August 28, 2017

Meat the Midwest

Jill Thiede

Jill Thiede

Guest Blogger

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

I’m in my graduate class of public health nutrition students—many of whom are vegans, vegetarians or plant-based eaters—when I pull out my Tupperware filled with leftover grilled steak kabobs. I feel like I’m serving BBQ at a PETA meeting. My cohort isn’t particularly judgmental, and even though I’ve been eating meat my whole life, I feel guilty about biting into my (juicy, red) meat in front of them.

I grew up in southern Illinois—emphasis on southern—which is nowhere near Chicago. A meal wasn’t a meal without a meat entrée, and we often had half a cow in our freezer ready to eat. I went to college in Mississippi and until I moved to Baltimore for grad school I never considered cutting back on meat. Even now, despite my nutrition degree and the fact that I am swimming in public health messages that have made me well aware of the negative health and environmental effects associated with excess meat consumption, I have not embraced plant-based proteins. Why not? These negative effects are backed up by solid evidence. I know diets high in red and processed meat are linked to colorectal cancers and cardiovascular disease. I know beef production requires high water and energy inputs and results in large waste and greenhouse gas outputs. Still, this Midwesterner loves meat. So what can organizations and institutions do to help me—and my family and friends—make a transition to plant-based proteins both more appealing and more feasible?

For starters, the vegetarian movement couldn’t hurt from rebranding with different spokesmodels. Veganism and vegetarian might conjure an image of a California or New York hipster trying the newest seitan burger, and while I’m sure people who relate to those images are lovely people, they feel like outsiders to me. Like many Midwesterners, I do not want those coastal hipsters telling me what to eat. The vegetarian movement may be able to change this by tapping into the growing list of athletes going vegetarian and claiming higher performance in their sport because of the dietary change. NFL quarterback Tom Brady is selling books on eating an 80 percent plant-based diet—and he won the Superbowl this year. Ultimate Fighting Championship competitor Mac Danzig is vegan; tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams are both vegans, and since going vegan in 2012 Serena has won the US Open three times. The notion of feeling a little lighter on the track or living a longer life can be appealing even to people who couldn’t care less about staying “slim” and “fit.”

Exposing people to new dishes that don’t have a (more tasty) meat version shows that meatless meals do taste good. Ethnic dishes, as long as they’re not difficult to pronounce, could be a good resource for this. If the dish is pronounceable and can be made at home with ingredients easy-to-find in the Midwest, there’s a chance we’ll like it. If you give me a choice between a veggie burger made of beans and a medium rare beef burger on the menu, I’m going to choose the beef burger. The veggie burger is a “meh” version of the beef burger, so programs like Meatless Monday can help change the options by pairing with restaurants, workplaces and schools to produce foods that taste good and don’t compete with meat entrées.

The idea of saving money by going meatless can be appealing—but people often think you have to add in additional protein or vitamin supplements if you’re taking meat out of the diet, which is more expensive than keeping meat in the diet. So organizations could see some success by promoting the nutrition content of meatless meals. No matter how much data I see that taking meat out of the diet can be cheaper, it’s difficult to convince people it’s cheaper to create a filling pasta “meat sauce” out of mushrooms and lentils than a pound of ground beef. We want to feed our families good protein and fill them up with something they won’t feed to the trashcan. Also, the middle of the country is a top producer for livestock and crops, but many grocery stores carry only limited produce such as corn, zucchini, tomatoes and iceberg lettuce—so adding in some vegetables that are easy to buy on the coasts (like kale or beets or avocados, for example) might actually be much more of a burden and expense for those of us in the Midwest.

Branding, palette, cost and access are great places to start when promoting a plant-based diet to the middle of the country. If a New York hipster is telling Midwesterners to make a dish with an unpronounceable name using an ingredient that’s hard to find, that message is going to fall flat. But organizations like Meatless Monday are doing a good job campaigning to make a small change, just one day a week, of plant-based substitutions. As the meatless campaign spreads its reach, working with organizations in the middle of the country might be a good place to start growing a base.

Image: By Glen Edelson from ATLANTA, USA (Shish kabob) [CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons]


  1. Thank you for this. My parents and I are from Illinois, and my husbands family is from rural New York where, as you say, a meal isn’t square without a hunk of meat. My husband and I recently decided to become vegetarians, but have been afraid to tell our families because we know they they will be concerned about our health (ironic) and will immediately apply a negative stereotype. I hope your idea takes root and that organizations will consider a re-branding for us flatlanders!

  2. Posted by Danielle

    Thank you! My family is Central American, and I grew up eating a ton of red meat. My partner is vegetarian, and as a public health person concerned with food systems and the environment, I have definitely felt like you have – I really should be plant based, I know the facts, but it’s hard! I would go beyond the point you made about the coastal hipsters – many people of color, especially black and Latino folks, feel very alienated from that image, and I think having more spokespeople who are people of color would really help get that message through – that no, this isn’t just a silly white people fad, we can make our traditional foods vegan and delicious too! Or, at the very least, we can reduce our meat and dairy intake…
    Anyways, thanks for writing, and I’ll definitely be sharing this with my partner!

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