A sustainable diet without going broke – is it possible?

(Ruth Hartnup/Flickr)

The transition to plant-based diets has been gaining ground recently. A report by GlobalData claims that the numbers of vegans, or people eating exclusively plant-based, has risen by 5% since 2014 and is continuing to increase. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has claimed that intensive animal agriculture plays a large role in contributing to global climate change, excessive water usage, and deforestation. It’s more important now than ever that we deal with these issues by changing some of our habits — but not everyone has equal access to the means to make that possible.

Rebecca, a college student from Washington, D.C., started eating a plant-based diet a couple of months ago. She explains, “The transition to being vegan was relatively easy for me… but... I am lucky and not everyone may be able to afford to eat a plant-based or healthier diet.”  

Unfortunately, many people in the United States live in food deserts, or places where there is no access to affordable, healthy food. This gap of opportunity makes it harder for those in low-income communities to purchase fresh produce.

According to the Food Empowerment Project, “…many food deserts contain an overabundance of fast food chains selling cheap ‘meat’ and dairy-based foods that are high in fat, sugar, and salt.” Food deserts also have no easily accessible supermarkets, and a staggering 2.3 million people live over a mile away from a supermarket, while not having access to a car.

Fast food may be cheap in price, but is expensive in what economists call an “external cost,” or the costs imposed on the environment and people in the making of that product, such as the amount of water it took to grow the food, or the amount of greenhouse gases emitted to transport it — not to mention the expense of potential health impacts.

The foods that are most expensive in those costs are cheapest in price due in part to government subsidies. Most of the subsidies for agriculture go to the largest, wealthiest companies which produce staple products such as corn — nearly half of which is fed to livestock in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The goal of subsidies is to provide a program that lowers the price for the consumer, but it may be making the wrong foods cheaper.

When talking about her experience so far with a plant-based diet, Rebecca also notes, “Replacements for animal products normally cost more than the original product, and it isn’t always easy to find good vegan options at fast food restaurants...”

Without trying to replace animal products with fake meats and fake cheeses, buying the ingredients that would make up a whole foods diet can be a more affordable way to eat plant-based. However, this does not solve the problem for those who still have no access to supermarkets, and no time to prepare meals. This inconvenience, paired with the fact that it is simply not economical for those in food deserts, makes it difficult or impossible for some to maintain a healthy and sustainable diet.

Residents in some communities have started gardens, providing a healthier alternative to fast foods for their local community. This is a great start, but government subsidies could be used to make nutritious foods cheaper, and therefore provide an opportunity for people to buy more plant-based products. As Rebecca points out, not everyone has the same ability to maintain a consistent healthy diet. Although eating more plant-based is sustainable, until it becomes more affordable and accessible, many people will not have that luxury. 

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