Why AOC's Plant Based Diet Matters—Even If It's Temporary
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has asked her followers to go vegetarian with her for Lent. | Samantha Burkardt/Getty Images for SXSW

Why AOC’s Plant-Based Diet for Lent Matters

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has given up meat for Lent. Here's why her vegetarian diet matters—and how even incremental changes have power.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (known as AOC) has gone plant-based for Lent.

The 31-year-old New York politician is changing up her diet in honor of Tommy Raskin. Tommy is the late son of Maryland Congressman Jamie Raskin.

Tommy died by suicide last year, at the age of 25. He was passionate about human rights, animal rights, and followed a vegan diet. After his death, his parents, Jamie and Sarah Bloom Raskin, released a statement about his passion for animal-free living.

“It will be hard to find anyone his age who has turned more carnivores into vegans than him,” they said. “He also cheerfully opposed sectarian holier-than-thou sanctimoniousness among a handful of vegans he met, and would say, ‘I’m working for a vegan world, not a vegan club.’”

To honor Tommy’s life and commitment to animal rights, Ocasio-Cortez revealed on Twitter she is giving up meat for the 40 days of Lent. And she’s asking others to join her, too.

“A few weeks ago, I told [Jamie Raskin] that this year I wanted to adopt a vegetarian diet for Lent in memory of his son Tommy,” she wrote. “Jamie said, ‘Well you’d have to do it the way Tommy would, which means bring people along with you!’”

She continued: “Does anyone want to join me? Rules are 1) No judgment 2) Make it your own (you can go full 40 days, just veggie Mondays, etc) 3) Be inclusive (no need to observe Lent to join).”

The Impact of Going Vegetarian

In response to her Tweet, some organizations and social media users have called for Ocasio-Cortez to go further than ditching just meat, asking that she go vegan instead. She may end up going 100 percent plant-based, or she may not. But either way, it’s important to acknowledge the impact of the actions that Ocasio-Cortez has committed to taking.

Going vegetarian has significant environmental benefits, and tackling the climate crisis is close to the politician’s heart. In 2019, she proposed the Green New Deal, which, among many things, called for the U.S. to play a leading role in cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

According to the BBC’s climate change food calculator, which is based on an Oxford University food production study, eating chicken (the most popular meat in the U.S.) three to five times throughout the week contributes 284kg of greenhouse gas emissions per year to your carbon footprint. It also uses around 19,025 liters of water. Swapping chicken for tofu, however, reduces that impact significantly, contributing only 33 kilograms of CO2 per year, and using 1565 liters of water.

And that’s taking one of the lowest impact meats as an example; beef, lamb, prawns, pork, and farmed fish leave bigger environmental footprints than chicken. Consuming beef regularly throughout the week would contribute 1,611 kilograms of greenhouse gas emissions to your annual carbon footprint.

Ocasio-Cortez hasn’t committed to giving up meat for a year currently, but she does advocate for flexitarianism (reducing meat intake). In 2019, she was visiting a school in Queens when students asked what they could do to help combat the climate crisis. Her advice, she Tweeted, was to adopt a more flexitarian diet. She wrote: “Give your tummy a break! Skip meat/dairy for a meal (the easiest is [breakfast], I do banana & peanut butter).”

She’s right, flexitarianism still has its environmental benefits. According to the same BBC calculator, eating chicken once or twice a week contributes 106kg of greenhouse gas emissions, and uses 7134 litres of water. Significantly less than the impact of eating it on three to five occasions.

That being said, a plant-based diet is still the optimal diet for reducing our impact on the planet. It has the lowest carbon footprint of any other way of eating. In fact, according to the Oxford study, it could reduce a person’s carbon footprint by two-thirds. Lead researcher Joseph Poore told the BBC: “What we eat is one of the most powerful drivers behind most of the world’s major environmental issues.”