When Rose Lee began her vegan food journey, she wasn’t looking for anything particularly special. She was just after easy, tasty, budget-friendly plant-based meals. At the time, she had no idea that those simple desires would become the basis of a successful social media career, a popular food blog, and her own café.
Based in Calgary, Canada, Lee is the Korean-Canadian founder of Cheap Lazy Vegan and the creator of the successful social media accounts of the same name. With more than 700,000 YouTube subscribers and nearly 170,000 Instagram followers as of this month, she has amassed a significant (and growing) following. But how did she get there?
Becoming Cheap, Lazy, and Vegan
Like many of us, Lee grew up eating animal products without questioning it. It wasn’t until her studies at Calgary University, during an Ethics elective, that she started to doubt the morality around killing animals for food. The book Skinny Bitch by Kim Barnouin and a viewing of the 2005 documentary Earthlings solidified her views that the meat industry was wrong. After taking an initial step into pescetarianism, it was when she moved to London in 2015 that she decided to embrace veganism completely.
Living in the UK’s notoriously expensive capital on a budget and going plant-based five years ago sounds like quite the mission. Veganism has always had a reputation for being an expensive lifestyle, and it wasn’t until around 2018 that the UK’s vegan food scene really started to pick up, with more affordable options appearing on mainstream supermarket shelves and restaurant menus.
Before, it certainly was possible to eat out in mainstream restaurants as a vegan, but it usually involved a lot of customization (e.g, vegetarian pizza with no cheese please, ala Cheap Lazy Vegan’s advice from September 2015). Now, most restaurants and fast-food chains in the UK have at least one, if not multiple, plant-based options (even KFC sells vegan chicken these days).
But five years ago, cooking for yourself was the easiest and cheapest way of going vegan in London. And Lee wasn’t phased by that. After a few grocery trips, she realized that, to her at least, the lack of affordability and accessibility around vegan food was nothing more than a misconception. The key? Only buying simple, non-processed whole foods. It’s a shopping tip she credits to her mom, a passionate Korean homecook.
“I was used to the idea of home-cooked food,” she says. “Even when I wasn’t eating vegan, I was not looking for just the processed food. So I think that’s why I always knew that it wasn’t expensive. But then people thought it was expensive.”
Prices of plant-based meat and cheese products are coming down slowly, but, in many cases, they remain more expensive than their animal-based counterparts. However, plant-based foods like canned beans, vegetables, fruits, pasta, noodles, and rice are some of the cheapest items you can buy from the supermarket.
But, it’s putting all of these ingredients together and creating something that tastes good that’s often the challenge. Until you know how, which Lee didn’t at first. But she taught herself a few simple meals, and then in a bid to help others also discover the easy, cheap, and lazy side of being a vegan, she started her YouTube channel. Well, sort of. She started off by making a range of content about her life, including more ‘What I Eat in a Day’ videos as well as general ramblings and (self-professed) rants about various topics relating to veganism. But it was the recipes that really connected with her audience.
“For some reason people liked the food videos,” she says. “I think it’s because they were looking for the very easy stuff, like I was doing.”
It’s true. If you’re looking for a simple version of any veganized dish, you’re almost guaranteed to find it on Lee’s channel. Feeling like fish? She has a ‘how to’ on vegan fried tofu sushi. Want comfort food? She’ll teach you how to make creamy vegan pasta. Got no cash? She can help you create vegan meals for under $1.50 (after all, her blog tagline is: “the vegan cooking channel for the broke people who don’t know what they’re doing.”)
“We can talk about veganism all day long and the ethics behind it,” says Lee. “But if you don’t know how to eat, and if you don’t know how to do it in a practical way that makes sense to your lifestyle, then it’s obviously going to be a challenge. I want to make that easier.”
Cultural Barriers to Veganism
While for many, learning how to cook simply and cheaply is the main obstacle they need to clear before they give up animal products, Lee isn’t under the impression that doing so solves veganism for everyone. For others, the barriers are more complex.
She talks of South Korea and how going vegan there isn’t as easy as it may be in Canada or London. Things are changing in the bigger cities, like Seoul, she says, but this isn’t reflective of the whole country. “I’ve heard that there’s like a ton of vegan places in Seoul,” she says. “But in terms of the culture, there’s a lot of meat, a lot of fish, a lot of animal products.”
It hasn’t always been that way, she’s hasten to add. “The thing is, with traditional Korean food, a lot of it is very heavily plant based, or could be very easily made plant based,” she notes. “So luckily for me, I’m still able to eat like pretty much most things, just with slight alterations.”
But the reality is that now, the food of South Korea is a lot more animal-focused. And Lee believes that comes down to quick economic growth. As countries get richer, their average meat intake tends to go up.
“In literally one generation [South Korea] became what it is today,” she explains. “Even when my parents were young, they always told me that meat was almost never served. Unless it was a special occasion. It was very expensive.”
Lee says she often wonders what her life would have been like had she stayed in South Korea.
Perhaps she wouldn’t have gone vegan as quickly, or maybe she would. It’s impossible to say. One of the key reasons for changing her diet — animal rights — hasn’t been discussed much in the country, which she attributes to South Korea’s complicated history.
“When there’s a lot of human suffering in a certain country, they don’t tend to think of the animal suffering as much until later on,” she notes. But she thinks this may be changing. “That’s kind of like the phenomenon that we’re seeing now. That’s my analysis of the situation.”
A recent study says her observations are correct, and diets are shifting in South Korea. Last year, the Korea Vegetarian Union found that 1.5 million South Korean people are following plant-rich diets now, and around 500,000 are strict vegans. The union also predicts a significant rise in flexitarianism; it estimates that around 10 million people follow this kind of diet, which involves significantly reducing, but not completely eliminating, meat.
‘Oh You’re Korean, How Can You Go Vegan?’
I ask Lee if she thinks the mainstream vegan movement now is diverse enough. It’s had an image problem for some time (which is ironic, considering some of the earliest adopters of plant-based eating habits were not white or western).
She responds: “When I first was introduced to this lifestyle, it was definitely not as diverse. I got comments (usually from non-vegan people in my life). They’d be like ‘oh you’re Korean, like, how can you go vegan?,” she recalls.
“[Before] there was definitely a stereotype that a vegan is like, a white woman living in California or something.” The battle isn’t won, but, in her view, progress has been made on that front. “Now, I see a lot of people of color. People of all sorts.”
But there is one particular group that she feels needs some persuading. “Straight men,” she says. “I do feel there is a stigma around men and [meat] being manly. And I think we haven’t got past that yet, for some reason.”
Again, her observations are backed up by data. In the UK, estimates state that twice as many women are vegan than men. In the U.S., around three quarters of those who are vegan also identify as women.
This could be tied to a number of things, but marketing sticks out the most. For example, how often do you see a woman cooking meat on a grill in beer or burger adverts?
“It’s so deeply ingrained,” she says. “For some reason, being vegan is seen as weak? Which is very strange.”
Aside from toxic marketing and trying to get more men to go plant-based, many of the world’s biggest problems play on Lee’s mind, like food waste, food insecurity, poverty, the climate crisis, and animal abuse on factory farms. But there are solutions to these problems, one of which is changing the food system completely.
Aside from saving billions of animals, a switch to a predominantly plant-based food system could feed more people. According to a study published in the journal Nature in 2018, switching to a plant-based diet, cutting food waste in half, and improving farm practices could feed the projected world population of 10 billion by 2050. The move would also reduce the strain on our planet. A more recent study found that replacing 10 percent of animal agriculture with plant-based alternatives could save an area of land bigger than Germany and the equivalent of 2.7 billion trees in CO2 emissions.
“We can start by promoting plant-based eating, plant-based living, and talking about the ethics and the environmental impact of factory farming so we can get rid of that,” Lee notes. “Hopefully, it’ll become a world where people are not hungry. And animals are not being killed. That’s my kind of hopeful stand.”
On a more personal note, Lee’s goals are just to keep on keeping on. She plans to create more cheap and lazy engaging content and recipes for her social media channels and her blog.
She also wants to keep working on her café in Calgary, saVeg Cafe YYC, which she owns with her mom (currently open for takeaway only). And maybe run a half-marathon too. But ultimately, as most of us do for 2021, she just wants normality. “I’m just gonna have a better year than last year,” she laughs. “That’s the only thing [I want].”
Check out the Cheap Lazy Vegan blog here. And, if you’re hungry for more, look out for LIVEKINDLY’s videos with Lee on our YouTube channel. Every Tuesday, we’ll be working together to put out budget-friendly recipe content, covering everything from vegan meal prep to snacks under $1.