Long Reads

The Economics of Veganism (+ Proof A Fine Vegan Meal Can Be Made Cheaply)

September 22, 2016

It used to surprise me when somebody told me that she wanted to go vegan, but feared it was too expensive. I’d always considered veganism to be an economical option, thanks to the relatively low cost of plant proteins. Pulses, grains, and soy foods tend to be affordable, especially when compared to high-quality meat, fish, and cheese. So, why the widespread perception of vegan diets as being elite and inaccessible?

Over time, I’ve come to better understand the concern, though I think the economics of a vegan diet are more nuanced than popular arguments for or against veganism might suggest. Vegan enthusiasts can sometimes be overly reductive about the cost of a plant-based diet, insisting that it’s cheaper than omnivorism, while critics ascribe to veganism a kind of exclusivity that—in my mind, anyway—isn’t fair. As with most food debates, it’s complicated.

One reason people worry about the cost of veganism—and the worry, I think, is mostly founded—is that produce tends to be costly. The reasons for this are complex, but they include the fact that the government subsidizes meat, dairy, and eggs more readily than it does fruits and vegetables, as well as the high cost of packing and transporting produce. Because plant foods are such a substantial part of vegan diets, it stands to reason that eating vegan might prove more expensive than a diet in which vegetables and fruits don’t take front and center.

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But vegans aren’t the only group of eaters who are invested in making plant foods the foundation of their diets these days; many people are eating lower on the food chain, even if they continue to eat animal proteins discretionarily. For some, the choice to eat a plant-centric diet is motivated by concern for the environment; for others, it’s a matter of health, spirituality, or personal preference. One certainly doesn’t have to identify as vegan in order to follow a "mostly plants" paradigm.

So if you’re considering veganism but fear that sourcing plant-based ingredients will be a tax on your budget, it’s worth remembering that this dilemma characterizes many diets in which produce is prioritized—it’s not necessarily unique to veganism or vegetarianism. It’s also worth remembering that there are ways to purchase produce that can help to allay cost; joining a CSA, buying fruits and vegetables locally and in season, and supporting farmers markets can all help to make high quality fruits and vegetables more affordable.

Within the realm of plant-centric diets, I would argue that veganism stands out as an economical choice, because the central proteins of the diet are generally inexpensive. I’m talking about legumes (including soybeans, tofu, and tempeh) and whole grains, which are cheaper, pound for pound, than meat or fish, especially meat that’s grass-fed or organic. Lentils, beans, dry peas, and most grains, especially when purchased in bulk, are remarkably efficient in stretching a budget. This point became clear to me last year, when I was assigned the SNAP challenge along with my peers (I’m a dietetics student).

The challenge is intended to evoke what it’s like to live with the food allowance that’s given on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps), which the government offers to eligible low-income individuals and families. The particular allowance varies by state, but it’s typically about $35 dollars, per person, per week (for New Yorkers, it’s closer to $40).

There are good criticisms to be leveled at the challenge; namely, the fact that it distills poverty, which is a complex phenomenon, down to the single variable of a limited food budget. Participants alter only one facet of their lives (what they spend on food), which means that the empathy that the challenge is trying to create may never really be possible. Throughout our weeklong experience, my classmates and I continued to shop at our regular grocers, dwell in safe, walkable neighborhoods, and enjoy the privilege of social support. None of us accessed the experience of food insecurity with true authenticity.

In spite of this, I found that the challenge did incite more consciousness. We compared notes as the challenge drew to a close, and the difficulty that most of my classmates reported was that it was hard to get enough protein with the budget we were given. As a vegan, I felt that I’d had an advantage. My partner and I did the challenge together, and while we struggled with planning and organization, we were able to maintain our customary protein intake without any trouble. We ate plenty of beans, lentils, and split peas, and we were able to purchase a block each of tofu and tempeh for the week. Between these foods and whole grains, we ate quite well; not surprisingly, most of our pooled budget went to produce.

The experience made me more aware of the fact that plant proteins can make a dollar stretch much further than meat or poultry. Tofu offers a good point of comparison: A pound of organic tofu feeds me for 3 to 4 days for about $2 or $3. A pound of organic, grass-fed beef would presumably also feed me for the same amount of time, but it costs about $10 per pound—so I could buy about 5 pounds of tofu before I’d have spent the same amount on organic, grass-fed beef. The same would be true for organic, free-range chicken (typically about $9 per pound). And while eggs—a lacto-ovo-vegetarian protein option—are certainly cheaper than grass-fed beef, they’re still more costly than most legumes.

Of course, being vegan isn’t always inexpensive. I’ve noted beans and grains as primary sources of protein, but nuts and seeds, which are also vegan protein sources and pantry staples, can be pricy (I find that shopping in bulk helps to offset this a bit). There’s also the issue of time: I think of my mom, who occasionally prepares a vegan dinner for me and my partner. "So much chopping!" she’ll exclaim. Preparing a well-rounded vegan meal can sometimes feel more labor-intensive than working with animal proteins as a centerpiece. I’d argue that learning to batch cook grains and legumes makes this significantly less time-consuming, but at the beginning, anyway, it’s an adjustment.

There are other, small things: Sometimes I have to order more food in restaurants to feel satisfied than my omnivore friends who have hearty entrée options. And I have a penchant for some of the new faux meats and cheeses on the market, none of which are cheap (though it’s worth saying that some of the older varieties have come down in price considerably). When all is said and done, though, my vegan diet today is less expensive than the vegetarian diet I used to eat, in spite of the fact that I’m ten years older and cook quite a bit more. And I credit this to the fact that I’ve learned to create more meals with cheaper protein sources.

Today I’m sharing one of the recipes I enjoyed during the SNAP challenge last year. It’s a tempeh and tomato dish—I think if it as being reminiscent of sausage, but if that comparison doesn’t work for you, then forget it—that gets piled on top of creamy polenta. Polenta is one of my favorite budget friendly starch options (so little becomes so much!), and nutritional yeast, which I use for cheesy flavor in the dish, is another very inexpensive vegan protein.

The meal feels festive—even worthy of a date night—and it’s proof that, while a bag of lentils and rice will indeed help you to stretch your budget as a vegan, it’s possible to enjoy quite a few more options than that while also eating economically. Oftentimes the vegan meals that are cited as examples of the diet’s cost-effectiveness fall into the category of rice and beans, or split pea soup, or other things you can make with a pound of legumes from the bulk bin. That these meals are inexpensive is of course true (and it’s a point I’ve just been making!), but it’s also true that veganism can be affordable with the inclusion of meals, like this one, that are a little more unusual or creative than a bean-grain combination.

Gena Hamshaw is a vegan chef and nutritionist—and the author of our Vegan cookbook! You can read more of her writing here.

What meal do you make when you really want to stretch a dollar? Tell us in the comments below.

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The Food52 Vegan Cookbook is here! With this book from Gena Hamshaw, anyone can learn how to eat more plants (and along the way, how to cook with and love cashew cheese, tofu, and nutritional yeast).

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Gena is a registered dietitian, recipe developer, and food blogger. She's the author of three cookbooks, including Power Plates (2017) and Food52 Vegan (2015). She enjoys cooking vegetables, making bread, and challenging herself with vegan baking projects.