Opinion: Vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options should not be so expensive

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Restaurants across themes and cuisine types are beginning to expand their menus to better meet the needs of individuals with dietary restrictions or preferences. Burger restaurants frequently offer lettuce wraps or gluten-free buns, Italian restaurants often sell vegetarian pasta dishes and many fast-food restaurants have even begun selling meatless options for vegetarian and vegan customers. 

However, while this proves to be a step in the right direction towards the inclusion of those with special diet needs, these alternative options almost always share at least one caveat: a price hike.

At almost every restaurant offering alternative dietary options, customers will often feel the sting of unreasonable upcharges for their food. These price increases can be anywhere from a few quarters to a few dollars.

This added expense is not without reason, though. Packaged and processed grains usually are cheaper, in greater demand and typically spoil much slower than their less popular counterparts, such as vegetables and gluten-free products. 

Looking at basic supply and demand of the types of food available to consumers, it becomes very clear as to why restaurants and food vendors choose to make alternative options more expensive. But that does not mean it should be, and there are ways it can change.

Besides the lower production cost and market scale for these items, there is one thing that really tips the scales regarding price differences for varying food options: government subsidies. Every year, the government pays large sums of money to various industries to ease the cost of production, which will allow for lower prices, and in turn, more sales of certain products like corn, grain, meat and dairy.

However, not all subsidies are created equal. The government pays larger sums of money to certain industries. For example, according to data from David Simon’s groundbreaking book “Meatonomics,” the US government pays $38 billion to meat and dairy industries, but just $17 million to the fruit and vegetable industries — 0.04% of meat and dairy subsidy amounts. 

An easy solution toward equalizing the financial sting of food options in the U.S. is for the government to begin prioritizing the production of fruits and vegetables and lessen the prioritization of meat, dairy, corn and wheat.

Not only would this change ease the burden of individuals with involuntary dietary restrictions in affording their meals, but it would also decrease the price and increase the production of fresh produce available at markets. This would encourage buyers to eat healthy fruits and vegetables rather than heavily processed grain and corn products which play a massive part in heart disease, diabetes and other health conditions that are on the rise in America.

According to The University of Chicago Medicine, it is estimated that one in 133 Americans have celiac disease, an autoimmune disease in which the body cannot process gluten. Additionally, there are about 8 million individuals who are either vegetarian or vegan, representing about 2.5% of the U.S. population.

People who did not choose their restrictive diet and those who do choose to have a particular diet should not be financially punished for the types of food they buy. Many individuals struggle to eat out with friends or family without overpaying because restaurants overcharge for special diet options. This should not be the case.

Of course, restaurants have an obligation to maximize their profits for the betterment of their business, but they should also be conscious of people who do not share some of the simple pleasures that those with a less restricted diet enjoy. Likewise, the U.S. government has an obligation to subsidize food industries that guide citizens toward more fair, natural and healthy options.

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