The crowd at Matthew Prescott’s book signing was small but lively, cheered by the craft liquor at McClintock Distilling and samples from local vendors including Hippy Chick Hummus and Serendipity Market. Sitting in the front row were four pretty white girls, all sporting totes and jean jackets and matching ombré highlights.
The book in focus was Prescott’s “Food Is the Solution,” a vegan cookbook and environmental call to action with endorsements from the likes of celebrity chef David Chang and the musician Moby. The hefty volume — Prescott’s first — is full of more than 80 plant-focused recipes and reporting on the impacts of a meat-rich diet, from the physical to the environmental. It takes 53 gallons of water to produce a single egg, Prescott told the crowd, pouring a gallon into a trash can as an illustration. A sausage patty takes 500. And by now, most are familiar with the health effects of a diet high in animal products, including obesity, diabetes and cancer.
Prescott, who grew up in New Hampshire, never intended to go vegan. When his older sister came home from school one day and announced her plans to become a vegetarian, Prescott made fun of her, spearing steak at the end of his fork and waving it under her nose. He’d willingly eat vegetarian food but made plenty of room for meat — adding bacon to a veggie burger or eating chicken for dinner after a lunch of bean burritos.
“I made a point of it,” Prescott said. “Like a good little brother, I would make fun of her while my mom was busy making her these delicious vegetarian meals.”
As his sister stuck to the diet, Prescott kept eating plant-centric food and eventually started researching the benefits of vegetarianism. His transition from bystander to full-blown advocate came around the age of 16 after he saw a video of animals in factory farms. That was it for him. Prescott went from a beef-eating kid to staunch vegan and senior director of food and agriculture for The Humane Society of the United States.
“Like most people, I grew up with pets at home,” Prescott said. “I grew up with dogs and cats and I loved them and felt a connection to them. And when I saw a video of what happens to animals on farms, I just was heartbroken. I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life being an advocate for them.”
Veganism, or even vegetarianism, can be a funny thing. It’s often branded as a lifestyle choice for the elite despite protestations from proponents, who frequently extol the affordability of dried chickpeas or bulk bags of rice. But the reality is that not everyone has time to painstakingly prepare vegetable-focused meals from scratch. Premade vegan grocery items — things such as yogurt, milk or meat substitutes — are frequently double or triple the cost of their animal-derived alternatives. And not everyone has the know-how or capability to cook vegan food at home.
Moby — the same Moby who endorsed Prescott’s book — was the subject of online derision after he published an editorial in The Wall Street Journal arguing that the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (commonly known as food stamps) should eliminate “junk food” and focus on “beans, vegetables, fruit, and whole grains.” Many pointed out that SNAP recipients often live in food deserts or homes without fully equipped kitchens, thus significantly reducing their ability to supply or cook the holistic diet he recommended.
At the same time, factory farms and feedlots — the infrastructure needed to support meat-heavy diets — have a disproportionate impact on working-class and low-income areas. In places including North Carolina and the Eastern Shore of Maryland, thousands of residents are being subjected to the stench and manure from massive chicken and hog farms. And ample scientific research has shown that plant-based diets make for healthier humans. Even without going fully vegetarian or vegan, a plant-based diet reduces the risk of heart disease and helps maintain a healthy weight. It’s accessibility that remains a barrier.
Prescott, who lived in the city of Frederick with his wife from 2011 to 2014, doesn’t pretend to have the answers to income inequality in his book.
“I think the internet is the number one best thing for teaching people how to prepare delicious, healthy food,” he said after his presentation on the book. “People at least have access on their phones or at the library to millions of healthy recipes online and how to prepare them. And hopefully that will keep growing.”
“Food Is the Solution” focuses more on the environmental impact of modern food systems, and that’s an area where the author’s passion and expertise shines through. There’s a seasonal food chart included in the book, Prescott said, and tips on making individual recipes even more eco-friendly. There’s a big emphasis on reducing waste and plastic packaging, another net negative for the environment.
“It just comes out of a desire to do the least harm — to animals, to the earth, to our bodies,” he said. “Hopefully, all things combined, people will be able to use it as a one-stop shop as ways to eat in a way that’s a little lighter in the planet.”