Friday, 7 June 2019

The Greggs' Effect

Veganism, classism and disableism

I’m pretty sure everybody in the UK and a fair few people outside it will have learned that Greggs – a low cost bakery chain – released a vegan sausage roll in early 2019. It caused much consternation amongst some quarters, most noticeably those who look up to the conservative “political pundit” and former game-show-host Piers Morgan. Piers’ over-the-top and toddler likerejection of the vegan sausage roll was a rallying cry for those who hate veganism generally, people who simply couldn’t understand why vegans might want a budget bakery item. Sadly this criticism and disbelief wasn’t just limited to those of a more socially conservative bent. There was also a surprising amount of wailing from people within the vegan community. It’s not healthy enough? Why would you want a meat replacement? If you’re vegan why are you buying from Gregg’s at all.

In some ways this second wave of criticism was actually more frustrating. After all anybody who doesn’t belong to the cis-male, white, straight, “British” group is pretty used to at some point coming in the firing line of Morgan and his brethren. That’s sadly the way of the world: stray from the path of what “they” have defined as “normal” and you will be criticised (or downright discriminated against). But when you are part of a counter-culture or alternative lifestyle group, you generally expect a certain amount of solidarity from within, even accounting for differing opinions and personalities. So a wave of criticism from your own “side” especially when you are also being attacked from other quarters can really knock the wind out of your sails.

photo from wikimedia image shows the store front of a Greggs Bakery. It has a blue and white sign with an orange square logo)

So now it’s almost 6 months later, and the financial news is reporting that Greggs is reporting soaring profits and steady gains in the stock market almost entirely attributed to increased sales of and because of the vegan sausage roll. With that success, Greggs is talking about expanding their vegan range, which for me is only a good thing. But with that comes controversy. Remember that criticism from other vegans I talked about only two paragraphs ago? Right that becomes an issue. You see there is a perception from non-vegans that veganism should be “healthy”, and this is a perception that is held up in some quarters of the vegan community. Vegan food should be “healthy” natural, full of vegetables, whole grains and other nutritionally superior goodies. Additionally we shouldn’t want to be mimicking meat because this is somehow ethically unsound and requires more of those pesky “unnatural” processed foods. These are the sorts of people making suggestions for new Greggs products that include lots of different vegetables and interesting grains, less fats and less delicious golden pastry.

But here’s the thing – nobody thinks that Greggs is or ever has been a bastion of healthy lifestyle. Nobody, vegan or otherwise, goes to Greggs expecting a nutritionally balanced, “healthy”, whole foods, natural lunch. You go to Greggs because you are hungry and it’s there and sometimes a baked good is exactly what you fancy. And that’s entirely ok.
Initially this debate may look fairly inconsequential and not something worth spending much time on. If one group doesn’t like fake meat and another does what’s the problem? The problem is that this actually becomes an argument about disablism, classism and food snobbery within veganism and other lifestyle choices.

So let me tell you about an experience I had just today. For context, I have been to Greggs only once since the introduction of the vegan sausage roll and I wasn’t a frequent visitor before that. Recently my CFS/ME has been worse than usual and I’ve been having a higher number of high fatigue days. I’m finding it more difficult to balance out exertion and rest as needed. So on this particular Thursday I had been to get my hair done. Due to the timing of the appointment, I hadn’t had a proper lunch though I had had a snack. My mid afternoon I was very hungry and my bloodsugar was low. I was also starting to struggle with fatigue. Due to that difficulty I wasn’t thinking straight and instead of getting a taxi from the place literally next door to my hairdresser’s I decided to get a bus half way home and walk the rest. I was soon really exceptionally fatigued and struggling to walk much. I was shaking and walking with slower and slower steps. I was also very hungry. All I wanted to do was sleep and eat, preferably at the same time. I hadn’t budgeted for lunch out, after all I’d just spent money on getting my hair done and now had to be conservative with spending. Luckily for me my route took me past a small shopping centre. So now I had options. Supermarket, discount food store, chain cafe and Greggs. In reality due to my fatigue and my budget I didn’t actually have that many options at all. I did not have the energy to walk around a supermarket looking for individual easy to eat vegan items. That would probably end up costing around £5 too which is more than I wanted. Likewise with the discount food store – it may be discounted but what they have available is varied and it would take a lot of energy to search out and check labels. The cafe would be more expensive and I’d probably only be able to get a cookie. Greggs and their vegan sausage roll was looking like some sort of greasy baked good oasis.
I got my sausage roll (the very last one) and ate it in a very few bites leaning against the wall and in short order the signs of hypoglycemia subsided and I and a fraction more energy. I was only £1 down to boot. It only took a short rest against the wall (because all the benches were out in the rain) and I judged myself able to make it home on foot. Thank goodness it was downhill from there. Even then the last 100m were painfully slow and on getting home I still had to have a protein smoothie banana and then fall into a solid sleep for two hours.

photo author's own. image shows an agender person wearing glasses and a black hoodie. They have green and purple curly hair and are leaning against a wall holding a sausage roll in a Greggs paper bag to their mouth

But what’s the point of this not so thrilling look into the average day of somebody with ME? Well here goes. That slightly greasy, warm, flaky pastry encases lump of processed fake meat was exactly what I needed right then. Regardless of what I actually like the taste of what I needed was something simple, that I could eat right then and there with one hand, that had protein fat and carbs, that required little thinking, no checking of ingredients and of course was cheap.

Don’t get me wrong I love good food. I love home-made-from-scratch food. I love piles of vegetables and interesting ingredients. I am the sort of person who makes asparagus and cucumber beurre blanc with pasta as “an easy simple meal”. I can frequently be found shoving handfuls of fruit into my face. I love “healthy” “natural” food. But what I also need is food I can eat and food I can afford. 
An awful lot of vegan food that goes down the healthy lifestyle route just doesn’t tick those boxes. When I am that exhausted or have brain fog issues I can’t be checking ingredients to make sure something non-vegan or something that sets of my IBS isn’t in there – and yes many common health foods are super incompatible with IBS, which is a common component of CFS/ME and EDS. I don’t have energy to stand dithering at a counter figuring out which superfood salad really hits the spot. I don’t have the energy to go around a supermarket looking for different items. Sometimes it’s because the things I need in order to be healthy are things over looked in so-called healthy food (and I promise not to derail into an entire other article about notions of “healthy” food) and that is that carbohydrates, some fats and protein, the big easy things, are really important to a person’s diet and are often especially important to somebody with a chronic health condition who just needs fuel. Vitamin B12 is essential to body function and something I need to be mindful of on a vegan diet. But it doesn’t matter how much B12 I get if I don’t get the required number of calories, grams of carbohydrate and protein into my body to just keep me upright.

On top of that I don’t have a lot of money. If I want to do things like get my hair dyed at a salon I budget for it carefully (including taxis when I remember them) and that means I can’t be spending a fortune on eating out every time I get hungry (and no I can’t carry packed lunches everywhere, that gets heavy and energy sapping fast).

Sometimes I just want easy tasty food that I don’t have to think too hard about and that I can afford.

Sometimes I just need easy tasty food that I don’t have to think too hard about and that I can afford.

I am not going to Greggs because I want nutritionally balanced fancy food. I am going there because it fills a particular niche in daytime food whether you are vegan or not. So for everybody suggesting that Greggs start doing a butternut squash and spinach pastie, whilst yes that does sound lovely, will you kindly shut up. Go and get that somewhere else. You can I assure you find that somewhere else. What I want is a vegan corned beef slice. Or a vegan cheese and onion roll (this is a flagrant lie, I’ve never liked cheese and onion rolls and onion triggers my IBS). Or a vegan steak bake. Now there’s choice. Things so simple the ingredients are in their name. Things so simple you can get it and a drink and have change out of a fiver.

You may be thinking “well if you are disabled and have such difficulty finding food then maybe you shouldn’t be vegan?” or even “Well if you haven’t got much money then you shouldn’t be fussy about your food?”.
I’m just going to give you a few moments to really think about what you are saying there.

Let me tell you how those things sound to me: when you say somebody who is disabled, chronically ill or poor shouldn’t be vegan you are telling me that somebody who is disabled, chronically ill or poor shouldn’t be allowed to have their own ethics, morals or beliefs. I don’t care if you agree with my beliefs or not, but I am very, very concerned that you would think that a person’s right to their own thoughts, their own beliefs and ethics should be governed by their physical ability or health and their financial status. Every single person in this country is by law guaranteed the right to have their own ethics and beliefs and to act on them as long as they don’t cause harm to anybody else. If my beliefs are that I don’t eat animal products then I should have the right to do so even if I am ill, disabled or poor. Because on top of that right to hold ethics there is also the human right that I or anybody else should not be discriminated against due to disability or socioeconomic status. If non-disabled people can choose to eat an animal free diet then why do you believe that somebody who is disabled does not have that right?

If you have the energy to get “higher quality” food or to look for something more nutritionally complete or with fresher ingredients. Great, you do that. And on my good days I’ll be right there with you enjoying some delicious delicious greens. But on my bad days if that’s all that’s on offer I won’t be by your side. I’ll be on the floor crying because my legs don’t move any more.

To insist that all vegan food should be healthy, natural and conform to a certain narrow view of what vegan food should look like is classist and disableist. To level that criticism at other vegans, to tell them they are “doing it wrong” or aren’t “proper vegans” or should be in some way ashamed for wanting a mass produced cheap baked good is classist and disableist and you need to stop. You eat what you want, and let me eat my dream vegan corned beef slice before I pass out.

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