Is This Water Vegan?: Not Everyone Can Afford to Be So Picky

September 27, 2017
image of avocado with words "eat me"

At 3:30 in the morning, my head resting on the toilet, I decided to give the whole vegetarianism thing a try. Food poisoning is a bitch that tends to change how you see things--in this case, my juicy cheeseburger from the night before looked much less tantalizing on the way out than on the way in.

Finals were looming and I was soon going to be home, with the comfort of an oven and a full-sized fridge, hugely different from the mediocre dining halls of the previous nine months. I made a quick decision to avoid meat…which turned into a decision to not eat meat at all.

Just like that, I was a vegetarian. And that was that, no aftershocks, a surprisingly easy transition. When my friends and parents asked where I wanted to eat out, I responded with “I can find something to eat anywhere!” which, for the most part, is and was true.

But once I returned to school for fall semester, I started to wonder: was it this easy for everyone to “choose” a healthy diet/lifestyle like vegetarianism? Was my meat-free transition a privilege only some people can afford?

Maybe it’s something about UVA that makes you hyper-aware of stereotypes, but I had to know: was I “that girl,” the perpetual-yoga-pant-wearing girl who seems to live on expensive juice and air? I couldn’t shake the idea that if you’re into “healthy food and lifestyle,” specifically vegetarianism, you’re just another upper-middle-class white woman, the kind all the health food stores and restaurants cater to. I really wanted to know: what were the cultural, socioeconomic, and racial implications of my quick-and-easy foray into vegetarianism?

But the thought of figuring all of that out made my head spin. So I decided to start small and concrete, with some quasi-anthropological research close to home. I visited the latest primo vegetarian options at the Corner, to see what I could afford to eat (hoping this endeavor wouldn’t ruin my bank account), and to check out the “healthy-eating” clientele (hoping I might see someone other than “those girls” chowing down on avocado toast and salads).

First stop? The brand new Corner Juice, with an outside seating area, and more table and couches inside, definitely created an atmosphere conducive to studying and hanging out with friends. Even if I wanted to dismiss it as a snooty, “only for the rich” spot, I had to admit, it was soothing and pretty. The vibe was a little darker and cooler than I had expected; dark grey walls and dark wood accents offset white tables and chairs. In keeping with the health and wellness idea, a little urban plant growth table with a purple light cast a violet tint around a corner of the room.  

As if that weren’t seductive enough, the short-but-sweet menu offered more diversity than I’d expected: a variety of smoothies, bowls, toasts, and sandwiches. At least the menu was diverse! But the prices—maybe some would find them reasonable, but few students, I would think, could afford to eat here everyday. A smoothie will put you out $7 or $8, a smoothie bowl $9 or $10. (The bowl costs extra because of your inevitable Snapchat story). Toasts are the cheapest, going as low as $4 (for a warm piece of bread, let’s face it), and sandwiches are $7 to $10, but not all are vegetarian or vegan. That kind of blew my central reason for going there, but I pushed on, in the name of research.

I ordered a smoothie ($6.95) and sat down to do a little observation.

In line I had started my count of people wearing athletic clothes with (perhaps) absolutely no intention of working out. Lululemon shorts (priced at $58 per pair, a quick Google search shows) ran rampant. I even saw a tennis skirt paired with an athletic tank, as if you couldn’t scream, “country club!” louder. I saw two pairs of Supergas and a couple pairs of Adidas sneakers. Nothing inherently wrong with any of these, but a trend is a trend for a reason. In the back, a yoga studio is currently being built, which maybe explains why I saw so many Swell water bottles. The whole feel of the place seemed super-wholesome upper-middle class, with a picture-perfect glow that reminded me of lacrosse games on a warm spring afternoon. Completing the scene: a Goldendoodle puppy on a leash outside.

Next up: Juice Laundry.

I walked in and felt more of the vibe I was expecting. Perhaps I wanted to be more forgiving, having been really snarky about the people at Corner Juice. No doubt Juice Laundry was gorgeous, too, but maybe somehow more brisk, less Zen. Very HGTV with a lot of crisp, clean, white walls and distressed wood. The menu packed a price-tag wallop, with smoothie bowls costing $11. The options (less variety than Corner Juice) were all vegetarian, though, so that was exciting to see; all gluten-free and peanut-free, too, a bonus for vegetarians (or anyone) with food restrictions. It was kind of interesting to see an emphasis on juice and juice cleanses, at least in terms of class. Most people go to restaurants for food to fill their stomachs. Not for food that cleans them out (like that food-poisoned burger that turned me vegetarian). Some can barely afford any food, with or without meat. And some can afford to buy food specified to their particular “cleanse” needs. I was too lost thinking about this to even count brand names, sadly. I did manage to note that Juice Laundry has a satellite location in the Purvelo spin studio in Charlottesville (cost for student “all-you-can-ride” for three months: $400).

I simply wanted to see what healthy options existed for a vegetarian, and how much that might cost, on the Corner. In a way, the stereotype I feared was kind of confirmed for me. It seems that rather than just selling food, these stores are selling a lifestyle--a lifestyle that going to the new Sheetz and buying mac and cheese bites for $3 doesn’t quite achieve. The lifestyle is typical and normative for a certain class of people who can afford to emphasize overall wellness.

I can try to make light of it all with my little experiment on the Corner, but I am troubled by what I know is true. We should all be able to care about and nurture our “wellness,” regardless of our gender, race, or class. The seduction—and alienation—I felt at these lovely, out-of-reach places only increases the cultural divide between “haves” and “have nots.”

I will keep thinking and learning about these disparities. In the meantime I will find comfort in saying, “I don’t eat meat,” instead of proclaiming, “I am a vegetarian.” Something about the label feels so categorizing and, again, alienating. I will keep seeking meatless sustenance and social justice, and I’ll try not to turn into a stereotype of another kind. In the meantime, see you at Sheetz!

Photo Credit:

Art by Kirsten Hemrich

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