Reframing veganism: how do we make plant-based eating mainstream?

We’re now one year into the decade that matters, the decade where we need to make significant changes to mitigate the effects of the climate crisis. So what are the technologies, ideas and innovations that are going to make a material difference? 

Last week, we looked at the positive impact carbon sinks and rewilding projects could have for the environmental movement as we head into the next decade. This week, we’re focusing on the food chain: what we eat, how we produce it and where our food comes from. The health and environmental benefits of consuming fewer animal products and using considered, holistic agricultural methods are widely accepted, but could they become mainstream?

I first gave up eating meat for ethical, not environmental, reasons. I didn’t do it alone, taking a meat-free vow hand-in-hand with my housemate. Those first few months deprived of meat were significantly cushioned by two things: faux meat supermarket products (thank you, Linda McCartney) and carbs, particularly of the potato kind. But these vices served a purpose. They softened the blow of giving up a part of my diet I had lived with for more than twenty years and helped me transition into life as a vegetarian.

During this transition period, I also had the advantage of living in a place where you could find a decent vegetarian or vegan restaurant in just about every suburb. I was introduced to lentil shepherd’s pie and kofta balls via the Hare Krishna restaurant down the road. Another local, The Pocket, started a falafel-hummus love affair. I discovered cashew cheese as a vegan pizza topping at a nearby organic arts cafe. And takeaway shop Feed the Earthlings proved you absolutely do not need meat or dairy to enjoy a cheeseburger. These establishments each had their own community and, perhaps most importantly, made vegetarian and vegan food incredibly exciting.

This matters because while many know eating fewer animal products is good for the environment and reducing global carbon emissions, encouraging millions of people to actually shift their diet requires a mainstream approach. A creative idea that is affordable, accessible and appealing to the masses.

Aisha “Pinky” Cole’s idea ticked all the boxes. The Atlanta-based restaurateur spent the last two years turning plant-based foods into a cuisine that would have even the most meat-devout salivating. Frustrated by the lack of vegan options available at the fast food restaurants where she lived, Cole launched Slutty Vegan in 2018, a vegan burger chain that started out in a shared kitchen and grew into two food trucks (a great tool for spreading food culture and building relationships) and three restaurants.

Using plant-based products from Impossible Foods and employing a novel approach to meat-free eating, Cole has successfully kicked her Black-owned business into the mainstream, ensuring Slutty Vegan is accessible to all members of the community, particularly minority and marginalised groups. Speaking to Forbes in 2019, Cole says “the decision to open our flagship location in the West End Atlanta area was a no-brainer. The first mission of Slutty Vegan has been to change the narrative on vegan foods, especially in under-informed communities.”

A playful name and menu (featuring burgers like the One Night Stand, Fussy Hussy and Super Slut) combined with a fun, in-house experience has helped Slutty Vegan gain a loyal following and accelerate the brand’s success. They’ve even been organically endorsed by a number of high-profile celebrities, backing Cole’s mission to build community and open conversations around plant-based eating.

On the other end of the spectrum are individuals proving vegan food has a place in high-end establishments, like self-taught French chef Claire Vallée. When Vallée first attempted to apply for a loan to open her restaurant, she was turned down because of her inexperience and the banks’ notion of risk, that a vegan eatery in a small coastal town wouldn’t succeed. So she crowdfunded the money instead, establishing ONA five years ago, which recently became the first vegan restaurant in France to be awarded a star by the Michelin Guide.

That’s Michelin star-worthy food, free from meat, fish and dairy – an extraordinary feat considering ONA’s home, a town close to Bordeaux, is a place renowned for meat-heavy classics like boeuf bourguignon and coq au vin, not to mention French culture’s general relationship with cheese. In an interview, Vallée said: “I make this [vegan] food because I love it, and I want to show people you can eat differently and still enjoy it”. Vallée has risen to the challenge of ingenuity, choosing to focus on the combinations of grains, spices and plants that can be experimented with to create truly indulgent and exciting meat-free food.

Vallée and Cole are two women who used their creativity and passion for vegan eating to challenge the mainstream food culture of their communities and make vegan food more accessible. Both have enjoyed enormous success. Why? Because they took ordinary expectations of vegan eating, surpassed them, and poured their energy into making plant-based food with mass appeal.

The success of their approach also comes down to an understanding that individuals arrive at a decision to make a habit change from different places. For too long, the vegan/vegetarian movement has been polarising, positioning ideologies in opposition to one another. It doesn’t have to be this way. Rather than finger pointing people into action, we can actually excite them into it. The rationale for doing something good, in this case eating less meat for the future of the planet, can be an added bonus to discovering and enjoying plant-based food. And, if there’s one thing we should be able to agree on in the year 2021, it’s that vegan food is far from a restrictive diet choice. There’s a plethora of enticing options – all it takes is a willingness to try.

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