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Plant based food

I Am A Born-Again Vegetarian!

Desi Roots, Global Wings – a monthly column focused on the Indian immigrant experience.
About a decade ago, I chose vegetarianism again, because vegetarianism as a spiritual practice is an important part of how I live by my values every day.

I grew up vegetarian. That was the default lifestyle and diet in my family and community when I was growing up in Mumbai. I started eating meat in my twenties, partly because it was difficult to find meat-free options in 1980s America. Equally, I was motivated by a desire to be cosmopolitan and open to new ideas and experiences. 

But then, about a decade ago, I chose vegetarianism again. Whereas originally, it was an inherited practice, this time it is something I have mindfully chosen. And while the choice makes sense for a multitude of reasons, at its very core, it is an important part of how I live by my values every day.

I am a born-again vegetarian. 

Most faiths have spiritual practices. Across religions, these range from prayer, meditation and fasting to lighting of lamps and candles, to giving alms to the poor. Regardless of the religion, it seems that each spiritual practice is a way to promote stillness, reflection, introspection. It is a way to slow down, to withdraw from the busyness of life, to focus on something outside oneself. It promotes selflessness and intentionality, humility as well as gratitude. 

For me, all of these benefits are realized by the simple act of giving up meat and most other animal-based products such as dairy and leather.

There are many reasons for giving up meat. According to many studies, it is good for health, as it eliminates harmful substances from the diet. It is good for the environment, as the amount of water and land needed to create a meat-based calorie is many times more than what is needed to create the same calorie from plant-based foods. For me, these two are the “icing on the cake” of my chosen vegetarian lifestyle.

The “cake” is the knowledge that by giving up meat, I am no longer a participant in the industrial “manufacture” of meat—a system that, at its core, is based on cruelty to animals. I want to say, “inhumane” treatment of animals, but the word is quite unequal to the task of describing the routine horror that is being perpetrated on creatures that are sentient and can feel pain every day.

This point came home to me when I was in the middle of reading a book called “Eating Animals” by Jonathan Safran Foer. It has a section that describes how cows and pigs are treated as they are led to slaughter. About a third of the way into this section, I could not go on reading. It was just too horrific. 

This crystallized the issue for me—if I cannot bear to read the words—forget about viewing pictures or video—of what the animals are made to undergo so we might have abundant meat, how can I , in good faith, continue to consume the products manufactured by such a system?

A guru is a teacher or master, particularly someone who has attained a level of scholarship through lived experience. My gurus in my chosen spiritual practice were my son and his friend Peter who came from a self-described “meat-and-potatoes” family. 

When he was in high school, as he became aware of the animal cruelty that is part of a meat-based diet, Peter chose to become a vegetarian. I can only imagine how hard it must have been for him to adhere to this lifestyle. To be surrounded by smells and flavors that he grew up with and enjoyed, and that could be his for the asking; and yet to reject them for a principle, was both admirable and humbling.

Inspired by Peter’s example, my son too gave up meat. Being away at college during these years, there were times when there were too few choices, or he was left out of campus events like “Asian Street Food.” But, convinced about the rightness of his choice, he did not budge. He even went on a road trip to New Orleans and managed to find vegetarian food—not always healthy, but vegetarian nonetheless—during the entire trip.

As a mother who worried about his health and his ability to enjoy life, I often urged him to not make perfect the enemy of the good. What I meant is that it was okay if he occasionally allowed himself to eat meat, especially when there were no good alternatives, or simply as an occasional treat. For, while renunciation too is a kind of spiritual practice, when carried to the extreme of denial, it can do more harm than good, and might even lead to a renunciation of the spiritual practice itself.

In that spirit, many people observe new traditions, such as meatless Mondays or eating only locally grown organic meat, or eating meat only after 6 pm. The good news is that it keeps getting easier to eschew an animal-based lifestyle. Not only are there meat substitutes like Impossible Burgers and Beyond Meat, there are also new vegan options for butter, cheese, eggs, and ice cream. 

Evolution is a process of continual incremental improvement—in nature as well as within us. A quote of Thomas Edison brings together the concepts of evolution and vegetarianism: “Non-violence leads to the highest ethics, which is the goal of all evolution. Until we stop harming all other living beings, we are still savages.”


Nandini Patwardhan is a retired software developer and cofounder of Story Artisan Press. Her writing has been published in, among others, the New York Times, Mutha Magazine, Talking Writing, and The Hindu. Her book, “Radical Spirits,” tells the deeply-researched story of Dr. Anandi-bai Joshee, India’s first woman doctor. 

Photo by Alexandra Andersson on Unsplash


 

The Turkey & Thanksgiving Myth

The history of Thanksgiving has become a hotly contested topic. Many believe the heartwarming story of European settlers and natives celebrating their successful harvest, immortalized in American myths for generations, never happened. Some Native American tribes like the United American Indians of New England  see Thanksgiving as a day of mourning for the genocide of natives.

Hundreds of years later, by continuing to celebrate Thanksgiving by slaughtering turkeys when we don’t even know for sure if those birds were on the menu in the first Thanksgiving dinner, we are perpetuating a culture of violence and validating the bloodshed that has marred the history of Native Americans.

Thanksgiving turkeys — the 46 million of them that aren’t lucky enough to be pardoned by the President–  are forced to live in cramped cages that are too small to even flap their wings, their toes and beaks are cut off without painkillers, and they are killed in the most inhumane manner imaginable as a PETA investigation reveals. This is unfortunate, but not surprising  because there are not even minimum federal standards governing how turkeys live or die, as turkeys are exempt from the federal Humane Methods of Slaughter Act.

While we turn a blind eye to the abuse of animals in slaughterhouses, as a society we have been very vocal in condemning those accused of animal abuse outside the slaughterhouse.

Football player Michael Vick continues to be hated to this day for engaging in illegal dog fighting.

The reaction to these animal abuses is understandable and laudable, but how are those of us who condoned the abuse of our Thanksgiving turkeys any different?

There is no morally coherent difference between the dog who was kicked and the chicken, pig, cow or turkey that most people will eat today. How is it that Americans, so solicitous of the animals they keep as pets, are so indifferent toward the ones they cook for dinner?

Norm Phelps, in his book Changing the Game: Why The Battle For Animal Liberation Is So Hard And How It Can Be Won notes that our paradoxical values about killing animals for food can be explained through the principle of bounded ethicality.When a belief conflicts with a behavior that people are motivated to maintain due to self interest, cultural norms and so forth, most individuals will find a way to convince themselves that their ethical principles do not apply to their own behavior.

Perhaps this is why stories about dog meat market in China and slaughtering dolphins in Japan lead to overwhelming outrage in the social media, mostly in the form of comments calling “those people” barbaric by those who have don’t bat an eyelid towards the inhumane treatment of animals culturally deemed worthy of consumption.

It is time for us to examine our fundamental views about animal ethics, to look at ourselves in the mirror and ask, “are we really less barbaric than ‘those people’ who kill dolphins or eat dogs?”

Many omnivores vehemently defend their choice to eat meat by rhetorically asking why we should worry about animals when so many people are starving . Ironically, human starvation is just another reason to reconsider raising animals for food. Every year about 760 million tons of food is fed to farm animals. Of this enormous quantity, only a fraction of calories is consumed as meat, while about 40 million tons of food grains can end the most extreme cases of human starvation.

Vegetarianism is on the rise. A study profiled in a recent New York Times piece finds that 12% of Millennials have now embraced a vegetarian lifestyle, as compared to 4% Gen X’ers,  and 1% of  Baby Boomers.

We should embrace the anti-animal cruelty movement. Continuing to perpetuate the violence, abuse and bloodshed  that marred our history 400 year ago seems unimaginative, medieval and frankly not in line with a progressive society we aspire to become. Let’s not force turkeys to live a short, cruel and thankless life and instead endeavor to create new traditions based on thoughtful reflection, reasoning and compassion.

Spending a minute to ask ourselves what the turkeys have to be thankful for on Thanksgiving is  not too much to do for the sake of the bird you’ll be carving up for dinner.


Ashwin Murthy is a freelance writer and a Silicon Valley based software engineer. 

Photo by The Creative Exchange on Unsplash

Road Warrior

Gurjeet Kaur Randhwa drove a truck from Central Valley, California, carrying fresh produce to dinner tables across fifty states of the United States of America. A former national level field-hockey player in India, she now deftly navigates the American highways ensuring she stays in good health.In order to maintain her truck-driver’s license, Gurjeet must ensure her blood pressure and diabetes is within the acceptable range. 

Gurjeet’s medical exam report is part of her driving record. It is filed electronically by the Medical Examiner (ME) with the US Department of Transportation (DOT) bi-annually. Any drop in health indices would mean she loses her license or at best, gets recertified every year. 

The looming threat of annual medical exams that can choke off their livelihood, puts pressure on truck drivers to manage the perils of their sedentary lifestyle that result from long hours of driving. Long haul truck drivers in the U.S. have an increased prevalence, over the larger population, of major health risks and conditions across the board—obesity, morbid obesity, self-reported diabetes, cardiovascular risk factors, smoking, and lack of health insurance. 

There are 1.7 million men and women working as long-haul drivers in the US according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) survey2017). 

Eighteen percent, approximately 30,000 of them, are estimated to be Punjabi says Raman Dhillon, founder The North American Punjabi Trucking Association (NAPTA). The number of Punjabi truck drivers fluctuates based on the availability of jobs. Satnam Singh, a truck driver out of Yuba City says about half of the Punjabi drivers, approximately 20,000 live in California.

This Series will look at (the health challenges Punjabi drivers are facing in order to keep their driving licenses, and how they are navigating this during COVID. The two articles that follow will look at the nutritional value of dhabas (Punjabi truck stops) dotted along the US highways frequented by Punjabi truckers, and how these drivers increasingly use telemedicine to stay relatively healthy on the road and meet their licensing requirements.

Fuel For The Body

Central Valley long-haul trucker Gurjeet Kaur Randhwa

Gurjeet, a gold medalist in Masters in Physical Education, was a Professor at Women’s College, Amritsar before she moved to the United States. Her training in nutrition came in handy as she planned for her life on the road. She is vegetarian when on the road and thinks that most Punjabi truck drivers too are largely vegetarian whilst driving.

“Since it is not considered auspicious to eat meat, I have observed that most truck-drivers do not eat meat when on a long road.”

Sikhism, the religion of a majority of Punjabi truck drivers, stipulates a preference for a vegetarian diet and the Gurdwaras (Sikh temples). serve lacto-vegetarian food to worshippers and visitors. 

“When you are driving a 80,000-ton vehicle, which takes an entire football field length to come to a full stop, you really are riding a rocket. It is a powerful machine and any small mistake can have magnified consequences. Driving long hours, as we do, one definitely wants the blessings of the Guru with us,” says Gurjeet.  Gurjeet has never seen Punjabi Sikh drivers transport cattle to beef factories for that very reason.

Satnam Singh, a truck driver who lives in Yuba City and is an active member of the community,  agrees with her that most are vegetarian while driving. “Not all of them. I would guess 80%” he said. 

Unfortunately, being vegetarian further limits their food-stop choices on the road so drivers pack nutritious meals before leaving home. Gurjeet, when she drives her truck, carries two subzis or vegetable curries per meal. She wraps the chapatis or flatbreads individually in airtight packs to keep them fresh longer. Every truck has a small rest area behind the driver’s seat. It holds a mini-refrigerator, a microwave, and a bed to lay on. On a ten to fifteen-day road journey, there always comes a time when the driver exhausts their stash of food and has to stop and buy a meal. This is where the driver must make informed choices. 

To meet the needs of the truckers, dhabas or food stops serving Punjabi food have sprung up along US highways. In the remotest of places, sometimes hidden inside gas stations are mouth-watering, wholesome delicacies that promise to keep the glycemic index from jumping up.

Rejuvenating Zs

Gurjeet and her husband used to drive together, taking turns. As drivers are paid by the mile, this enabled the couple to make a quick turnaround and complete more trips every month. A truck can make only three trips a month barely breaking even. By sharing the driving amongst them the couple would squeeze on a fourth trip. But life on the road was tough. Sleeping in a moving truck was hardly restful. Driving long hours tired Gurjeet out. Lack of good sleep is definitely a factor impacting the health of the truck driver.

Balvinder Singh, a truck driver who now runs a dhaba, agrees. “I could not get fitful sleep on these journeys. When the load needs to be dropped off and another one picked, the driver is at the mercy of the client. Whenever the load becomes available he must pick it up. In a rush to minimize the number of hours spent in wait mode the driver sometimes snatches just 3-4 hours of sleep before he starts loading,” says Balvinder.

The number of hours on the road is strongly regulated by the Department of Transportation.  After being off duty for 10 or more consecutive hours, a  trucker is allowed to drive for up to 11 hours in a period of 14 consecutive hours. The truck‘s Electronic Logging Device or ELD system makes a note of the number of hours the driver has rested and the number of hours he has been on the road. The driver must receive a minimum of 10 hours off duty if transporting property, and eight hours if transporting passengers.

During the COVID-19  pandemic, a  nationwide emergency hours-of-service exemption was in place for truck drivers hauling loads related to the coronavirus pandemic. The relaxed rules allow some truck drivers to rest for less than 10 hours.

The Center of Disease Control (CDC) states that adults who sleep less than 7 hours each night are more likely to say they have had health problems, including heart attack, asthma, and depression. Some of these health problems raise the risk for heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.

Get The Heart Pumping

Most truck stops have facilities for the truckers to shower, shave, eat and exercise. Some have a lounge to relax in and a gas station to fuel up. Gurjeet and the other Punjabi truck drivers rarely use the gyms. “I have never seen any desi drivers in the gyms,” says Balvinder. 

After being cooped up in the truck for long hours Gurjeet would rather be in the fresh air. She advocates a walk at every stop making sure to cover a few miles. As a lady driver, security is a concern. She does not wander too far from the truck but circles her 53-foot long truck, carving out her own track.

Health of Wealth 

The romance of being a truck driver has been captured by many movies and folk singers. The shiny machine humming down the long road of freedom making stops as it travels through new lands and vistas is a vision that fueled the American dream of this professor of nutrition, field hockey player, and yogini. With the drop in loads due to the trade war with China in 2019 and COVID-19 in 2020, the American Dream seems to be souring as truckers fight for loads. 

The drop in container traffic has led truck drivers who served the ports to move into stable but low paying Central Valley produce transportation businesses. Price gouging by middlemen brokers has made it difficult for truckers to meet their expenses let alone make it profitable for them to drive their trucks. Since the beginning of May 2020, commercial drivers have taken to the streets of Washington DC and Sacramento petitioning Congress to take immediate action to improve broker transparency.  A majority of the Punjabi truckers are independent operators who get their business through brokers. A shipper pays the broker, who in turn pays the truck driver for carrying the load. Brokers are taking advantage of the desperation of the independent truckers in COVID times by creaming off the rates. Motor carriers have the right to know how much a shipper is paying a broker and how much the broker is then paying the motor carrier. Brokers often find ways of circumventing federal regulations (49 CFR §371.3) that require them to keep records of transactions and make them available to carriers upon request.

It is time to remember that behind the wheel of the machine is a person who delivers our essential goods, keeps panic of empty grocery store shelves at bay, and drives at great peril to their health, fighting to stay healthy to keep their jobs.

Truck driver Satnam Singh of Yuba City said in Punjabi, “Every day we ride a bomb. We are caught in a triple whammy of less work, low rates, and poor health.” 

Read other articles in this series:

Doctors Open Doors To Sick Punjabi Truckers

Doctors Open Doors To Sick Punjabi Truckers

Punjabi Truckers Find A Warm Welcome At US Highway Dhabas

 


Ritu Marwah wrote this series while participating in the USC Center for Health Journalism‘s California Fellowship.