Should we serve ‘vegetarian food’?

I was
invited to give a series of lectures at Duke and Berkeley last week on the
connection between food and climate change. Audiences were a mix of faculty, students
and community members. Each time, the questions were wide-ranging but I’ve been
thinking most about one. I challenged the notion of describing some food or
diets as ‘vegetarian’ and an undergraduate called me on it.

Along with
eating appropriate portions and reducing foodwaste, eating less meat and cheese
are the most important steps a climate-conscious eater can take. Why not call
out ‘vegetarian’ options then? Here’s my logic – what do you think?

With some
ethnic exceptions, vegetarian options often mean “absence of meat.” Roasted
vegetables are rarely at the center of a ‘veggie burrito.’ In East Asian eateries,
“vegetarian” could be translated as “with tofu” – bowing to the American
assumption that abundant protein is required for every meal.

Only two
percent of Americans describe themselves as vegetarian or vegan. 98% do not. If vegetarian food is associated with
the “absence of meat,” then how can we expect a majority of people to gravitate
toward “vegetarian options”? Most Americans simply don’t eat vegetables.

We recently
analyzed national statistics on foods ‘available for consumption’ (a
combination of what we eat and waste). By weight, only 37% of what Americans
eat is produce – but that includes discarded melon rinds and banana peels and
the sad-looking lettuce and tomato on burgers that are generally left uneaten.
Half of the 37% is “fresh” produce, mostly potatoes, tomatoes, lettuce, citrus,
and apples. The other half is
“processed” and is remarkably the same stuff in another form: juice, French
fries, potato chips, and tomato sauce or ketchup.

The key to reducing
the percentage of animal protein in our diets (for health and climate reasons), I believe, to is incorporate more produce in
delicious ways in all meals, and to allow people who do not eat meat or cheese
to opt out, rather than allowing meat eaters to opt out of eating vegetables. 

– Helene S. York, Director, Bon
Appétit Management Company Foundation