The Moral Crunch

Scrunched into a corner booth at PJ’s, a diner an hour outside of Yosemite National Park, I ate meat for the first time. I was seven years old. Having recently soured on my standard choice, a grilled cheese sandwich, I scanned the plastic-coated menu for an acceptable alternative. The waiter came to take our orders, and I nervously shifted in my seat as my parents requested veggie burgers and salads, my younger sister sticking with the grilled cheese. My older brother, who had embraced a carnivorous diet years ago, asked for a burger with easy confidence. Encouraged by this show of bravery, I ordered a hot dog. My voice was so high-pitched and quiet from nervousness that I had to repeat the order three times before the waiter understood. To their credit, my vegetarian parents hardly batted an eye. They watched me devour that first hot dog and the hundreds that followed without comment. Years later, my mother explained the process by which hot dogs are made but didn’t push the issue when the grotesque details did little to deter my enthusiasm. But although they allowed my siblings and me to make our own dietary decisions, my parents did little to teach us the finer points of meat consumption. As a result, meat, both as a concept and as a physical object, has always been foreign to me. No matter how many burgers I eat or club sandwiches I order, I can’t escape the anxiety and discomfort I felt as a seven-year-old reaching outside my family to try something new and different. My friends didn’t help my transition to a carnivorous lifestyle either. I grew up in a food-conscious area in California surrounded by vegetarians and vegans. Healthy eating was pervasive. With long stretches of farmland only minutes away, fresh and organic produce and free-range meat were always readily available. My vegetarian and vegan friends had little trouble maintaining their diets and touted the benefits of these dietary choices often. For years, I regularly received videos from them depicting the deplorable living conditions of livestock and describing the environmental impact of meat processing plants. To my friends, deciding not to eat meat wasn’t only a dietary choice; it was also a moral one. “You have a responsibility to your planet,” one video proclaimed. “The price you really pay for a 99 cent burger,” another narrated over footage of a slaughtering house. Ten years after I made my first foray into meat eating, I’m now considering reverting back to vegetarianism. I eat meat pretty rarely and don’t rely on it as the nutritional foundation of my diet. Those close to me still guilt me into seriously considering the change for humanitarian purposes regularly, and that guilt has been building for months. Andover is not Santa Cruz. As evidenced by the controversial attempt to impose “Meatless Mondays” at the beginning of the school year and the inclusion of “better vegetarian options in Commons” in several presidential platforms, being a vegetarian at this school isn’t easy. But that doesn’t cancel out all of the very real reasons I consider when I think about changing my own eating habits. As the debate inside my head rages on, I reflect on years of experience with this issue, both from a vegetarian’s perspective and a meat eater’s. I consider my sister’s stubborn refusal to ingest meat because she “would never do that to an animal.” I recall the taste of bacon and the countless videos my friends have forwarded depicting the atrocious living conditions of chickens and cattle being raised for slaughter. I think of that first hot dog, and the burger I ate (a little guiltily) for lunch. I can’t decide. There are a lot of good reasons to be a vegetarian, with resisting the inhumane treatment of livestock being the most often cited. But there are a lot of good reasons not to be one as well, primarily the health risks involved with such a diet. Ultimately, it’s a decision we all have to make, and it isn’t an easy one. After months of back and forth, I still can’t either completely commit to vegetarianism or entirely dismiss the consideration. But it’s something that matters, both in a personal and a larger sense. As we transition into adulthood and, down the road, possibly begin raising children of our own, we must consider what it means to eat meat or animal products and what it means to cut them out of our diet entirely. Annika Neklason is a new Upper from Santa Cruz, CA, and a Columnist for The Phillipian.