Diets and the Environment: Part Two

The animal agriculture industry represents a lot of ethical issues, from animal welfare to climate change and resource depletion, to public health, to environmental justice. Before I was sure I even believed the magnitude of what was beginning to unravel before me, I was certain that I couldn’t continue to pretend to be outraged at the fate of our environment due to human impact but consciously be supporting an industry so greatly contributing to its degradation. Short showers are still important and so is limiting your immediate water usage, but the drain on resources that our food choices contribute to is equally if not more important. It’s like the plastic straw paradox. People will happily support an initiative to ban plastic straws and encourage their friends, Facebook followers, companies, and local governments to abstain from using plastic straws to save the oceans and protect marine life, yet they won’t stop eating fish to save the oceans and protect marine life.

Fruits and vegetables were easier to grasp. I understood the concept of picking apples or berries and then packaging them for human consumption. (I also just want to add that there are of course certain plants and vegetables that require an unsustainable drain of resources, and that requires attention too, but the volume of meat consumption in the United States is so disproportionate with the rest of the world that factory farming and animal agriculture are an important place to start.) What was more abstract was the process of turning a pig into bacon or a cow into a burger.

Packaged in clear cling wrap, ready to be cooked, the chicken we buy at a store leaves almost no trace of where it comes from or how it was produced. The other day, my roommate came home from Costco, raving about the deal she had just scored – a full rotisserie chicken for $4.99. For her the decision was simple, almost reflexive; cheap poultry was available, so she purchased it because she is benefitted by having access to cheap animal protein. But what that price tag fails to communicate is the negative externalities someone or something must have suffered to get it there in the first place. We’re all familiar with the expression “There’s no such thing as a free lunch”, well I say there’s no such thing as a $4.99 chicken.

What are the hidden costs of raising a chicken? The immense amount of arable land and natural resources needed to cultivate livestock and produce meat for human consumption is something that goes gravely unnoticed. It’s something I never even considered until the information was made plainly clear. Cows natural diet is acquired by grazing on grasslands and eating the plants and shrubs; however, cattle farmers have discovered that transitioning cows to eat grains and corn allows them to grow much bigger in a shorter time frame, ignoring the digestion and intestinal problems created by forcing animals off of their natural diets. Nearly 40% of the world’s grain goes to feeding livestock rather than people, in the United States it’s over half.

What could 40% of the world grain stocks do to help the chronically hungry and malnourished? David Pimentel, professor of ecology at Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, suggests an estimate of 800 million people that could be nourished if the grain currently devoted to feeding livestock were redistributed to feed people directly. I’m not arguing that we should all start solely consuming grains and subsist off rice and beans. But it’s worth noting how at a time when the world’s population of undernourished and hungry people is growing steadily, we continue to support and invest in a grossly inequitable distribution of resources.

The factory farm system has learned how to feed and raise their animals to grow them as big as they can as quickly as they can. This has caused farming animals to evolve into a very unnatural process, by restricting the animals from engaging in their natural behaviors to feeding the animals large amounts of food outside of their natural diets, creating health problems for the animals that are routinely ignored. Studies indicate that a combination of poor genetics, lack of movement, and poor nutrition leave 10 to 40% of pigs “structurally unsound”, referring to bowed legs, pigeon toes, and buckling at the knees. Factory farming has become so pervasive that it has even altered the genetics of the species we know and eat.

Chickens are a prime example. In the 1940s the USDA was interested in breeding a chicken that could grow the most breast meat with the least feed. They developed a specifically bred chicken and began to manipulate its environment to maximize growth and minimize feed requirements which led to the development of two distinct types of chickens, ones raised for eggs and ones raised for meat. Chickens have been genetically and behaviorally engineered to grow larger than nature intended in far less time. The chickens purchased by KFC, which is responsible for the killing of 850 million birds annually, are almost always killed at 39 days old.

For perspective, the average lifespan of a ‘backyard’ chicken is five to eight years. The short lives the vast majority of chickens are allowed to live is filled with chronic pain and discomfort due to their unnatural growth trajectories.

Diets and the Environment: Part One

Growing up, I had a childhood friend who, through her own volition and love for animals of all kinds, adopted a vegan diet from a very early age. My young mind couldn’t wrap my head around the idea of not eating pizza and cupcakes at a birthday party, or chicken nuggets when a parent would relent and pick up McDonald’s for an after-school snack. I understood not wanting to hurt innocent animals. I had sympathized with Lisa Simpson after the family went to a petting zoo and later had lamb chops for dinner, a demonstration of hypocrisy that motivated Lisa to become a vegetarian. However, I didn’t draw the connection between the animals we ate as food and the animals we were supposed to think of as cute and friendly. Later on, in high school – with fad diets coming and going – friends of mine briefly embraced ranges of diets from vegetarian, to gluten-free, to no carbs, or whatever seemed most likely to allow them to lose weight the quickest. Even then, the thought of choosing my food for any reason other than taste or appetite seemed to be withholding my body of some pleasure that I felt I duly deserved every time I sat down for a meal.

Eventually, I tried a few diets here and there, with my main source of motivation being altering my physical appearance and receiving social validation from friends experimenting with the same thing. Yet, they never stuck. I would always be tempted and defeated by the smell of pizza or an after-school bake sale – probably because there was no real reason in my mind or tangible difference for why I was choosing to restrict my food intake. When you’re a little kid and not in control of your own diet, your parents try and indoctrinate you with the idea that fruits and vegetables are good for you; however, as we get older we lose sight of that idea as we look for more complex ways to keep our bodies healthy. Now, whenever I tell someone that I’m vegan they always show a perplexed expression and ask “what do you eat?” Or even more often, if I’m eating enough protein, which has always struck me as odd, considering no one ever thought to ask me about my health or nutrient levels when I was eating meat.

I had never seriously considered before how the food people bought was produced and transported to the grocery store and then to our plates. The whole process in the United States happens behind the scenes; factory farms are located in sparsely populated areas and the actual animals are often only transported to the slaughterhouse in the middle of the night, ensuring that people who aren’t looking won’t see what is happening. Once when I was 16, I was in Thailand, in a village called Mae Sariang, walking around with a group of people, being shown in the area. A chicken trailed behind as we walked through the damp and green environment, never falling far from the group. In the late morning, we went on a short hike and returned to the village eager to eat. We all sat and had fried rice for lunch. It wasn’t until later when we wandered down to play volleyball when I noticed the chicken no longer followed our footsteps, and I thought back to the lunch we had just had. The rice was chicken fried rice, which at the moment seemed secondary to the fact that hot fresh food was in front of us. However, once I realized that the friendly chicken was, in fact, our lunch chicken and that a member of our group was the one to prepare our food and therefore kill the chicken, my perspective on our simple lunch became more complex.

This wasn’t the watershed moment in my life that made me sympathize with the animals so much so as to abstain from eating meat. Actually, you might even argue that knowing the animal was raised in a friendly and loving environment would somehow make it more comforting to eat. But, it was the first time in my life I was directly confronted with the reality of how my food comes to be something I would actually eat, and as I started to investigate further the reality of food production in the United States I kept thinking back to that chicken and how wildly different its experience was from the chickens we raise for food in the US.

After 18 years of eating meat and animal products at whim, I was sitting alone in Amsterdam one night, while my friends slept, wondering how to pass the time, when I decided to watch a documentary on Netflix with a provocative title: Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret. The documentary connected all the dots, plain and simple, of how animal agriculture plays a driving factor in exacerbating climate change and how inextricably linked our dietary choices are toward triggering some of the worst injustices towards our environment and collective well-being. Most people shy away from vegan documentaries or exposés claiming that they are sensationalist and play on people’s emotions. Even I don’t truly advocate watching traumatizing videos of the inside of a slaughterhouse. It is always graphic and explicitly compelling, but there are other valuable ways to internalize the injustices inflicted by the industrial animal agriculture system. I stayed up until the morning doing more research about what I had just been told in the film. To be quite honest with you, I was looking for every reason to contradict what the movie was trying to say because its core message was so unsettling. And because I really wanted to continue eating pizza and sushi, and most of the products my normal diet consisted of.

I had always perceived myself as someone who treated the environment well and did my best to reduce my ecological impact. I remember listening intently at an assembly in elementary school teaching us about taking short showers, turning the faucet off when we brush our teeth or nagging our parents to transition to energy efficient appliances. I happily participated in all of these activities and encouraged others to do the same. Yet, upon learning that (by conservative estimates) it takes 660 gallons of water on average to produce a single burger, I felt frustrated that the scale of the problem had been so obfuscated. Animal agriculture is the largest consumer of water resources in the United States. I could shower continuously for approximately two months and use 660 gallons of water, or I could eat a hamburger for dinner.

A Vegan Food Diary: Amsterdam

Studying abroad in Amsterdam last semester, one of the things I was most looking forward to was exploring all of the vegan restaurants I knew were hiding throughout the city. I had been to Amsterdam before, and hit a few of the popular vegan sites such as the Vegan Junk Food Bar, which serving exactly what it sounds like is famous on Instagram for over-the-top burgers; and the Happy Pig, a Dutch pancake joint that serves long and rolled-up pancakes.

 

 

But living and eating in Amsterdam for four months is different than filling a weekend with outrageous vegan food. I was so impressed with all the vegan options all over the city, from tons of restaurants that are entirely vegan to most places offering at least a vegetarian option, and every establishment offering at least one alternative type of milk. My friends, none of them vegan, were also super into exploring the different options and came with me to all of these restaurants and enjoyed their meals, which any vegan traveling knows can sometimes be a problem.

Here are some of the best spots I’ve found over the last couple of months for vegan fare in Amsterdam!

If you’re looking for a cozy Sunday morning brunch, Mr. Stacks is a pancake restaurant with plenty of options for everyone in the group. At this restaurant, the items marked with an asterisk show that they are not vegan, which is a nice change of pace from the usual breakfast restaurant. I ordered the savory stack both times I dined here, which along with three fluffy pancakes came with pink beetroot hummus, avocado, and a side salad. My friends chose to satisfy their sweet tooth, one of them ordering cinnamon roll pancakes with “cream cheese” icing, and the other ordered the most decadent chocolate pancakes I had ever seen. I snagged a bite from both of them and they were obviously delicious.

 

 

Another go-to brunch restaurant for my friends and I was Coffee and Coconuts, a three-story coffee house and cafe with unique and comfortable seating and an inviting ambiance. The restaurant’s menu rotates, but they always have a vegan option on it. Last I went, I ordered an open face mushroom sandwich with an amazing pomegranate garnish and dressing, but I’ve since heard they’ve changed it for something new!

Amsterdam has a few vegan restaurants with a fun concept to them such as the Dutch Weed Burger Joint, where each menu item is infused with seaweed in some way, offering plant-based versions of the fast food items every vegan sometimes craves. I was intrigued at the idea of seaweed burgers and nuggets and convinced my family to come to try out this unique restaurant with me, and we were all extremely impressed with the options and the taste.

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If you’re traveling on a budget, there are a ton of accessible and affordable vegan options in Amsterdam. Some of the bigger fast food chains have vegan options. Dominos, Papa Johns, and New York pizza all serve vegan cheese upon request. If you’re looking for “fancier” pizza, Sugo Pizza is right across from the De Pijp metro station and has 3 different vegan slices, all loaded with a tasty mix of veggies.

Another place my friends and I frequented was Maoz, an entirely vegan fast-food chain serving falafel sandwiches with a complimentary salad bar with dozens of toppings, and delicious hot fries with a variety of sauces. Either for a casual lunch in between classes or a late night snack at the end of a night out Maoz, definitely gives you a great meal at a very reasonable price.

Food Hallen is a large indoor food court with a really inviting and communal environment, housing a variety of high-end food stands with an international focus. From sushi and poke to barbecue, to Mediterranean and Mexican cuisine, there are options for every type of palate and eater.

In Amsterdam, while I didn’t feel pressured to google vegan restaurants in advance – because so many places were naturally very accommodating and vegan options were always readily accessible – I did enjoy doing some research to discover some gems I may have otherwise missed! If you’re planning a trip to Amsterdam, or are someone who’s lived there and is looking for new options, I encourage you to try any and all of these restaurants! You’re in for a delicious and (sometimes) healthy treat.

 

 

Summer Travels!

As I write this post, I am sitting in a little train car on my way from Athens, Greece to Thessaloniki, a city further north. Not originally on our itinerary, we chose to make a one-night stop in this new city as a buffer on our twisted journey to Belgrade, Serbia. A train to Thessaloniki, and two busses between Macedonia and Serbia will do the trick – though more convoluted than our original intention of a singular night train from Athens to Belgrade.

Athens had been kind of a whirlwind for Zac and me. We arrived early in the morning, around 10:00, and were ravenous for breakfast. We dropped our things at our hostel, nearby the main square, and then doubled back to find food. Santorini, as beautiful and farm fresh as it was had little in terms of vegan food (falafel and tomato croquettes) so I was eager to find a vegan-friendly restaurant being in a bustling city. We were quickly surprised and happy to settle on a place called “vegan nation” – aptly named and quite tasty. The much-anticipated experience would have been perfect had two young kids begging for money not approached our table; unbeknownst to either Zac or me, swiped my phone from the table in the process. After a few minutes when I looked down from my food and realized what had happened we spent a few minutes being angry, then twenty minutes traipsing around the 2-block radius of the restaurant in search of the phone-thieves before quickly giving up. We decided the best thing to do would be to cut our losses and just accept that I would need to get a new phone in Greece. We still have over a month of the trip ahead of us and to do that without a phone would’ve been challenging, so our first day in Athens was spent dealing with the aftermath of our breakfast gone awry. Of course we woke up early the next day to see the Acropolis, the Parthenon, the Roman Agora, the Theatre of Dionysos, and all of the other historic and ancient sites in Athens. We spent the rest of our time in Athens just enjoying the change of scenery, spending one day reading at a rooftop bar with a stunning view of the main square and the Parthenon.

Athens

Our few days in Athens marks the end of our two week stay in Santorini, a smaller Greek island south east of the mainland. Santorini is a beautiful little island famous to tourists and travelers for its facade of white and blue buildings along the island’s coast. We we’re able to stay in Santorini for two weeks through the worldwide organization of organic farming (WWOOF), a program allowing us to live and work on an organic farm in exchange for free accommodations. Our host farm was a quaint little place in between Karterados and Monolithos – two of santorini’s smaller villages. Nestled right on the water we woke up each morning to walk the four dogs – always accompanied by two strays – and then to help with whatever task needed to be completed until it got to be noon and it was far too hot to continue working outside.

With the rest of the afternoons at our disposal we often spent the first few hours of the days reading and relaxing on the beach until we’d make the trek, often by foot, to Fira. Fira is one of the main parts of Santorini with the famous Caldera adorned with traditional Greek restaurants, shops, and bars. Here you’ll find a beautiful view of the sunset along the cliff’s edge, however you have to stake out your spot lest you be standing behind a few rows of other travelers inching forward to see the sun’s glow cast over the city.

sunset in Fira!

When the walk to Fira became too exhausting at a little over an hour each way, we rented 4×4 motorbikes to help us get around the island. I must say if you visit Santorini I can’t recommend this method of travel enough. The island is small so the motorbikes make all of its corners accessible whereas both the bus system and renting a car present certain impediments to prime site seeing. With the 4×4 you can essentially park anywhere, and the hour walk to Fira diminishes to less than 10 minutes. We took the 4x4s all over: to Fira then to Oía, to Kamari, and to Akrotiri.

The drive from Fira to Oía is a beautiful coastal drive along a winding road. There’s also an 11km walking trail too if you want to really take in the ocean expanse. I took the bus to Oía once: for €1.60 I boarded a coach bus and was terrified for 45 minutes as the bus attempted to traverse the turns and curves of the narrow coastal drive, but if you want to see Oía for a bargain – the bus is not a bad option.

Oía, Santorini

Oía, Santorini

Oía, Santorini

The lighthouse, ruins, and red beach are all sights to see in Akrotiri and would have been inaccessible to us without the 4x4s and had some of the most beautiful views of the island.

Red Beach, Santorini
View at the lighthouse, Akrotiri

Kamari is another beach town on the island that has a lot to offer, including a close-up view of the big mountain that was always visible from our farm. There’s a promenade on the beach with restaurants that set up lounge chairs next to the water. The Main Street also turns into a pedestrian walkway at night making it the perfect place to take a stroll or eat a late dinner in the company of others.

Attempting to sum up almost three weeks in Greece in a short blogpost is a challenging task, yet I hope this gave you a small glimpse into my recent adventures! Onwards and upwards!

A Vegan Food Diary: New Orleans

Changing something about your lifestyle is always difficult at first, especially when you find yourself away from home. Only two weeks before returning to Tulane, I decided to remove all animal-based products from my diet– meat, fish, dairy, and eggs among others.

Never a fan of diets or dietary fads, I had long snubbed efforts at vegetarianism and veganism by my friends, not seeing the reason or true value behind their personal and ecological commitment. After becoming aware of the devastating effects of animal agriculture on the environment and the wellbeing of all species and communities, I had to make the choice to stop supporting that industry. Since committing to a lifestyle of healthier choices for my body and the environment I’ve come to appreciate all of the true benefits of transitioning to a vegan or “plant-based” diet.

I thought moving back south to New Orleans for the school year would present significant challenges in my quest for cruelty-free, environmentally-sustainable, and nutritious food. I was nervous that eating on a meal plan would restrict my options and leave me with repetitive and bland meal options. Luckily, Tulane’s dining services have an all vegan station and offer a few additional on-campus dining options that tend to have healthier options.

There are abundant vegan restaurants in New Orleans and the options Uptown alone, that cater to vegan diets has continued to amaze me. There are many restaurants that specifically target vegan and vegetarian populations such as Seed or Bearcat Cafe. Some of my favorite spots to sneak away to off-campus to indulge in a flavorful and filling vegan meal are:

Seed

Seed is an entirely vegan restaurant with the mission of creating food sourced from local, organic, and natural ingredients that still have the classic New Orlean’s taste. They have a diverse menu of staple vegan choices like avocado toast and an extensive build-your-own salad section, but they also offer traditional New Orleans dishes made vegan including an eggplant or fried tofu po’boy, and gumbo. My personal favorite dish is the southern-fried Tofu nuggets – a much-needed comfort food in the wake of chicken nuggets. The vegan buffalo sauce is just the cherry on top of the cake! Don’t sleep on the brunch menu – only available on the weekends – it might be your only chance to score some vegan chicken and waffles.

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Avocado Toast with a Tofu Scramble
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Vegan Beignets

Surreys – Uptown

Surrey’s is a classic uptown brunch eatery, notable for its funky atmosphere and art-lined walls. The menu features Latin-inspired breakfasts along with other popular specials. While the menu doesn’t feature exclusively vegan options, they have a great asterisk system working for them; one for vegetarians, two for vegans. What puts surreys on the map in the name of vegan-friendly restaurants is the option to substitute eggs for tofu in any of the original breakfast options at no extra charge. Going vegan, for me at least, has meant substituting a lot of the protein you used to eat for tofu, and you start to become wary quickly at restaurants who unnecessarily charge at your dietary requests (don’t even get me started on almond milk). My classic order is the tofu breakfast plate with a side of avocado mash… 10/10.

Tofu Breakfast Plate at Surrey's Uptown
Tofu Breakfast Plate

Satsuma

If you’ve ever asked a Tulane student what their favorite brunch spot close to campus is, odds are you’ve heard more than one person respond with “Satsuma”. On the corner of Maple and Fern street rests a popular cafe that serves breakfast and lunch, with a paid attention to locally sourced ingredients. Their menu is loaded with healthy options, and vegetarian and vegan choices as well. Once going vegan I had to do away with my classic order, a lunch plate with scrambled eggs, bacon, toast and avocado mash. I try and switch up the vegan options I get, but my favorite and new classic order, is the quinoa market salad (with no cheese), a side of toast with avocado mash because I’m never honestly filled up with just a salad. With all the incredible vegan options available, possibly the best part of going to Satsuma is indulging in their delicious double chocolate chip cookie, which you would never know was vegan if not for the little “V” in the top-left corner of the pastry label. Since I spent the first few weeks of school just trying every vegan option or combination on the menu, here’s a few more photos than just my usual order.

vegan Mexican breakfast plate
Mexican Breakfast Plate (no cheese, no eggs, add tofu)
Asian Tofu Scramble
Asian Tofu Scramble
Vegan Salad
My New Classic – The Mediterranean Quinoa Salad with a side of avocado toast and an orange juice

Dat Dog

Dat Dog is a popular franchise in New Orleans that expands upon the classic hot dog, by offering nine different types of sausages to choose from, plus three vegan ones, and over 30 toppings to mix and match. Popular locations on Freret Street and Frenchman Street draw crowds to the brightly colored oasis with a quick meal that will satisfy your taste buds, and not break the bank. The first time I returned to Dat Dog as a vegan I tried the Spicy Chipotle Dog, but the second time around, I got the Field Roast Italian Dog, and liked that one much better! Perfect for parties with mixed dietary needs, Dat Dog has options for everyone – even if you don’t like hot dogs, they have fish and chicken “dogs” as well. Be sure to stop by the Magazine Street location on the weekends to eat your hot dog amidst an Art Market that pops up in the courtyard of the restaurant each weekend.

Dat Dog VEGAN
Vegan Chipotle Dog

There are dozens of other vegan and vegetarian-friendly restaurants in the area to choose from like Hivolt, Slim Goodies Diner, and Poke Loa, which are perfect for dining with your friends, so you don’t have to nervously scan the menu, hoping to find a dish you can eat. I’d love to know; what’s the best restaurant for a vegan meal in your area?