The vegetarian movement in the United States and Canada encompasses local, national, and international organizations that promote vegetarian practices and lifestyles. These organizations identify meat as a social problem for a variety of reasons, including threats to personal health, destruction to the environment, and the pain and suffering caused to animals in the factory farming industry. The concerns of the vegetarian movement overlap with those of the environmental and animal rights movements.
Vegetarians are individuals who do not consume any meat, poultry, or seafood; vegans extend these prohibitions to all animal products (including leather, wool, and sometimes honey). Efforts to count the actual number of vegetarians in the United States have been daunting, particularly because many people who identify as vegetarians do not exactly follow the vegetarian definition. For example, some vegetarians might occasionally eat fish or sometimes eat turkey on Thanksgiving. According to a 2003 Harris Poll, about 2.8 percent of the U.S. population does not eat meat, poultry, or seafood. However, due to the statistical margin of error, the actual percentage could be lower or higher.
While it is difficult to determine the actual number of vegetarians, only a small percentage participates in the vegetarian movement by joining and participating in vegetarian organizations. Some join national and international organizations, such as the Vegetarian Resource Group, the North American Vegetarian Society, and the International Vegetarian Union, while others participate in one of the dozens of state and local vegetarian groups. Such groups are found in all major U.S. and Canadian cities, as well as in such smaller cities and towns as El Paso, Texas (the Vegetarian Society of El Paso); Canton, Ohio (the Vegetarian Club of Canton); and Salem, Massachusetts (the Salem Vegan Society).
Local vegetarian groups typically hold meetings that feature potluck vegetarian meals, dine-outs at area restaurants, recipe sharing, and educational speakers; many of these groups center on providing social support to people making the transition to vegetarianism or veganism. Most of the national groups engage in efforts to make the culture more “vegetarian-friendly,” for example, by working with the restaurant and food industries to make more vegetarian options available. Some also work to enact more structural changes, for example, by changing the U.S. guidelines for school lunch programs to increase vegetarian options and by working with nutrition and medical professional organizations to increase public acceptance of vegetarian diets as healthy.
Over the past decade, there has been an increase in the size and visibility of action-oriented groups, such as Vegan Action and Vegan Outreach, which engage in leafleting and other activities to increase awareness of meat as a social and personal problem, particularly among college students.
- Maurer, Donna. 1995. “Meat as a Social Problem: Rhetorical Strategies in the Contemporary Vegetarian Literature.” Pp. 143-63 in Eating Agendas: Food and Nutrition as Social Problems, edited by D. Maurer and J. Sobal. Hawthorne, NY: Aldine de Gruyter.
- Maurer, Donna. 2002. Vegetarianism: Movement or Moment? Philadelphia: Temple University Press.