Eating Outside Your Comfort Zone

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As a former vegetarian, I’m always eager to hear people talk through their choices surrounding meat. Whether we’re omnivores, vegans, or anything in between, there are a number of factors that shape our decisions about whether – and how – to eat meat. One of these factors is the availability of ethically sourced meat. Many in the food industry anecdotally report that they have begun to see vegetarian customers re-incorporating meat into their diets when local, pasture-raised meat becomes readily available. In recent years, news outlets from Vice to Food & Wine to the Today Show have written on the trend.

As a former volunteer with Firsthand Foods, I’ve been surprised to see that this trend isn’t limited to just consumers. Many of the chefs, butchers, distributors, and retailers vocally pushing to make local, humanely-raised meat more broadly accessible were once vegetarian themselves. Carolyn Twesten, the produce, meat, and seafood merchandiser for Weaver Street Market, is one such former vegetarian. We talked about what that transition meant to her.

After a decade of vegetarianism, what drove your decision to begin eating meat again?

It was in part about a shift in my health priorities – I was deficient in minerals, vitamins, and protein. But it was also about a mental shift. When I moved to a more rural area I began learning about raising animals and about how that fit into global agriculture. I started to broaden my focus to think about animal welfare in regard to sustaining family farms and small businesses. Those soybeans for the tofu I was eating were grown in China, and they probably weren’t organic, and even if they were, they came from all the way across the world. If I wanted to minimize my carbon footprint, I realized my priority needed to be getting my protein from local sources.

Was it a difficult transition, physically or mentally?

I had already experienced a mental shift, but it was still some time before I could make the change in terms of what I was emotionally comfortable eating. I made gradual changes to my diet, starting with poultry. In some ways, I still think a bit more like a vegetarian than like a carnivore. Sometimes it’s a challenge to try new things! I’m glad that through my work at Weaver Street I get pushed to learn about foods that might otherwise be outside of my comfort zone.

Are the choices you make about meat now different than those you made before being vegetarian?

Before I became vegetarian as a teenager, the meat I ate was very conventional – it was fast food or whatever my parents bought at the grocery store. I don’t think I had access to good meat. So what I gave up when I became vegetarian was not equivalent to what I’ve now reintroduced into my diet. Now I eat all local meat, with the exception of chicken and salmon. A lot of the folks that I know who are huge supporters of the local meat industry were at one time vegetarians. I’ve found that when humanely-raised local meats become more widely available, people often switch back to eating meat.

What would your advice be to vegetarians who are thinking about reintroducing meat to their diet?

If you’re a vegetarian or a vegan, I think starting to introduce meat to your diet gradually is key to figuring out what works for you. And it’s actually most healthy to get your protein from a number of sources – it’s great to be eating fish or beef or pork one night, and lentils or beans another.

And what would your advice to be to consumers who are simply trying to re-think the way they approach meat, or who are trying to buy more local, humanely-raised meat?

If you’re a meat eater now, I think it’s good to look at where your meat is coming from.

I really want to know what I’m supporting when I buy a product. The first meat that I ate after ten years of vegetarianism was from a farm that I worked on; I knew the people who had raised that animal, knew their practices, and felt confident that they were a business I wanted to support. So I always try to remind people that it’s about the whole picture: it’s about where the farm is, and its size, and its practices. It’s also about how far the animal needs to travel to be slaughtered and processed, and how far the meat travels to get to the market. If you can, get to know your farmer! Figure out what practices you want to support, find farmers who you can stand behind, and buy as directly as possible from those farmers.