Food for Thought

A look into vegetarian and vegan lifestyles at Stuyvesant.

Reading Time: 6 minutes

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By Mandy Li

Individuals around the world are converting to plant-based eating at unprecedented rates, but why exactly are people revamping their diets? Some simply seek longevity and better health. Others advocate for sustainability and ethics. The myriad of benefits behind a plant-based diet is gaining momentum, with Gen Z championing what it means to be meat-free. Vegetarianism and veganism have expanded from just a diet plan into an outright protest against the growing factory farm industry. Regardless of their reasons, people are making an impact on society and the world from their dinner plates.

For senior Roshni Patel, vegetarianism has been a lifestyle adopted since birth due to her Hindu background. Though her faith permits the consumption of non-cow-derived meats, Patel and her parents have abstained from animal consumption entirely. “I grew up a vegetarian, so it was the easiest thing for me to continue doing,” Patel explained. While Patel has diligently stayed true to her words, restaurants are not always accommodating. She reports having to frequently preview a restaurant’s menu in advance for vegetarian options. However, Patel does recognize the growing inclusivity in the food industry. “I think since veganism and vegetarianism have been more popularized by the media and celebrities especially, it has changed,” she said.

Sophomore Shivani Shah has also been a vegetarian since a relatively young age. Her vegetarian lifestyle started when she was five years old after her mom influenced her to become one. Religion also contributed to Shah’s decision, but the change was mainly due to her mother also being vegetarian. “My mom saw me eat 15 chicken nuggets in one round when I was five, and she was startled and was like ‘let me just make Shivani vegetarian,’” Shah described. Shah also finds that being vegetarian helps her indecisiveness with food choices. “I’ve grown used to the fact that when I go to the restaurant I have two to three, or sometimes one choice on the menu, which is good for me because I’m indecisive,” Shah explained. However, despite this, she would still like to see more variety in vegetarian meals at restaurants. “When I’m on a road trip and there are fast food restaurants, I’d rather get more choices,” she noted.

While Shah and Patel were influenced by religion and nurture, the environmental aspect is one of the leading reasons why so many young people are making the switch to plant-based. Stuyvesant’s Factory Farming Awareness Club (Stuy FFAC) promotes a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle by raising awareness of the issues brought about by factory farming. The club encourages people to choose healthier alternatives by having a plant-based diet in order to mitigate the detrimental effects of the consumption of meat. Stuy FFAC founder and co-president sophomore Lauren Lee was a mentee for FFAC last fall when she learned about the effects of factory farming and its connection to other issues, such as labor exploitation. One key point she learned is that factory farms are usually located in low-income neighborhoods, populated by minorities. The few employment opportunities available to these minority groups are often traumatizing—much of the job entails constant slaughter. Additionally, wages are low, making their work easy to exploit. The implications of factory farming motivated Lee to change her dietary habits to make a difference, along with founding the FFAC chapter at Stuyvesant. For advice to others who may be interested in starting a plant-based diet, Lee recommends taking baby steps. “It’s okay to not completely go vegan, but just try to eat less meat incrementally, and be compassionate with yourself, knowing that it’s hard,” Lee suggested. Additionally, her secret tip to motivate others to become vegetarian is to watch the “Dominion” (2018) documentary on YouTube. The documentary captures the reality of factory farming and allows viewers to catch a glimpse of the brutality that factory animals experience. An animal abuse trigger warning should be acknowledged before you decide to watch the documentary. “If you watch Dominion Academy on YouTube, you’ll immediately go vegan,” she claimed.

Lauren Lee, alongside Olivia Zheng, Sarah Huynh, and Ziying Jian, has chartered her own club called Green Garnish, affiliated with Stuy FFAC. Green Garnish is a student-operated, bi-monthly vegan cookbook. Through their recipes, the team strives to create a more just and sustainable food system. Passionate about the ecosystem and climate mitigation alike, the club founders have found that vegetarian eating aligned better with their morals. “Animals use a lot of resources to grow and then [go] to slaughter. Animals like cows produce a lot of methane, and that’s really worsening our climate change crisis,” co-president Olivia Zheng said. The demand for animal products pressures the meat and dairy industries into factory farming, a system that confines copious numbers of animals to generate profit. Factory farming also devastates habitats and the organisms that live in them. “There is a lot of carbon put into this process […] the environmental impacts that we have on our world, and also for the people that live near the factory farms […] that was absolutely horrible, and that’s a big part of why I don’t support it,” Stuy FFAC Vice President Sarah Huynh affirmed.

With all of these issues, it becomes evident that a transition toward a meat-free society is better for the biosphere as a whole, for humans and other animals alike. Though vegetarian and vegan diets are not always accessible and budget-friendly to the masses, it is only a matter of time before prices on these food items are affordable for a larger percentage of the population. “When those of us can become vegan [or vegetarian], we are helping plant-based industries be able to make more cheap products, and this is going to benefit those who maybe aren’t in the financial situation to do so be able to transition,” Zheng explained. In other words, if the demand for plant-based products increases, the government may subsidize these products, widening the sector of the population who can sustain a meat-free lifestyle.

As they further their research, many of Stuy FFAC’s members have made the decision to go vegetarian. While some are new to vegetarianism, physical education teacher Vasken Choubaralian has maintained a vegan lifestyle for over a decade. His journey began 12 years ago after watching a documentary titled “Earthlings” (2005), which exposes the food, entertainment, and medical industries for their unethical practices with animals. His motives behind becoming a vegan are multifold, combining health, environmental, and ethical factors. Choubaralian cited biomagnification, the accumulation of toxins higher up the food chain, as one of the leading health reasons. “It reduces the toxins that come into our body from all of the pesticides, antibiotics, and from the stress hormones released by these animals before they are killed. […] I didn’t want to take this negativity into my body,” he articulated. Additionally, Choubaralian shared similar sentiments with the founders of Green Garnish regarding the environmental complications created by factory farming. “These include the nitrogen that gets released into the water supply from all the wastes from the animals, the methane that gets released from the cows, and the cost of fuel and oil to ship and deliver all of this food and all of this meat across the country,” Choubaralian explained.

The meat industry is plaguing Earth’s natural landscape through the air and water, but it is taking a particular toll on rainforests, which are expected to vanish completely within the next century. Plant-based eating could help rescue rainforests and the animals that inhabit them from their impending extinction, and it is ultimately the variety of ecological advantages that inspire Choubaralian to continue his current diet, even if that means sacrificing taste. However, concerns about taste are minor inconveniences for Choubaralian compared to possible social drawbacks. “It’s a social thing, I think. Mostly you are out with friends, and maybe your friends start judging you perhaps […] you are very limited where you can eat with your friends,” Choubaralian added. Despite these setbacks, Choubaralian still supports his vegetarian lifestyle, knowing the benefits outweigh the inconveniences.

However, he also understands why others may be reluctant to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle, considering that most people have been eating meat since they were young. “Coming from that lifestyle where I ate meat and enjoyed it, I understand why people would want to eat meat, and it tastes good, I’m not going to deny it,” Choubaralian explained. “It’s something we’ve been exposed to from a young age. It becomes difficult when we get older to shed that because it’s been ingrained in us, within our identity. A lot of people continue to hold that conviction that they cannot see themselves not eating meat.”

The plant-based movement is catching on as people take charge of their own health and environment. Vegetarianism and veganism may not be possible for everyone, but for those looking to transition, Choubaralian offers a word of advice: “Do things gradually. Don’t try to just quit everything at once. Start slowly limiting the quantities, limiting the type of meat, and work your way up to being a full vegetarian or vegan.”