The Meatless Movement Could Become a Class War

Impossible Whoppers for the poor, veggie caviar for the rich.

Impossible Whoppers for the poor, veggie caviar for the rich.
Photo: Michael Thomas (Getty Images)

On Monday, New York City’s Eleven Madison Park announced it would no longer serve meat as part of its $315 tasting menu. It quickly met with conservative backlash that’s become de rigeur with anything remotely resembling a pro-climate choice.

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The decision is the latest in what has rapidly become the wildest front in the culture wars as the U.S. grapples with how to address climate change. While most conservative arguments peddle in bad faith and lies or misrepresentations around the future of meat in American diets, there is a risk here. Seeing Eleven Madison Park’s announcement is a reminder that most Americans’ easiest access to vegetarian options when dining out is the Impossible Foods or Beyond Meat burger or burrito at their local fast food joint. Delicious, to be sure, but the move to make Eleven Madison Park meatless compared to the options available at fast food joints shows the stark class divide in the U.S., and how climate-friendly diets could follow suit absent strong intervention and regulations that make healthy meatless options available to all.

Before diving into this, a few caveats. American food culture lags far behind others where beefless dining is the norm and also tasty as hell. There’s some catching up to do in terms of both innovating with cuisine and what constitutes normal.

But the reason conservatives are losing their minds over the fancy restaurant’s decision to go vegetarian reflect the view that in the U.S., doing so is a luxury. And it’s not wholly wrong. Skyrocketing inequality has led to haves and have-nots when it comes to food options. Food deserts are common in poor neighborhoods, especially those that are predominantly communities of color. It’s not just cities, but reservations and even the breadbasket itself where fresh vegetables are in short supply—and where poor residents might not even have the cash to buy them even if they were available.

Meanwhile, Dollar Store outlets that have increasingly become the only retailer in small towns across the U.S. are selling cheap processed food. And fast food chains are increasingly the frontline purveyors of fake meat. There’s the McPlant line at McDonalds, the Impossible Whopper at Burger King, and a variety Beyond Meat tacos, burritos, chalupas, and whatnot coming to Taco Bell. These fake meat creations replicate the real fast food experience pretty damn well while being better for the climate. They even help normalize fake meat as an option while still providing cheap calories. But they don’t address the underlying issue that they’re still heavily processed bombs of salt and grease that are trash for your health. Obesity is among the likely reasons why the average American life expectancy has stagnated and even declined in recent years.

The proliferation of meatless options at fast food joints and Eleven Madison Park’s new vegan menu neatly encapsulates the free market approach to climate change that entrenches inequality. That’s why it’s so easy for conservatives to bag on Eleven Madison Park’s decision and use it as fuel for the culture war. The restaurant is obviously free to do what it wants, and setting a no-meat standard at one of the best restaurants in the world is certainly going to be a fascinating experiment for diners who can afford what can easily be a $1,000 meal for two with drinks, tip, and tax.

But it also reveals a huge structural issue with our current food system, and one of the biggest challenges to ensuring it’s a climate solution that works for everyone rather than a sticking point that ends up blocking meaningful action. In discussing the conservative lie around President Joe Biden banning hamburgers (to be 100% clear, this is not happening), Stephanie Feldstein, the Center for Biological Diversity’s population and sustainability director, told me that the federal government could play a role in shaping a future with better access to vegetables. That includes improving dietary guidelines, which schools and nutrition programs around the country follow, as well as ending billions in subsidies for the meat industry. The EAT Lancet Commission, a group that released a plan for a planet-friendly diet that would ensure everyone in a world with 9 billion had access to a healthy diet, similarly calls for redirecting subsidies away from foods that are harmful to our health and the planet’s.

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It’s not even that radical of an idea. Subsidies are meant to encourage good behavior, and raising ever more meat on an overheating planet in a country with an obesity crisis ain’t it. Biden has said he wants to end subsidies for the fossil fuel industry, which is also wrecking the planet and our health. Why not do the same for beef and send that money to subsidize nutritious food or incentivize grocery stores to be oases in food deserts instead?

That has to be just the start, though, to foster what needs to be a broader cultural shift, one that prioritizes not just destroying the planet a little less but ensuring fair access to good food for everyone. Eleven Madison Park’s announcement comes a week after food site Epicurious said it wouldn’t put out new beef recipes, a move it quietly implemented over the past year. That’s the type of change needed, making recipes that normalize non-beef options for everyone. But it’s going to take more than new recipes to solve the problem. You can’t roast an heirloom carrot if it’s not in your fridge.

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