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Vegan Uncensored: No Vegans in the Peace Corps!

“So, if it was a choice between being vegan and joining the Peace Corps, you’d answer . . . .” 

“Vegan,” I filled in. He had asked it nonchalantly, just another question in a long interview that covered many aspects of my life. No, I wouldn’t mind taking out piercings. Yes, I’d be willing to cover up my tattoos and dress modestly. Yes, I understand I might have to conform to certain cultural traditions that I might disagree with. I admit I was caught a little off guard, but I wasn’t really taken aback by the bluntness of his statement.  I quickly answered vegan, trying to help the recruiter build an accurate picture of me. I didn’t realize that that moment was—in effect—the end of the interview.

Image: renjith krishnan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

At that point, I had been vegan for 3 ½ years. I had come to the decision slowly, first being vegetarian for a couple years. I had no guide down this path, no one inspiration. I thought about numerous factors and decided that vegan was the right choice. I didn’t have much support either, in the beginning. I was surrounded by meat eaters and it was rare to find a vegan. I persevered and while sometimes my choice made it difficult to find food, it was never impossible. With a little planning, it wasn’t even a big deal. In those few years, I had lived in the Netherlands, Italy, Japan and a few places in the U.S. I had traveled in Morocco for a few weeks. I survived, I stayed healthy—and I learned how to ask for vegan food in a few different languages.

I think my desire to join the Peace Corps was related to my veganism—my desire to lessen suffering in the world overall, to contribute what I could to the world and enjoy myself in the process. I researched the Corps extensively before I decided to apply. Their website said many vegetarians had served successfully and stressed the importance of being flexible. I also found blog posts of a few vegetarians currently serving. I didn’t find much about vegans serving, and it is more restrictive, but after my research I decided it would be possible. I could be flexible—I wouldn’t mind skipping a meal or monotonously eating the same food if it was vegan. However—as I found out much later–that was not what they meant.

I started the application process and it took three months to get the interview. I filled out a long application, wrote essays,  and got recommendations. I went through a slew of paperwork: ensuring I could take care of my student loans while serving, a notarized statement from my mother saying she would take over my credit card payment if necessary, official college and law school transcripts. I had to be fingerprinted and send those cards in. Through it all, I was in constant contact with my recruiter. When he had received everything, we scheduled an interview. On an incredibly hot day in July, I boarded a Chinatown bus in Philly and went up to New York City for the interview. 

I was dressed professionally and arrived early. Already off to a good start, I thought. At an early point in the interview I mentioned being vegan and he said we’d discuss that later. We talked for maybe half an hour before it came up again. He gave me scenarios:

“What if the village chief slaughtered a goat just for you?” he asked, looking up.

“I wouldn’t eat it,” I answered.

I found the question odd. I wasn’t someone who occasionally ate meat. I thought the word “vegan” made it clear that I did not eat animal products under any circumstances. These few scenarios ended with the question about joining the Peace Corps or being vegan. Then we moved on. At the end of the interview, he had me fill out a vegetarian questionnaire with a few more scenarios. I thought I gave thoughtful, well-reasoned answers—yet my responses always stated that I would continue my vegan diet. I gave him my questionnaire, he read my answers, and then he started to wrap things up.

As I was gathering my things, I asked what the next steps in the process would involve. He talked about medical checkups in the next few months and the availability of assignments. Then, he paused.

“But, actually, I can’t move forward at this point,” he stated.

“What do you mean?” I asked. I thought the interview had went well.

With this,” he indicated my vegetarian questionnaire, “I can’t move on unless you’re willing to be flexible.”

“I am,” I responded, “I know my diet will probably have to change. I’m willing to occasionally skip a meal or eat the same foods.”

“That’s not what I mean.”

 I don’t remember the exact wording of the conversation after that, but his point soon became clear. He never actually said it, I admit. But to him (and the Peace Corps?) being flexible meant being willing to eat meat. He didn’t mention my vegan choice of avoiding eggs and dairy, all the examples involved meat. The questionnaire said of vegetarians, “While some have found adequate food items in the country’s diet, many more have had to adjust their diets in order to remain healthy and maintain good relations within their communities.” It suddenly dawned on me, “adjusting your diet” meant being willing to eat meat.  To me, that made no sense. A “flexible” vegetarian would then be an omnivore. He made it even more clear.

 “Earlier, when I said you could be vegan or join the Peace Corps. . . that’s pretty much the choice. It’s one or the other.” He stated it so directly; I was surprised. I hesitated.

“I wish I would have known this earlier,” I quietly replied.

“Well, I didn’t know you were vegan,” he said.

I wanted to scream, “You didn’t ask!” and inform him that the website said vegetarians were ok. I was too upset. I told him I would consider “being flexible” and  left the office. He gave me a day to decide. I didn’t know it at the moment, but my mind was already made. I talked to friends that evening. Some suggested I lie and agree to be “flexible”. That’ll show ‘em. They say I can’t be vegan, but I will!  I considered it, but decided against it.  It didn’t seem like the best way to start out my years serving and I thought it might come back to haunt me.  I knew what I would choose, it just took me a while to admit it to myself. I had already invested so much time. And letting go of the Peace Corps meant throwing my life up in the air for the next few years. But I knew what it would be. The next day I made the decision. Vegan.

So no Peace Corps for me. I wrote a long email and copied in the New York recruiting office, the head of the Peace Corps, and their complaint office. I never received a reply from any of them. Just to be clear, I’m not asking the Peace Corps to change their policy. Maybe it is efficient if they only accept omnivores. I think it’s a great program (obviously, I wanted to join) and a wonderful choice for many people (including vegetarians, from what I read online). I wish they were able to take dietary considerations into account when assigning volunteers. The vegetarian questionnaire says the Peace Corps “cannot guarantee you an assignment that will enable you to maintain your dietary preferences. . .”. I would not have minded waiting longer for an assignment where it would be easier for me to be vegan; I would even be willing to do the research on the food available myself. Unfortunately, that’s not their policy.

I do  think that they should be straightforward about their stance. If their website had stated, “We cannot accommodate vegans and vegetarians unless they are willing to eat meat sometimes,” (I’m using their definition of “flexible”), well, then, I probably would not have spent the three months applying. My recruiter said, “I am not allowed to move forward with your application unless you are willing to be flexible.” He implied that it was policy or someone above him that made the decision, not him. I just wish I had known.

It all worked out ok for me in the end. I’m now at a fabulous job with a great group of people. I don’t have to cover up tattoos or take out piercings, and vegan food is abundant. The day of my Peace Corps interview was a very tough day for me, but it led me to where I am now. And the next time someone gives me an ultimatum that involves ___________ or being vegan, I won’t hesitate to answer.

Lala Stone lstone01@temple.edu

Vegan Uncensored is a weekly space on this blog where people can bring interesting topics of discussion to do with veganism to the fore. Read it, respond to it, pass it on to your friends – vegan and non-vegan – through Facebook, Twitter, or by sending them a link to this blog. Do you have a vegan issue you’d like to see in this space, or are you interested in being a guest contributor here? Email editor@veganmainstream.com.

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  • Kismet

    It is possible to be vegan or vegetarian and serve in the Peace Corps.  However, it seems that the author was being rather obtuse regarding what Peace Corps service is like.  The first 2-3 months of training are usually in country and with a host family (if not your entire service).  While they can be informed about your vegan/vegetarian status, there is no guarantee that your meals (with the family to help you integrate culturally and increase language skills) will be prepared in such a manner, especially in the beginning.  Though eventually, with time and effort on both parts, there is definitely a possibility of teaching about the benefits/ideology of veganism.

    Finding an appropriate placement is about matching skill sets in the Peace Corps, even once you arrive in country there is a second placement process for your final site.  If you are inflexible, it makes it difficult to match you with your final site.

    I’ve known great PCVs who served as vegans/vegetarians.  I’ve also know people who quit because they weren’t placed in specific regions that were perceived to accommodate their dietary requirements.  These PCVs were placed less than 50 km from each other.

    I’m certain the author could have adjusted and had a vegan diet in some PC countries, but I’m not certain that the author would have stayed long enough to try.  After all she didn’t even call back to argue that she valued being in the Peace Corps just as much as being a vegan.

    To me, that’s a sign that she didn’t have what it takes to be a PCV, not the lack of flexibility, the lack of determination.

  • Solotoro

     I disagree, JMC’s comment shows that they DO understand that commitment, and that it is incompatible with life as a Peace Corps volunteer. I do know a volunteer who was a successful vegan, but it took a LOT of exchange with her village for them to accept – declining gifts of food is a BIG DEAL in some parts of the world. And if you are so committed to veganism (and good for you!) that you will put it above integrating into the culture you are living in, it will very often cause material harm to your service, and Peace Corps is doing you both a favor by trying to avoid that. The are RESPECTING your decision.

    Part of making a commitment to veganism, or religion, or anything like that, is accepting the real-life consequences of that decision. If not being able to join Peace Corps is one of those consequences, that doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with Peace Corps, nor does it mean there is anything wrong with veganism. It is just that the two don’t work well together.

  • Kismet

    The flexibility is not in refusing.  It’s in how you refuse, and how you communicate the why.

  • KAM

    As a vegan (6 years and running) currently serving in the Peace Corps, I can really appreciate your personal experience. I underwent the exact same thing during my application process (even going so far as asking PETA to harass Peace Corps for me), which finally ended in me saying that if I were on the verge of dying, and nothing else were available, I would consider eating meat. After this I was informed that I would be sent to a place with good hospitals “just in case”. I’m not sure how many vegans have actually died abroad, but having lived in the Philippines for about a year (in circumstances that aren’t exactly packed with vegan food stuffs) I’ve found a nice niche and am surprised how easy it is to maintain my diet and how understanding the locals are (though, I’m very consistent. I’ve noticed that anyone who waffles on and off of being veggie gets little consideration). Anywho, I’m always trying to myth bust by preach the feasibility of being vegan in the Peace Corps. I firmly believe it is the scare tactics of the Peace Corps (rather than the reality of life abroad) that intimidate most vegan applicants into not applying, which is a shame because the world can always use more compassionate vegans in it :)

  • Lauren

    Thanks for writing this. After reading some of the comments I feel that some people are missing the point. But I also understand why they would deny you. I agree that they should have told you more forwardly to save you the time about their stance on vegans (or religious values etc.). I am so glad you wrote this as a fellow vegan, I am not willing to give up my lifestyle (potentially the milk and eggs but meat is a no-go), and I am glad I didn’t have to waste my time.

  • spindra

    Would abstaining from animal products be offensive to a Buddhist or a Hindu? Of course not. And would you call those people obtuse buffoons? Of course not. Have you actually interacted with the rest of the world? They don’t all eat hamburgers like you.

  • spindra

    Taking into account externalized costs, the standard American diet is far more expensive and far more luxurious than a plant-based vegan diet. The proper analogy is not “should you have to forfeit your nudist habits to be accepted into the Peace Corps” but rather, “to what extent should a Peace Corps member have to forfeit their ethics?”

    It’s not as easy of a question as you’d like to make it. If as a PC volunteer you witness someone doing something that’s unanimously considered unethical within their OWN society, for example committing rape, then are you going to intervene? Of course. (I hope you agree.) But there are few issues that are so unanimous (consider female genital mutilation). I find it very troubling that pro-PC comments on this forum paint all foreign countries as essentially being unanimously offended veganism, when in many countries plant-based foods make up a much larger portion of the diet than in the U.S. As an Asian American, I think it is insulting for you people to not only speak on behalf all of these different so-called developing nations, but for you to further presume that they would be less able to come to terms with my personal beliefs than Americans are.

    The bottom line is, no one should EVER let themselves be pressured to compromise something that they so strongly believe in, and I applaud the author for standing her ground.

  • Olivia

    This is a very biased comment. Being vegan isn’t about looking out for yourself as number one. For many, it is about living a life of nonviolence, environmental activism and more. Being vegan is the biggest part of my identity, and before it, I was vegetarian for my whole life. If I were to eat meat, my body would reject it and I would get very sick, so it’s not exactly easy to just suddenly consider yourself “flexible.” Reading this article has pretty much crushed me since it was my dream to join the peace corps after college. But I guess now I just need to find an organization that ITSELF is more flexible and willing to let compassionate people contribute to helping others. I’m not saying that this policy is horrible, but I believe it is very flawed. I have dedicated my life to helping others and this planet, but I am also not willing to compromise my values. I believe I can do good in this world without doing so.

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