Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Green zone: the US soldiers fighting for vegan food

from The Guardian:

The US military doesn’t provide plant-based meals, often leaving vegan service members to rely on snacks – but some are seeing a rise in like-minded comrades

John, a specialist in the US army, went vegan in 2018 while deployed in the Middle East after he started practicing Buddhism.

“I’m living in a world of violence by being in the military but trying to live the most peaceful lifestyle that I can,” John says. “Choosing not to be violent in my everyday life when I don’t have to be is something I wholeheartedly say falls in line with my religious beliefs and military values.”

The military will accommodate a kosher, halal and vegetarian diet for troops, but no meals ready to eat (MREs) – which deployed soldiers rely on for breakfast, lunch and dinner – are totally plant-based. Like other vegan soldiers, John often has to rely on snacks. He once spent a month eating just bread, crackers, peanut butter and canned vegetables.

“It was just a miserable time,” he says. “We were in the field and had one meal a day. I went four days straight eating exclusively green beans.” He was fatigued, an obvious problem for soldiers in combat. “You want soldiers to be at their most capable and their most mentally and physically prepared for any action,” he says.

John prefers not to use his real name because he is worried about further ostracizing himself.

He says he is often told he’s not a man if he doesn’t eat meat. “Someone told me that being vegan is against God and being vegan makes me weak,” he recalls of an exchange while standing in line for a physical. Because the man who said it outranked him, John didn’t argue.

“Part of being vegan in the military is learning that there are some conversations that aren’t even worth having with people,” he says with a sigh. “I get a lot of shit for it.”

While the number of vegans in the military has never been officially determined, John isn’t alone. Anecdotally, vegan service members I spoke with report a rise in like-minded comrades, one that reflects a larger social trend: in 2017, there were five times as many vegans in America as in 2014. Part of the problem in making the case for vegan MREs as well as more plant-based options in military dining facilities is that no hard data on the number of vegans soldiers exists. Both the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) and the army public affairs office declined to comment on whether they have plans to evaluate how many service members either require or are interested in plant-based options.

The DLA, a federal agency that decides what goes in MREs, confirmed that currently no MREs are vegan but declined to explain why or say whether the military would consider changing this. “There may have been a vegetarian entree that was also vegan. To date, there has been no military service requirement for vegan MREs,” the DLA commented via email which also verified that four of the 24 MRE options are vegetarian.

A couple of weeks ago, a dining hall in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, became the first to offer a plant-based entree at every meal, thanks to the ongoing advocacy of one vegan soldier.

But at all other dining halls, service members have to put in requests for a plant-based option, though there’s no requirement for those requests to be fulfilled. Junior service members may not know it’s within their rights to make such a request in the first place. If they do know, they may not want to further differentiate themselves by making a special request, instead choosing to get by the occasional plant-based entree or sides of vegetables – though vegan service members say those are often cooked in butter – or the salad bar, if they’re lucky enough to have one.

“Two years ago, if you were to say the word ‘vegan’ to me, I would’ve told you to not bother talking to me about it,” Chief Petty Officer Thomas Shearin, a mechanic in the US Coast Guard stationed in Miami, says. “You weren’t going to recruit me. I didn’t climb to the top of the food chain to eat rabbit food.

“Growing up in Texas, if you ate tofu instead of barbecue chicken, you definitely didn’t grow up playing football,” Shearin says. Now, he no longer equates meat with masculinity and proudly makes his own seitan at home. Most significantly, and to his own surprise, his veganism has become about more than addressing his lack of energy, high blood pressure and fear of reaching the military’s maximum weight limit. In less than two years, he says it has also become an ethical stance for the environment and animals.

Shearin went vegan while stationed in Saudi Arabia, where he met Master Chief Petty Officer Eric Gibson, who has been vegan for more than five years – initially to appease his animal rights-minded wife before going “full vegan” to manage his health.

While both Shearin and Gibson say the transition has been doable for them in the Coast Guard, they note that their high rank and not being deployed helps. Unlike John, they don’t have to rely on MREs for food and rank high enough to feel comfortable asking dining facilities to provide a vegan option. They are more likely to be accommodated because of their rank.

Interestingly, the military already has prepackaged vegan meals; they’re just not for soldiers. A DLA spokesperson confirmed that while some meals distributed as humanitarian aid to civilians are not classified as vegan, “these meals contain no animal products or by-products, except that minimal amounts of dairy products are permitted.” Having vegan meals as humanitarian aid makes sense – plant-based food is more easily made halal, can be less perishable and may be less expensive.

Indeed, in California, where a new law gave incarcerated people the right to request plant-based meals, legislative analysis found that the vegan options might be cheaper than traditional prison food, saving the state money in the long term. Although the law is new, it means that California inmates, whether they identify as vegan or not, now have more access to plant-based food than US service members.

Financial incentives may be at play in the military as well. Gibson says he thinks a lot of the military’s decisions are linked to industries the government subsidizes, like dairy and meat. This is just one more hurdle, but it seems soldiers continue to look for plant-based alternatives. John says fellow service members now frequently tell him they met another vegan soldier that day – something he almost never heard four years ago.

Shearin has experienced this change too: “It seems like every unit that I go to and visit, I come across people that are vegan, or who want to go vegan and they’re just not sure how to do it.” He encourages them to try a one-month vegan challenge and tells them if he can go plant-based, anyone can.

“My view has changed,” Shearin says. “We have a responsibility to the planet we’re on right now. I tell people if they’re vegan three days a week, that’s three days a week that they’re helping the planet. I would call that a win for them and for me.”

Thanks Eric!

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