The human race holds many things sacred and dear. In some segments of the global population, it’s wealth that drives the herd. In others, religion is what nourishes or even, perhaps, saves the soul. Few matters, however, are as universally and fundamentally important, or as basic, as the need for food.
“Food is essential,” notes Sara Kate Kneidel, a 22-year-old vegetarian, Quaker, cook and activist, in the introduction to Veggie Revolution: Smart Choices for a Healthy Body and a Healthy Planet (Fulcrum Publishing, 2005). “It is what ties us together. It is community. It is both how and why we live. Understanding this has changed my relationship with food forever.”
Sara Kate presently lives and works at Sunnybank Inn and Retreat in Hot Springs. She co-wrote the book, an exploratory work born of a passion for food that’s tightly enmeshed with a concern for environmental and animal welfare, with her mother, Sally Kneidel, a biologist and writer who lives in Charlotte. This week, the two will make several presentations in the Asheville area (see box, “Meet the Authors”).
Armed with knowledge of vegetarian cooking and nutrition, and intent on documenting the environmental impact of the meat industry, the duo set out to start a revolution, one recipe at a time.
No silver bullet
As the Kneidels began researching for the book, ominous phrases such as “hog waste lagoon” and “gestation crate” began to surface. Looking deeper into the meat industry, they began to realize that they might have taken on much more than just a cookbook.
They began to visit factory farms (described in the book as operations that house tens or hundreds of thousands of animals in one location with automated feed and water dispensers) as well as smaller, independent farms. “We learned pretty quickly,” writes the elder Kneidel, “that factory farms live up to all the rumors we’ve heard about them.”
As time went on, however, they felt a conflicting range of emotions that, little by little, prompted a slight change of perspective.” The farm visits were what really transformed this project,” Sara Kate recently told Xpress. Before the trips inside factory farms, she remembers, “I was demonizing the farmers, because they’re the ones in charge of the animals. [I wondered] ‘Why are they doing this?’ Then when we talked to them and followed them around and observed what they were doing, we really saw that, in a lot of ways, they were just making what seemed like a logical choice, given their circumstances. Most of them come from families of farmers, and this is what farming has evolved to. … They view the animals as models of efficiency – you know, meat on the hoof. If that’s how they see it – pure business – then what they’re doing makes sense.”
Things got even more complex when the Kneidels visited the smaller family farms, where chickens roamed free and happy, piglets rolled in the mud, and farmers argued that local, sustainable farming practices – even those involving meat – could put less stress on the environment than buying vegetarian fare from far away.
“The more we investigated food, the more we realized that it was a lot more complicated than just choosing to eat meat or not, or dairy or not,” Sara Kate explains. “If we’re eating tofu that was made by soybeans grown halfway around the world, processed, packaged, then finally shipped to you, is that really better than eating chicken from your next-door neighbor? It’s hard to say. There is no silver-bullet [solution] to being a responsible consumer. The issues of seasonal food, local food, organic food, all of those factors are just as important as eating vegetarian, and that was a hard thing to realize because it made things so complicated.”
No stomach for lectures
Over time, the book grew in scope to encompass a broad range of issues, becoming a testament to the authors’ flexible approach to their topic. That’s one aspect that makes the book appealing, even, perhaps, to those who don’t wish to give up meat.
“If you tell people what to do or what to think, it makes people defensive, especially with eating, because food is such a personal thing,” Sara Kate notes. “If you lecture people, you’re just going to shut them down and make them turn away.”
Veggie Revolution is not strident. Rather, it presents useful information with fairness and open-mindedness. The Kneidels are never pushy in their advocacy of vegetarianism, and they acknowledge that there’s room for most things in moderation.
“Our problem with meat consumption is not that we eat meat, period,” Sara Kate says. “It’s that we eat meat in these vast, tremendous quantities, and that’s why we have to have the type of production system that we have. We can’t produce this much meat on small farms – it’s just not possible! But, if we were to cut back and eat in healthier portions, then we would be able to have a system that would help the planet and animals as well.”
Though Veggie Revolution does contain traces of the Kneidels’ initial blueprint for the book – there are nearly 40 pages of vegetarian recipes and a substantial amount of nutritional information – it’s clear that the project evolved far beyond what the authors originally planned. “As much as anything else,” Sally writes in the preface, “this book is an account of discovery and transition – ours.”
Meet the authors
The Kneidels will make several Veggie Revolution presentations this week.
Wed Apr. 5: 11 a.m.-1 p.m., Greenlife, book signing;
8-9 p.m., Warren Wilson College, presentation and discussion.
Thu Apr. 6: 3-5 p.m., Mars Hill College, discussion of local food;
7-8 p.m., Malaprop’s, book signing and presentation.
Fri Apr. 7: noon-2 p.m., Earth Fare, book signing and presentation;
6-8 p.m., Asheville Friends Meeting, potluck and panel discussion.
For more information about the book, visit the authors’ Web site at veggierevolution.blogspot.com.