When I attended last year’s Seed Food and Wine Festival in Miami, there was a lot of discussion about changing the face of veganism—to be more blunt about it, changing the skin color and bank account balance of veganism. As Instagram and other online media project, veganism is a lifestyle that’s most easily attainable and prominent among upper class white women; read, people who can afford (space- and money-wise) a Vitamix (for all those smoothies and raw desserts), to buy all their groceries organic and local, and to makeover their wardrobes and beauty supplies with top-quality cruelty-free brands.
Of course we know that there are tons of hacks to making veganism affordable and practical, but it’s true that the movement is painfully homogenous in its demographics. More and more attention is being paid to vegans who don’t fit this description and adopt beloved, familiar ethnic cuisines into plant-based fare. But education is only half the battle: learning how and why to cook vegan at home is a huge and key skill, but what about when you want a night on the town or are on the go? What’s the non-upper-class-white-woman vegan to do when faced with choosing between the $25 chopped salad or $12 fresh pressed juice, and there’s only five bucks in his or her wallet?
This past week, a new kid showed up on the block down in Bushwick, Brooklyn, that is looking to rectify this conundrum. Sol Sips originally launched in December as a popup store, and on April 5, 2018, opened a permanent cafe location. Their website boasts a ideology of simplicity—all menu items have four or fewer ingredients and are 95 percent house-made. But there’s an even further degree of simplicity at hand since the biggest barrier to entry into veganism isn’t necessarily a plethora of confusing foodstuffs, but cost. To solve the problem, the weekend menu has a sliding scale, so anyone can enjoy a complete brunch with drink for as little as $7.
The founder, Francesca “Sol” Cheney, was on a mission to eradicate the classist vibes of veganism she’d encountered herself. Having discovered the joys of eating more plants as a college student, and then trying to make it work in the hustle economy of her generation, the twenty-one-year-old decided that more people needed to be able to simply afford to make veganism part of their reality.
Even if it’s once a week, you can imagine what that kind of regular exposure can do to a person’s health and overall wellbeing.
The question still remains, however, why this is an issue at all. Historically what would be now seen as a vegan diet—brown bread (sometimes stale), beans and rice, Charlie Bucket’s favorite cabbage soup, fermented vegetables preserved from last summer—was for the lower class, while the richer tiers of society happily carved into hunted game and indulgent desserts. Food that came from the ground stayed there, below eye level, and only those used to engaging with the ground itself would deign to forage it.
Today’s situation is the result of a double-table turn in our relationship to the earth, and therefore our food, and the economy. Because of our exponential population growth since the industrial revolution and associated invention of refrigeration, we’ve allowed ourselves to become concentrated in urban centers without a concern about where our food is grown or how we’ll get it fresh. Plants are out of sight, out of mind, until we want a pretty array of them to snap for our Instagram feed and pay top dollar to make that tropical smoothie pop in the dead of winter. The grain belt is overrun with GMO crops designed to sustain our expanding waistlines, and the factory farmers who harvest them remain literally high above it all, relying on machines instead of their bodies to take the food from the earth. At the same time, the poorer folks who used to maintain agriculture are further condensed into cities, and the least healthy foods containing those inexpensive, unnatural “food” concoctions are all that fits in their budgets.
It’s worth recognizing what a feat it is that we got to this place at all: humans have outsmarted nature for a pretty long time and have been making it work. Regardless of how close we are to falling over the precipice to the other side of our quest for control, there’s no reason to not take a hard pivot and try to slide ourselves back down to the earth, where we and our bodies belong.
If we want to achieve a society that’s more sustainable and economically just, then we might look to plants as a way to get there. Eating more of them would eventually turn their value back to the starting place, lowering their supply-and-demand pricing as meat and dairy prices went up. The lower income, and less healthy, part of the population would thrive, as would the biodiversity of the planet. We could relate again at the ground level, rather than constantly feeling we need to look and climb upward, no matter what our starting point, to achieve wellness. Our deepest sources of nourishment—the food we eat and the people we eat it with—would be so much more abundant, and our sense of wealth would no longer be determined by what we display externally but the quality of self that radiates from within, a quality that cannot be achieved without good health. With healthy minds and full hearts, we might even get along just a little bit better.
What Sol Sips and other organizations like it represents, then, are the first degrees of rotation needed to make that pivot toward plant parity. People of certain ethnicities or income brackets aren’t fundamentally against plant-based eating, they simply need more opportunities to treat healthful, colorful plants like an accessible “indulgence” on par with takeout or fast food. Once the hunger that needs satiating isn’t an external symbol of status or wealth—like a juicy steak or fancy cheese plate—but the universal hunger of our souls, there’s nowhere else we can look but down. Once our roots go deeper and our leaves higher, we’ll grow the most as a collective.