The Life of an Urban Vegetarian Newbie

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The densely populated urban sprawl of Philadelphia is where I have resided for the 21 odd years. Not suburbia or Backwoods, Pa., but the metro, where there is always an eatery, of some sort, within a five block radius. The quality of the eatery is definitely up for question, but the facts remain the same.

In business and retail districts such as Center City, Manayunk, East Passion Ave, and University City, there is an abundance if restaurants and convenience stores available for mass consumption that cater to all walks of life. Aside from the pizza joints and burger bars, a commonality in American eating, you could go to any highly monetized area of the city, say South Street, and pick up a gyro from one of the many Greek eateries on the strip. Take a trip out UCity for some lamb kabobs or an organic salad.

Unfortunately the farther you get away from the upper middle class hubs, the less diversity you get in the people and the food that is offered to the community. Located across the street from City Hall is Fresh, a convince store that has amazingly nutritious food for quick. Walk around the intersection of 15th and Market to the route 4 and 16 bus stops. Catch either one going north up Broad and make sure to get a window seat. For a few blocks you will see a few restaurants you would not mind taking a date to. I mean, even Stephen Starr has a property on North Broad. Once you get to Temple University, it is a whole other story. Of course on campus there are student dining halls, aside from that, it is basically bodegas and Chinese takeout stores everywhere. See you must remember, TU is right smack dab in the middle of a low income, high crime area.

I grew up about 10 minutes north of Temple University on Allegheny Avenue. There are about 3-5 bodegas, 2-3 Chinese takeout joints, About three delis selling beer, malt liquor and absolutely no lunch meat, 2 KFC’s one of which is half a Taco Bell, a McDonalds, and a few pizza shops all in a five block radius. I will give the area some credit, there is a Subway and a Jamaican restaurant in the same radius.

My mother, Carla, 65, grew up in South Philadelphia, an area that was, and still is a true cultural stew. Black, Irish, Italian, Jew, Chinese, Cambodian, and Hispanic people all reside in this section of Philadelphia, all with their own diets, and businesses to go along. The Italian market, full of fresh produce stands and butcher shops were just blocks from where my mother lived while she was in South Philly. My mother was free to try anything she wanted from any of these places. Just as easy as it is for a kid on 15 and Westmoreland to grab an eggroll from Golden Dragon, it was for Carla to get Dim Sum and a pomegranate. Through having so many options available, and being raised in an environment where healthy, well rounded eating was enforced, Carla was able to develop the same kind of eating habits that she later passed on to her children. My mother was never a vegetarian, but she placed emphasis on a well balanced diet. At every meal time there was, consistently a green vegetable on my plate. If I ever wanted a snack, I was told to go eat an apple, or some other kind of fruit.

All this is not to say that my mother and I never indulged in these around the way food joints. They are called convenience stores for a reason. When I was a young girl my mother kept the take out and fast food to a minimum. At the age of ten years old, I became a vegetarian and it lasted for about a month. My reasoning behind my change in diet was so I could be “healthier”. Ask me what I meant by that back then, I honestly don’t know. My diet consisted mainly of plant based products, fruits, vegetables, and grains. Occasionally I indulged in poultry and seafood, influenced by the cohesion of Carla.

After I graduated middle school, I got my first job at none other than McDonalds. This particular MickeyD’s was located in Ambler, a very small town in Montgomery County. I stayed out there with my older sister, Ebony. I had much more free range on what I did and how I ate since I was not under the heavy watchful eye of my mother. Therefore I ran with the opportunity to throw caution to the wind, and eat whatever my heart desired. In this case it was McDonald’s food, which I often ate at least two times daily. Once September rolled around, I left Ambler, started my first year of high school and was eating off my mother’s menu yet again. I was excited to be back, because truth be told, my body and mind miss the nourishment and structure that she provided.

My next stint in Vegetarianism, I believe, was in my sophomore year of High School. I was searching for commonalities between me and my peers, and when I was not able to find any, I often created my own through emulation. It was brought to my attention that a good friend of mine, Monique, was vegetarian. It shocked me because I ate lunch with her everyday and never noticed that her plate looked any different from mine. She made it look so easy. Maybe I was too engulfed in my chicken nuggets to pay any attention to what she was really eating. After receiving this information, I switched up my eating habits again. To no avail, I was back to the nuggets within a week’s time.

Also, around this time, I began working and hanging out in the University City area of Philadelphia. One of the places I worked at was SweetGreens, an organic salad and frozen yogurt bar. In other words, a trendy version of Salad Works marketed to the college crowd. I started eating salads daily, and didn’t find it at all odd or challenging to do so, seeing how I already came from a background that already emphasized healthy eating. By this time, I had already cut out sugary drinks and most fast food. One day while on my break at SweetGreens, I had a strong craving for some french fries. I decided to take a short walk up to the McDonald’s on the corner of 40th and Walnut streets. It had been so long since the last time I had any fast or overly greasy foods, that eating the fries made me phenomenally nauseous. I wanted to puke so I could get the toxins out of my body and feel better.

Since then I have not be able to pinpoint exact milestones in my transitioning diet. I guess you could say that I gradually weaned myself off of meat. It started with pork, then beef, and finally poultry, and seafood. I am currently about a month and a half into my life as a vegetarian, and it is going well. I refuse to say that it is easier this time around, the process is just different. Instead of jumping in head first, I took my time and gradually found out what works best for me. Also, instead of having clear intentions from the beginning, I listened to the cues that my body was giving me, and also the cues from the world around me. This just so happened to be where I ended up. I also have much thanks to give up to people in my life who assisted me in my multiple attempts and transitions. This time it seems as if fate has provided me with like minded individuals who are looking to live to their own life to the best of their abilities.

Old habits die hard. About a month ago, I was a party that had very vegan/vegetarian friendly food; of course I loaded up my plate (the quest to eating better does not mean that one is not allowed to throw down). I came across some delicious looking chicken, and absentmindedly threw a wing on my plate. When I sat down I realized what I had done, and it startled me. “How did this piece of meat get here?” I did find it amusing to see how my brain operates when creating new habits. Though, I felt really bad for wasting a piece of chicken.

I imagine that the weight of my journey to becoming a vegetarian is very light compared to the struggle of others who may have already chose, or who are still traversing this path. I say this because I had a great healthy eating foundation, where the take out and convince stores that saturated my neighborhood, were not my only option. About a year ago, I was able to move out of North Philly, into the fringe of University City. Now along with the fast food places, I have health food stores, locally grown produce co-ops, and holistic and raw food cafes at my disposal. To say the least I am blessed to have been able to move to a more inspiring and supportive community. Unfortunately, many people do not have the means to do this, or even something as simple as buying fresh fruits and vegetables. It all starts with education, the ability to make an informed decision, in this case, what you are putting in your body. A vegetarian lifestyle may be too extreme for some people, but what really matters is a balanced diet and the act cutting out of processed foods, they are simple yet major steps one could take to have a healthier diet. An easy way to think of this would be to refrain from eating anything that comes with an advertisement. I have never heard an ad for broccoli while watching Comedy Central. In a pack of mixed vegetables, there are probably about 3 additional item on the ingredients list aside from the actual vegetables. Preservatives, additives, and food coloring all serve some sort of a purpose, but the question is, are they really necessary? Some chemicals add to a product to keep them “fresh” for longer. If we change our habits, as far as buying truly fresh produce regularly, instead of buying packaged products, we will lose the need to have our food conveniently stored and altered with unnatural substances which leads to major health risks.

I find the first step to changing one’s eating habits, is to consistently try something new. Even putting a toe outside of your comfort zone will open you up to a world of new ideas and experiences. You may decide to try Asian fruits for the first time, you start off with durian and find it so be the most awful thing that you ever tasted and you are turned off from oriental fruits. From there you decide to go tropical and eat a papaya. You find that you really like the sweet meaty fruit and want to try some dishes that are traditional to the area. It’s as simple as that, if you don’t enjoy a something you ate, pick something else until you come across something that you are really digging. They key to not getting too stuck in your ways, is to go back and try something that you didn’t like for a second time. You might like it better after a couple goes. I find that I tend to develop new taste over time. The way food is prepared makes a huge difference too. The more you cook an item the more vitamins nutrients you remove. It is the same with frying; cooking in grease contributes to obesity, and heart and circulation issues.

Although some sections of the inner city are saturated with low quality dining with a limited variety, there are still ways to get the food that you need and deserve. Taking large weekly or monthly trip to the grocer and stocking up on the items you need, will help you in avoiding take out. To avoid processed foods, make the trips weekly or bi-weekly to ensure that the raw produce you ingest is the freshest and purest it could possibly be. There are farmer’s markets almost every day, in almost all sections of the city where you can get locally grown produce items and support independent farmers. In 2012 these farmers markets began accepting EBT cards, also known as food stamps.

The most important factor in sustaining a healthy eating habits in yourself and your community is to educate the youth. We need to instill the habits in theme from early age so it is not a struggle for them to maintain this lifestyle. Make it natural for the youth to enjoy their veggies instead of making it and task that they loathe. The children do not need ideas and beets shoved down their throats, just put them on their plates and wait for them to pick them up. Take your health into your own hands. Your body and family will thank you for it.

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One thought on “The Life of an Urban Vegetarian Newbie

  1. Interesting article, a world away from me in the rural area I live in here in the UK, where there’s a farm shop around every corner. In some of more densely populated areas the UK there have been initiatives where urban communities have been ‘reclaiming’ little sections of ‘wasteland’ and turning them into food gardens. I think it takes quite a bit of effort to begin with, but a great way to get kids who may otherwise be surrounded by chip shops and burger joints to learn to enjoy fresh veggies.

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