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Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Beans?

Posted Sep 07 2008 8:37pm

by Erica Kenney

Leafing through the Sunday paper last weekend, I saw a piece in the New York Times about the tactics that Whole Foods is using to convince consumers that it is, in fact, possible to shop economically at a market that is so synonymous with high prices that its nickname is "Whole Paycheck." The piece described how an employee at one Whole Foods location was leading tours for shoppers to show them what can be bought at the store to fit within a reasonable budget. As the article described this employee promoting frozen fish, beans, and tofu, I thought, "Good for him!"....and then got to the end of the piece, where one of the shoppers on the tour said that the tour was not so relevant for her because "[i]t was only cheap if you were a vegetarian and willing to eat beans and tofu."

This got me to thinking about another news item that had popped up several weeks ago, about how sales of Spam, the canned-in-goo lunch meat-cum-Monty Python prop, had gone up as the brewing food crisis, coupled with a weak economy, approached. It's a good reality check for those of us who are idealistic about changing the world's diet. At first it would seem that the spike in food prices could have a silver lining of sorts. The rising price of meat, one might think, would spur consumers to reduce their meat consumption, which would be a pretty great thing for both our health and the environment. Replacing the meat in a few meals with beans, eggs, nuts, and/or soy would decrease consumption of saturated fats and carcinogenic compounds while increasing consumption of unsaturated fats and fiber, doing less damage to our arteries, reducing the risk of cancer, and diminishing greenhouse gases and pollution from livestock production. One might think it's not too far fetched, either--we were not always a nation of meat guzzlers. Our obsession with eating huge portions of meat is a relatively recent phenomenon, mostly from the last 50 years or so. A diet with less meat would more closely resemble the frugal diet that the majority of Americans were eating before subsidies and cost-cutting meat production practices pushed prices down, re-setting the norms of how much of one’s diet should consist of meat.

But instead of moving back towards this diet pattern, we're doing the exact opposite from a health/environment perspective, and switching to Spam so that we can still eat meat, just more affordably. Wondering why, I thought again of the woman at the Whole Foods, speaking about eating beans and tofu as something that only vegetarians did. It seems as though meat is an all-or-nothing food in many people's minds, that a meal isn't a meal unless it's got some meat on the plate, and that the only other alternative is to become a vegetarian. This, of course, isn't true, but I wonder what is scarier to carnivores: the idea of being a vegetarian or the idea of not tasting meat every lunch and dinner of the week? Vegetarians seem to disturb a lot of people, perhaps because, in the grand scheme of things, they really are a very small minority in this country and as such can be regarded as a fringe movement, closely associated with caricatures of barefooted hippies protesting outside of a steakhouse. But the irony is that no one is asking Americans to all become vegetarians--the idea is just to reduce meat consumption. Why is reducing meat automatically equated with eliminating meat, full stop? What could we do to convince Americans that it is all right to have a bean stew or a burrito or an omelet a few nights a week instead of a hamburger? If prices aren't having an effect, what will? It's kind of a stretch, but I wonder whether having chefs and cooking personalities on TV cook more meatless recipes might normalize the meat-less meal. Or perhaps there needs to be a National Beangrowers Association to start an ad campaign entitled “Beans: They’re What’s for Dinner.”

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