It’s National Vegetarian Week this week which means determined vegetarians have another reason to dive into the celebration of everything meat-free, while life-long carnivores are challenged to forgo much-loved bacon sandwiches and fish and chips (two meals British people find the hardest to give up, according to the National Vegetarian Society’s survey) and go veggie for the week. To glorify the benefits of a plant-based diet, a variety of events are taking place throughout the country – from cooking lessons and demos to picnics in parks, from displays of vegetarian culinary books to special offers on veggie meals in restaurants, cafes and supermarkets, from online competitions to awareness and promotional campaigns. But you don’t have to travel anywhere to venture into vegetarianism – in fact, you are encouraged to create animal cruelty-free environment right in your house. The National Vegetarian Society dares everyone to turn their kitchens and fridges into meat-free spaces and make a switch to a plant-based diet for the week. To help the enthusiasts discover the variety and delicious taste of vegetarian food, the Society’s webpage offers recipes of meat-free delights to be cooked and enjoyed on every day of the week. To ease the stress of meal planning, the website also provides a complete shopping list for the entire week as well as for each single recipe. Suggested dishes are all quite quick and easy to prepare which certainly adds a bit of appeal to the “go veggie” initiative, but what about the monetary price of taking up the challenge?
I took a close look at the provided shopping list and did a little research to reveal the true costs of incorporating suggested veggie delights into an average family’s weekly food budget. To get the price of all meals proposed for the week, I did online price comparison (www.mysupermarket.co.uk is a good helper) for every single ingredient appearing on the list – I deliberately chose the cheapest option which was usually found in Aldi or ASDA (normally when Aldi didn’t stock the product). Next, for each of the ingredients I calculated the price of the amount that is actually needed – so, for example, knowing the price of olive oil (the cheapest one in Aldi costs 26.9p per 100 ml), and the amount required by the shopping list (7tbsp, or ~105 ml), I could figure out the cost of this particular ingredient (~ 27p). Using the same method, I calculated the total cost of all ingredients which came to ~£35. Admittedly, the method is far from flawless – first of all, it implies that all necessary products are already in your cupboard and you can just use the amount needed. I’ll dare to speculate that Thai 7-spice mix or nori flakes are not every family’s food staples – in fact, the latter was unavailable in any of the supermarkets and is the only ingredient the price of which I couldn’t figure out and therefore had to exclude it from the calculations altogether. Obviously, if you have to buy a whole pack or bottle of something (you do need those “few drops of vanilla extract” in your dish after all!) or if you dare to take your shopping list to Tesco’s (by the way, the official sponsor of this year’s vegetarian week), let alone Waitrose, then the price of your shopping basket will certainly go well beyond £35 that I virtually spent in Aldi.
Thus, cooking all suggested delicacies this week would cost a veggie enthusiast a minimum of £35. While all recipes serve 4-6 people, they only provide an average family with a one course meal on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday, a variety of sides to complement a shop-bought pie on Thursday, two salad options to go with store-bought veggie burgers on Saturday, while Sunday’s menu only features a fruit dessert. Given that an average weekly expenditure on food and non-alcoholic drinks in the UK is £53.40 (data for 2009-2011, Office for National Statistics, 2013), a spend of £35 on just seven courses a week looks like an unaffordable luxury for the majority of British consumers.
My own research provides some context to the dry figures. The more I meet people, the more I observe their shopping behaviour and question their food choices, the more I realise how inextricably people’s food ethics (however contested, controversial and diverse) are tied to their disposable incomes. In fact, in two months of intense fieldwork I haven’t yet met a single person who could freely put his money where his morals are without considering the impact of every single choice on his monthly food budget. While we can endlessly exhort the benefits of a vegetarian diet (of which there is, indeed, plenty), money-saving does not seem to come up prominently on the list. I just recently asked one of my research participants whether he finds it easier for a vegetarian to survive on a restricted food budget. He quite rightly observed that a vegetarian diet (just as a meat-based one) can be less or more expensive, and it is specific product choices that your total food expenditure is determined by – so, for example, tofu is quite a luxury meat substitute compared to cheap lentils. However, he strongly emphasized the lack of vegetarian convenience and fast-food options. While a meat-eater can appease his appetite with a cheap take-away or a shop-bought burger or sausage roll, a hungry veggie in need of a quick meal solution has a lot fewer options to choose from – meat substitutes, frozen veggie meals and specialty non-dairy products are on the pricey side. For many people, the cost of fresh fruits and veg, nuts, and muesli is simply forbidding. And as far as people’s food choices are locked within the current system of food production which makes fresh and healthy meal and snack solutions too expensive to rely on as main sources of nutrition, challenging consumers (or their food budgets?) to change their diets risks being limited to just a one-week adventure.