Earlier this month, Oprah created a challenge for Harpo staffers: go vegan for one week. 378 staffers signed up for the challenge, the Harpo cafeteria introduced choices that were animal-free, and Kashi provided bags of groceries to jump-start participants' efforts. The results are in: 444 pounds lost, 84 pounds gained, 78 quitters…. and because Oprah thinks it fun to talk about bowel movements, a record amount of toilet paper used.
I want to give Oprah her due. She has made clear throughout this season that because it's the last, she only wants to cover topics and guests of real significance to her—I applaud her for using her platform to raise awareness about the benefits of a vegan diet.
That being said, this episode was a real mixed bag.
Michael Pollan, the ubiquitous conscious eating expert, was on hand to relay the merits of eating meat in small amounts and supporting local, humane farmers. He summarized his endorsement by saying that animals from these farms lead happy lives, save for "one bad day."
Lisa Ling took us behind the scenes at a Colorado-based facility of Cargill, one of the largest agribusinesses in the world. It was gruesome, and some parts could not be filmed, but Ling (a meat eater) did a nice job of meeting her objective: to understand exactly how the food she eats gets on her plate (she is still eating meat post-episode).
The issue I have with these segments is that they took time away from a discussion of veganism. I understand that in order to commit to a vegan lifestyle there are adjustments to be made, namely giving up meat. But the Cargill piece and the resulting conversation Oprah and Pollan had with the facility head erred on the side of appreciation for letting cameras capture the process. Yes, I can see that this type of information is input into a person's decision-making process about what they eat, but for me, it muddied the waters. It took away from important and oft-cited barriers to going full vegan, namely:
How can people of little means make these dietary changes? Because–NEWS FLASH!–produce and non-processed foods are expensive. Pollan threw out an interesting statistic related to this: 75% of our health care spending is on chronic diseases linked to diet. Way too many calories, tons of refined carbs (white flour, sugar, soda). "Cheap food is a great blessing," he said, "but also a curse." Great…so how about a movement to subsidize healthy dietary intake for low-income families? There is talk at the Federal level, but being an armchair cynic, I'm sure it will get wiped out in the forthcoming budget cuts (I'd love to hear about programs that are doing this effectively from readers).
Where do I get my protein? For the latter, Oprah brought in Kathy Freston, a.k.a, the Vegainist. She has a winning way about her that is equal parts consciousness and pragmatist. She helped several Harpo staffers throughout the week and sang the virtues of beans, legumes, seitan, and tempeh as solid protein sources. She also gave some shout outs to several brands, including Gardein (a substitute meat product). Now I haven't tried any Gardein products, but I usually have a hard time tolerating these substitutes. Many meatless products contain tons of chemicals, sodium, and an overabundance of soy (which comes with its own warnings). Freston also put her money where her mouth is, so to speak. "It doesn't sit right in my soul [to eat meat]...I'm trying to incorporate my values like compassion and empathy and kindness and mercy. When I see that [video of Cargill], I have to ask myself, 'Can I look into the eyes of an animal, and say that your suffering, or your pain, or your fear is not as important as my appetite?'" Oprah replies, "But, they don't suffer." Nope, just that 'one bad day," right?
Michael Pollan interjected, "I hate to cast any kind of shadow over this dietary revival meeting..." to which Freston responded, "Then don't."
These criticisms aside, I believe that because of Oprah's reach, the episode did convey the necessity with which consciousness should be integrated into our diet. Taking a moment to really contemplate where your food comes from before it's purchased and whether those choices mirror your values (and your budget) is a message worth repeating.
For what it's worth, I also took part in the challenge. This wasn't hard for me, as I'm a rare meat eater, and though I didn't lose weight, I did gain energy. Also, for a comprehensive guide to ecofeminism and veganism/vegeterianism's significant role in achieving it—you know, if you want to take it further than Oprah— check out Brittany Shoot's fine series.