How to Make Vegetarianism's Benefits Realistic

In the recent American Dietetic Association's Vegetarian Nutrition Update newsletter (only print available), author Kathy Ball discusses the various benefits of vegetarianism -- for nutrition, the local economy and the environment. As the nutritional benefits of a vegetarian diet (reduction of the risk of certain cancers, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity) are well-known among the ADA's readership and the economic benefit to local farmers is a somewhat straightforward benefit to the local economy, Ball focuses her discussion on the environmental benefits to a vegetarian diet. She points out:

The lacto-ovo vegetarian [non-meant plus dairy] requires less grain, land, and water resources. Livestock products contribute to approximately 80% to greenhouse gas emission in comparison to agricultural products which contribute approximately 22% of total emissions globally.

A locally grown vegetarian diet also reduces fuel usage and gas emissions, specifically from heavy-duty freight vehicles. Miles traveled for meat-based meals are greater than for vegetable-based meals, increasing output of nitrous oxide, particulate matter, and other health and environmental hazards into the atmosphere.

This certainly seems like win-win-win situation in an ideal world. But what about low-income families for whom these local fruits and vegetables are both unavailable and unaffordable?

One solution could be the "Vitality Project" in Albert Lea, Minnesota, a town in which 12.3% of residents live with income below the poverty level. The project speeds the construction of sidewalk and bike trails for exercise, adds healthy menu options at grocery stores, establishes "walking buses" for children to walk to school together under supervision, hires experts to consult residents on topics including eating and cooking more nutrition meals, and establishes community gardens and walking programs.

As the organized program came to an end on Tuesday, many interviewed citizens claimed they had formed life-long habits thanks to the "Vitality Project." As Leo Aeikens, a heart attack survivor claims, "I always thought being meatless would be a horrible way to live [...] But there are oodles of things that are tasty and good, vegetables and fruits that really make up a good diet. I wouldn't go back."

Perhaps educating the public in nutrition and working to change eating and exercise habits isn't as difficult as one would think. If only the stimulus could fund programs like the "Vitality Project" in order to promote health (and thus curb the cost of healthcare), support farmers, and introduce environmentally sustainable practices all at the same time.