was more aware of whether or not I was eating a well-rounded diet. Maybe I started slacking off, or maybe it was having three babies in five years...Either way, my iron was low. Then my kids started testing low for iron, and I think that was the last straw. I decided that we should all start eating some meat (and take multi-vitamins).
Americans eat too much meat. Waaaay too much meat. And our sense of entitlement for comfort and luxury at a cheap price has led to a system that mistreats living creatures to meet the demand of consumers who view the end product with tunnel vision. We need to eat less meat, we need to end the use of factory farms, and we need to make more conscious decisions about what we choose to put in our mouths.
I think that people choosing to be vegetarians and vegans is an important part of the solution, but I no longer think it's the only answer. I've decided that at least for my family, it's okay on occasion to eat ethically and humanely raised meat.
So how much is "on occasion"? We've been eating meat approximately one meal a week, or put another way: we eat vegetarian for 20 out of every 21 meals. I also buy a dozen eggs and enough milk and cheese to provide two servings a day for each member of my family. Sometimes I contemplate adding a little more meat to our diet, but the tightwad in me talks me out of that idea really fast. Beans are the perfect frugal food.
And maybe this is hypocritical of me, but I still call myself a vegetarian. It's just a lot easier to say, "I'm a vegetarian" than to say, "I eat meat sometimes, but I won't eat your meat."
For years when people would ask me if I was raising my kids to be vegetarians, I always said, "Vegetarianism is a personal choice. I would never force anyone to be a vegetarian, but I hope they'll choose to be." My answer now is a little different. I hope my boys will grow up knowing where food comes from, whether it's a carrot or a sausage. And I hope they'll have love and respect for the people who grew and raised that food, for the earth that provided it, and for their Heavenly Father who created it all.