The Source of the Vegetarian Ripple Effect

February 4, 2009

Vegetarianism has a tremendous ripple effect. I’ve been thinking about why this is, and I think it’s because of our deep and abiding desire to share food.

Eating is a deeply social act. At the start of our lives, it’s literally impossible to eat without another human being. As infants, we always eat in the company of another person, whether we are breast or bottle-fed. As school children, we eat lunch with our class mates. If we’re lucky, we eat breakfast and dinner with our families. When we have a birthday, we share cake with our guests. When we come home from college, or a far-away jobs, our parents’ immediate impulse is to feed us, no matter how old we are and no matter how late it is when we get home.

Sharing food is instinctive. If our friend forgets her lunch, we share what we’ve brought from home. When someone says, “that looks good!”, we offer a bite. If we give a toddler a snack, he’ll feed us cheerios whether we like them or not.

The impulse to share is so powerful that it often trumps food preferences. Most of my family and friends really enjoy eating meat, but I can always count on them to feed me something I can eat. If we’re at a restaurant, it’s not uncommon for a friend to order a vegetarian entree or appetizer so that I can have a bite too. It doesn’t mean that the omnivores in my life stop eating meat, or that they stop eating meat when I’m there, but it does mean that they incorporate more vegetarian food into their lives.

When it comes down to it, the vegetarian ripple effect depends on the love of omnivores. It’s our impulse for sharing, our desire to nurture others, that makes the ripple effect possible.

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The Vegetarian Ripple Effect

January 23, 2009
When I stopped eating meat 12 years ago, so did my family. They didn’t actually become vegetarians – my brother and sister were quite vocal about their carnivorous preferences* – but, six nights out of seven, my mother made red beans and rice, or tofu marbella, or cheesy potato soup.

When I moved into my first real apartment, my omnivorous roommates did the same thing. 12 apartments, 6 cities, 3 countries, and 24 roommates later, I can safely say that this phenomenon is universal. Vegetarian moves in, everyone else drastically reduces meat consumption.

In fact, the vegetarian doesn’t even have to move in for this to work. Your omnivorous friend will totally order vegetable dumplings for lunch, just so you can try them. Your boyfriend’s mother, whom you have never met before, will make you miso soup.

This is amazing.

First, it’s incredible how one vegetarian can change the way dozens or hundreds of people eat. Going vegetarian is the carbon equivalent of switching from a Toyota Camry to a Prius, but the multiplier effect from friends, family, and roommates is far bigger.

Secondly, I am always amazed at how generous people are when it comes to the care and feeding of vegetarians. There are an unbelievable number of people who will put aside their preferences so that the vegetarian in their life can eat something tasty.

So, thanks everyone. Thanks for making black bean soup and ordering the pad thai with tofu and letting me try it. It means a lot.

* They’re very supportive now. My sister just spent the weekend ordering vegetarian dishes for the express purpose of letting me eat off her plate in restaurants. She was also a vegetarian for a couple of years in college.