08/02/2012 10:35 am ET Updated Oct 02, 2012

The Accessibility Problem in Food Politics

In the realm of food politics, stereotypes run rampant: the over-energized raw foodist, the protein-hyping omnivore, the compulsive juice cleanser. Usually, when you get to know the person behind the lifestyle, there's a lot more to them than you would have initially imagined, but unfortunately these stereotypes get in the way of what could be heartfelt and important dialogue about the way we eat. There's one stereotype I'm particularly concerned with, one I've unfortunately been accused of: the overzealous vegan.

About a year ago, I began a small, personal project consisting of a photo album on Facebook entitled "This Is What Vegans Eat." I wanted to document what I consumed because I was constantly getting bombarded with questions about my diet. I was asked whether I was getting enough protein, how it was that I didn't have osteoporosis yet and whether plants had feelings. Truth be told, I was getting angry. I hoped a well-built Facebook album could do more than any verbal response I could provide, and more than that, I realized I needed a better way to share my passion for cruelty-free living with my -- perhaps uninterested -- Facebook friends.

Over the course of my experiment, I learned something important: Most people weren't asking how I survived on lettuce to be rude or abrasive, but simply because they really didn't know what my diet was like. For someone whose staple meals consist of steak, eggs, pizza, or chicken, it can be hard to imagine what a vegan diet truly looks like. I started to receive texts and Facebook messages and emails asking about how best to make the transition to a vegan lifestyle. Before the album, I probably would have answered a lot of these messages sarcastically or angrily, assuming incorrectly that the questions were just to annoy me. Luckily, something clicked for me: It seemed that people really were interested in veganism, they just need something accessible, something in front of them, and most importantly, something non-confrontational, to discover that interest. Once I felt like I had something important to say and that I might actually be heard, I felt much more open to a real conversation.

Ironically, I've long thought that these exact problems were some of the most pressing in food politics: accessibility and dialogue. It's hard to imagine a vegan lifestyle can be one you might actually want to try when the only images you see of veganism are the stereotypical ones in your head. Who wants to sit-down to a meal with a vegan? No one, because of course, it's widely known that you will get criticized, shamed and irritated into eating your vegetables. Who wants to go shopping with a vegan? No one, because of course, all they want to do is preach about leather and wool and animal cruelty and will never let you get a word in edgewise. More relevant, for me, who wants to ask a vegan what they eat? No one, because of course, they will just get mad.

The reason stereotypes are born is because they exist: Many vegans (myself included) can be preachy, isolationist and just generally snobs. But then again, so can many omnivores.

For ethical vegans in particular, it can be frustrating to feel that each moment more animals are being hurt for our plates. Clearly, it's hard to get people to listen. Well, that may be because we don't listen. Screaming at people, dousing them with red paint and calling them names may be doing the opposite of our intended goal: By turning people off to veganism, we may actually be harming animals.

It turns out, in order to truly progress in any kind of social change, we need to do the one thing we really don't want to: reject the stereotypes and actually listen to our opponents. It's time to lose the chip on our shoulders as well as the idea that we ultimately know best. Even if there is some mystical person out there who does know the absolute best about everything food, that kind of attitude of superiority will never get the message across. Instead, an open mind and open arms are the way to a truly open dialogue.

Whether you're a committed vegan or a staunch omnivore, next time someone asks you about your diet remember that social change never happened overnight. The most important aspect of any social change is always the simplest: Open your mind to listen to someone else and they might just open their mind to you.

For more on veganism, click here.