Growth in the health food industry has some undeniable benefits: it provides jobs and gives many Peruvians access to an alternative dietary lifestyle. But the word “many” is key.
By Camila Guiza-Chavez
If you come to Peru, chances are you’re coming for the food. On the gastronomic global stage, Peruvian cuisine is front and center. Most tourists are curious to try classic Peruvian dishes such as ceviche, cuy (guinea pig), alpaca, and lomo saltado (sautéed beef and vegetables). In the midst of this meat-centered fare, you probably aren’t expecting to find a dozen different kinds of meatless burgers, dairy-free cheeses, and nut-based breads. But that’s what you’ll see if you walk through the center of Lima’s San Isidro district on any Sunday afternoon throughout the year.
When we stumbled across the San Isidro organic market, the crunchy Californian in me felt right at home. I was also surprised, as it was so wildly different from anything I had seen on my trips to Colombia, where my family is from. As a vegetarian, every time I’m in Colombia my diet consists almost entirely of plantains, potatoes, and rice, and my grandmother never knows what to do with me. So the sight of so many alternative food options in a country not so distant from Colombia was a pleasant shock.
Each week, at least 30 vendors gather and set up shop at San Isidro’s Organic Market, where you can find anything from quinoa croquettes to kale chips to garbanzo-based meatloaf. But the Organic Market isn’t the only mark of Peru’s burgeoning alternative food industry and growing number of herbivores. Lima is home to the Vegan School of Lima, where professors teach how to make meatless renditions of Peruvian classics (i.e. mushroom ceviche). Additionally, in 2014 Peru hosted its first International Vegan Festival, which took place in the city of Ayacucho. The festival was modeled after one that took place in Canada almost 30 years before, and it has been replicated in countries around the world, including in Argentina and Brazil in 2013.
This growth in the health food industry has some undeniable benefits: it provides jobs and gives many Peruvians access to an alternative dietary lifestyle. But the word “many” is key: In the United States, most health food products (vegetarian/vegan meat alternatives, anything marked “organic” or “natural”) are marked at such high prices that they are inaccessible to the working class. A healthy lifestyle (by whatever standards one chooses to use) is then connected far too closely to a wealthy lifestyle.
Given that the site of the before-mentioned organic market is in a district highly populated by foreigners and businesspeople (according to one of the market’s vendors), and that the market has abnormally high food prices, it would seem that Peru is not immune to this Whole Paycheck phenomenon. It makes sense that a city as tourist-heavy as Lima would develop an alternative food industry to placate its non-lomo-saltado-eating guests. And industries born of tourism, tailored to a tourist’s pocket, are rarely grown with accessibility to the working class or the poor in mind.
But the world-renowned Peruvian Chef Rama would push back on the idea that the rising trends towards veganism/vegetarianism and “healthy” eating in Peru belong in any way to foreigners, and he is working to ensure that it doesn’t become so. As one of the organizers of Ayacucho’s 2014 International Vegan Festival, he told the magazine Gestión, “We held the festival in Ayacucho, a provincial area, instead of in Lima because the movement began with vegans in Ayacucho. It’s a way to decentralize the event, with the aim of reaching people beyond Lima.” For some context, Ayacucho is nestled in the highlands of Peru, in a rural and fairly poor region. In contrast to the expensive San Isidro organic market, dishes at the event were sold for 5–10 soles, which amounts to approximately $1.50–$3.
According to a woman at San Isidro’s organic market who is organizing this year’s International Vegan Festival, the event will be held in Arequipa, another highland, fairly rural region. The healthy food movement, along with the vegetables, seems to be homegrown.
Camila Guiza-Chavez is a sophomore Ethnicity, Race, and Migration Major in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.