October 12, 2010

An American Vegan In Chile.

When I came to Chile I expected to be hungry…

I had given up animal products six months ago and my school had warned me South American fare was not vegan friendly.

My counselor suggested I begin reincorporating meat back into my diet immediately, to avoid getting sick while I was abroad.

I wanted to experience the culture and didn’t want to come off as a pretentious American to my future Chilean family, but eating meat again? That was out of the question.

I reasoned that I would do my best to avoid it, but told my advisor that, if need be, I would eat eggs and dairy again. But after discussing it with my mom, who also recently adopted a vegan diet, I gained a new perspective.

She reminded me that my diet was about more than food. My decision to stop eating meat was not a new fad. It was not one of my numerous New Year’s health kicks that I knew I would inevitably give up. It was about how I wanted to interact with the earth and the other living things with which we share it.

I revised my application form and stated that I intended to maintain a vegan diet during my time abroad. My counselor was apprehensive, but told me I should be fine.

Nonetheless, with everything I’d heard about the Chilean diet—carne at every meal, bread cooked with animal lard—I expected to be hungry.

But after being here for a little under three months my experience has been the opposite.

Like most of my American girlfriends my jeans are fitting tighter and I am enjoying every minute of gorging myself on the magnificent—and unbelievably cheap—fruits and vegetables that line Chile’s busy outdoor marketplaces.

Fruits at a Chilean marketplace.

But, more importantly I have found that the food movement I ignorantly thought was confined to liberal cities like Boulder and Portland is hidden in pockets around the world. “Vegano” is not only part of the Spanish vocabulary, but for many Chileans is as much a part of their mindset and beliefs as it is for me.

I spoke with Gopika Candra, who works at Hare Krishna temple/ yoga studio/ restaurant Govinda’s in Valparaiso, Chile, about her relationship to food.

Hare Krishna followers abide by strict diet guidelines that prohibit eating meat, fish, or eggs, Candra told me. Govinda’s opened ten years ago as a place for followers to come to worship and eat the entirely vegan or vegetarian Hindu-inspired lunch served every weekday.

Hare Krishna followers are known for providing inexpensive meals to anyone who needs it and nutrition and food is an integral part of the belief system. And while the clientele is mainly regulars, worshippers of Hare Krishna, Candra emphasized that everyone is welcome. In the past few years more and more Chileans have begun coming in to discover what a vegetarian diet has to offer, she said.

A meal at Hare Krishna restaurant, Gavinda's. A traditional Chilean dish, charquicán, a stew of potatoes, squash and other vegetables. Along with salad, bread, and kiwi juice the meal cost 1,500 pesos (a little under $3.00).

Es una preocupación del salud” (“It’s a health concern.”) she said about why Chile seems to be advancing in the vegetarian food movement.

A street vendor named Alexi, who moves around Valparaiso and the neighboring town of Viña del Mar selling vegan soy burgers, vegetable sandwiches, and whole grain bread, had similar sentiments. He reasoned that people bought his products, all of which he makes himself, because they are cheap and healthy. Everything is sold for around 500 pesos, about 1 U.S. dollar.

Street Vendor, Alexi, selling vegan soy burgers and wraps in Valparaiso.

Like Govinda’s, Alexi emphasized a spiritual aspect to his business. He identified himself as a practicing Rastafarian and explained to me that part of his belief system is to be conscious of his nutrition and would never sell his customers food that he would not eat himself.

In the seven years since Alexi started selling his products they have steadily grown more popular and now there are numerous other vendors around town selling similar vegan and vegetarian cuisine.

Catalina Sanguesa, owner of Jardin del Profeta, another vegetarian restaurant in Valparaiso, said that the mindful eating movement is growing in Chile. “Esta cambiando, la percepción de como debemos comer” (“The perception is changing concerning how we should be eating”), she said.

Chile’s transition into a developed nation coincided with increased consumption of sugar, high calorie foods and beverages, and animal-source food. And, according to the World Health Organization, while malnutrition rates have decreased dramatically, the nation now faces obesity rates comparable to those of the United States. But, as Sanguesa said, people are slowly beginning to take notice.

The government has begun implementing measures to combat childhood obesity through changes in school lunch programs and increased focus on physical fitness. There have been numerous measures proposed to congress to make nutritional facts more accessible to consumers and to prohibit junk food companies from using toys to lure children into buying their products.

However, progress is often halted by the power of big business. A recently proposed tax on junk food, for example, was attacked by Chile’s food industry and almost immediately the health minister who proposed it, Jaime Manalich, took it back. Sound familiar?

It seems that those working toward reforming our relationship to food are fighting the same battles here in Chile as we are in the United States. They are fighting to get people to recognize the significance of what they eat and to recognize the benefits, both to health and society, of being more aware.

And it seems that some of the movements here might be more successful. The vendors I spoke to here have made their food accessible to everyone by keeping prices way down. (Sound unfamiliar?) And most importantly they have managed to demonstrate to their customers that the consumption and production of their food is about more than nutrition. It is an expression of their spirituality and beliefs and is an integral part of who they are.

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