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Can university students afford the plant-based price tag?

As grocery prices continue to increase with the rising cost of living, vegan students are finding it harder to stick with their diet.

“I know I’m not eating enough vegetables, ironically, and I know I’m definitely not eating enough protein,” Despite the colourful array of vegetable curry, protein rich rice bowls, or plant-based burger patties filling supermarket shelves, when vegan student Grace Vanderkolk sits down for dinner she is met with a humble bowl of beans and rice.

Whilst a 2022 survey showed that 32 percent of Australians have reduced their meat intake, students like Vanderkolk are finding it harder to stay vegan as groceries continue to cost more.

When she first moved out, she found buying and preparing vegan food to be easy, but recently, her grocery shop looks completely different. Vanderkolk says she can no longer afford the “fake meat” vegan products that she used to buy.

Dr Heidi Nicholl from the not-for-profit organisation Vegan Australia says that products like Beyond Burgers and Impossible Meat come with a higher price tag due to “supply and demand”.

Vanderkolk and her housemates were all eating vegan last year but have now resorted to buying meat and dairy for their nutrition because of the rising price of plant-based alternatives.

“We’re like, ‘Oh, well, we want to make such and such a thing, but we can’t afford the vegan alternative to the meat.’ So, we just use chicken instead of vegan chicken,” she tells upstart. “Now I have to drink milk… it’s gross.”

While she justifies these purchases because she wants to prioritise her nutrition, Vanderkolk wishes she didn’t have to sacrifice being vegan.

“So, I’m buying tuna because it’s like a dollar, and has some amount of protein,” she says.

According to the 2023 Foodbank Hunger Report, 79 percent of people experiencing food insecurity said it was because of increased grocery prices. This comes as 35 percent of Gen Zs across the globe ranked the cost of living as their number one concern in a survey conducted by Deloitte in 2023. Vanderkolk agrees that the quality of her meals has decreased as a result of rising prices.

“I’m eating struggle meals,” she says.

Vanderkolk’s household tries to plan out their weekly meals in advance, and they prioritise groceries that are versatile, nutritious, and filling, all while trying to stay vegan.

“We’ve got a roster of seven meals that we just repeat until we get sick of, and usually it’s things that we know are cheap,” she says. “At the moment, we’ve been eating ratatouille because eggplants have been really cheap over summer.”

Dr Nicholl says while meal planning is the most cost-effective way to stick to a balanced vegan diet there is still an added difficulty for vegan students with busy schedules.

“That is a time-consuming thing with being a student,” she tells upstart. “You can’t always have the time when you’re living at home and having to make your own meals.”

Despite the rising prices of major supermarket chains, Vanderkolk has found that shopping at local discount food stores helps her to save money.

“They sell expired things, which are past their best before, but it’s still good,” she says.

While plant-based alternatives generally have a higher health star rating, a 2023 study found that most of these products are “ultra-processed” and generally have a higher sugar content than meat. This can make planning nutritional meals tricky for vegans, even before considering the increased prices of products.

According to experts, the most important nutrient for vegans is vitamin B12 which would naturally be found in animal products. Vegan Australia suggests either taking the recommended dosage of B12 supplements or eating enough B12 fortified foods.

It is also important for vegan individuals to maintain their calcium, vitamin D, iron, and protein. A Healthline article said nutrient rich vegan options include tofu, legumes, nuts, and seeds.

“Tofu is amazingly nutritious and high protein,” Dr Nicholl says. “I think I got this huge block for $3 in Woolworths yesterday. It’s about being smart about what you’re purchasing.”

While Beyond Burgers and vegan cheese provide wider food choices for vegans, Dr Nicholl says that homemade meals are the most affordable and healthy option overall for students on a budget.

“I think people shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that, actually, a veggie curry can also be absolutely delicious and cheap,” she says.

Despite her best efforts to meal plan, Vanderkolk still finds herself bypassing Beyond Burgers and heading to the butcher fridge instead, with cans of tuna rolling around her basket amongst bags of lentils and rice. She hopes that vegan alternatives will become cheaper and more accessible for other students like her in the future.


Article: Ruby Oosthuizen is a fourth-year Bachelor of Arts (Digital media) and Bachelor of Science (Zoology) student at La Trobe University. You can follow her on Twitter @OosthuizenRuby

Photo: by Matheus Cenali is available HERE and used under a Creative Commons license. This photo has not been modified.

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