How To Be Vegan In An American Urban Food Desert

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There are many excuses not to go vegan, but there are even more reasons to go vegan. Whatever is hindering you from being able to make the change does have a solution if you are passionate enough about reducing harm to animals. One of the many highly-used excuses to not go vegan is living in “food deserts”, which are defined by the USDA as “urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food. Instead of supermarkets and grocery stores, these communities may have no food access or are served only by fast food restaurants and convenience stores that offer few healthy, affordable food options“.

For simplicity’s sake, I will be focusing on urban food deserts since there are significantly more people living in urban food deserts than rural ones. The American food desert undoubtedly exists and is a crisis that greatly impacts the health of the 26 million people affected by it, but it is often claimed that it is not possible to be a vegan if you live in one, especially in the United States. (Note that vegan does not always equate with healthy). To prove this claim wrong, here are a few examples of vegan options that can be found in most food deserts: 

  • Chipotle – Chipotle offers a variety of vegan-friendly options, including burritos, salads, burrito bowls, and tacos. These can be filled with sofritas, a tofu product, or you can just go simple with beans and rice, plus tasty additions like salsa, guacamole, fajita vegetables, and lettuce. The best part? In most Chipotle restaurants, the vegan options are cheaper than the ones containing meat! You can often save $1-$4 depending on your fillings if you choose the vegan options. Who said being vegan was expensive? Of course, Chipotle is one of the higher-end fast food restaurants and therefore costs more than most, but if your issue is simply location rather than budget, Chipotle can be a great staple, and their portions are huge. You can get a 900 calorie vegan burrito (without sofritas but with guacamole or with them but without guacamole) for $6.96 at my local Chipotle in metro Atlanta. (Keep in mind that, surprisingly, only about half of those in food deserts are low-income, so if you can only afford the cheapest of cheap food, read on).
  • Subway – Subway offers a “Veggie Delite” sandwich that can be filled with a variety of vegetables, and their ciabatta, hearty Italian, regular Italian, roasted garlic, and sourdough breads are all vegan, in addition to multiple condiments: deli brown mustard, fat free sweet onion, oil, red wine vinegar, and yellow mustard. And just like at Chipotle, the vegan sandwiches at Subway are generally cheaper than sandwiches with meat on them!
  • Taco Bell – Taco Bell is probably your best option if you want variety in your meals. Most of their items can be customized to be made vegan, and it’s generally very cheap. Choosing vegan options won’t cost you anything additional at Taco Bell, so if you already rely on the Mexican fast food chain as a staple, know that you’ll still be able to get your $1 tacos. Taco Bell has too many options to list out, so here is a list of your options. Take note of the “add ins and extra ingredients” list – you can use these ingredients to customize meaty meals into vegan goodness. For example, taco bell allows you to order a taco filled with beans, lettuce, and tomatoes, and I like to order guacamole and rice on the side. I have also done this with their nachos. Think of it as a “secret menu”.

These are just a few of the many options you have as a vegan residing in a food desert. If you do not happen to have any of what I listed nearby, check out this list of the vegan options at a good number of fast food chains. 

  • Pizza – Most pizza places have vegan dough and tomato sauce and will hold the cheese for you by request. This bread and sauce pie can be topped with all kinds of veggies. Just make sure with the individual restaurant beforehand that the dough and sauce don’t contain any hidden animal ingredients. Here is a guide from peta2 about how to order vegan from some popular pizza chains.
  • Accidentally Vegan Junk Food – Those living in urban food deserts must often buy food from convenience stores, resorting to packaged, processed animal products. If you have no other choice but to consume packaged convenience store food, with some deep digging you can find various “accidentally vegan” items, or foods that were not made to be targeted for vegans, but happen to have vegan ingredients. PETA has compiled a great list containing hundreds of such foods, so even if your local convenience store has a  somewhat limited food selection, you are bound to find at least a few of these items. You don’t have to dig too deep to find the basics: think pretzels and potato chips.

Be the change: If you are not happy with your situation, you have the power to try to fix it. Start a petition for your city’s convenience stores to carry fresh produce. If they are made aware that enough people are willing to pay for such items, chances are that they will change at least some of their ways in response to consumer demand. Perhaps even your local lawmakers will see this petition and take action. A great example of such an occurrence is described here, in which “after a survey revealed that 94 percent of residents would purchase more fresh produce if it were available at convenience stores, the city of Minneapolis enacted the Minneapolis Health Corner Store initiative, requiring all corner and convenience stores to stock a certain amount of fresh fruit on their shelves.”  You can read more about this here. If you want to go all-out, you can try to push for more specifically vegan food as well. Find out if you have a community garden nearby. If not, start a petition for one. “Be the change you wish to see in the world”.

I will be honest with you – being vegan, especially in an area that does not have large supermarkets, is not easy. You will struggle and your struggle will be real. However, think of it this way: whatever difficulty you come across when trying to be vegan in a food desert can never be as difficult as the unimaginable horror animals experience day by day, hour by hour when they are being bred, raised, and killed for your food. Please try for the billions of cows, pigs, chickens, and turkeys who are suffering for human greed. They will thank you for your effort.

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