Sunday, October 7, 2012

No I don't Eat Animals... and YES the Peace Corps still wanted me.

When I was applying to the Peace Corps.. a lot of people approached me about my ethical lifestyle. I can't even tell you how many times I was told... “But the Peace Corps doesn't accept vegetarians!?” Even a quick Google search would imply to most people that this is in fact true. HOWEVER this is NOT true... and being one of the veggies who made it through I feel its my responsibility to explain.

When you apply for the Peace Corps its a really really long process... they want to weed out the people who are applying on a whim... the people who aren't really that invested... the people who are most likely to give up early... and those who just might not cut it for one reason or another. Placing and Training a volunteer is a huge investment... paid for by the US Government (our tax dollars). If they invited all applicants to serve there would be a very high early termination rate.. it would cost us a lot of dollars.. and it would make the Peace Corps/Americans seem unreliable to the countries where we serve as skilled workers and more importantly as cultural ambassadors.

In order to insure interest and proper placement there are special questionnaires for special circumstance (Erik and I got a good laugh out of the relationship questionnaire(s) we had to fill out with questions such as “Have you informed your significant other of your decision to join the Peace Corps?”). During the application process I was approached many times by people who felt “special circumstances that require special questionnaires are a sure application death sentence.” Which is where I think that the misconception that the Peace Corps is anti-vegetarian comes into existence.

During my Interview in NYC I was told... “There are a lot of countries where we don't send vegetarian volunteers... you won't be going to China for example.” Ok... that is fine.. I didn't want to go to China anyway.. and then she added “I will be emailing you a special questionnaire about your diet you will need to get it back to me ASAP.” This questionnaire was rather silly and extreme in a “Worst Case Scenario” sort of way. Which is honestly what it was – “Here is our worst case scenario FOR YOU and what do you plan to do about it.” The questions ranged from.. please tell about your reasons for your vegetarian lifestyle... to will you let yourself starve to death when faced with no other options.

This questionnaire is NOT meant to deter vegetarians.. but it is important questionnaire with important implications... that if you are serious enough about your lifestyle you should understand that they need to ask. It WILL provide them with the information they need in order to safely place you in an environment where you will be HAPPY and be able to do the job they sent you to do. Granted if you say “No I will lay on the ground and let my self starve to death”.. you will probably get sent for mental health screening as well. It is perfectly acceptable however to tell them that you are health/nutrition conscious and that you will not let yourself starve to death. Let them know you take your diet seriously.. and explain to them how you plan to eat in order to remain healthy. If they know you know how to keep yourself healthy.. they will feel satisfied that you won't be putting your well being at risk. Besides most of the world sustains itself on rice and beans... not ideal but it's a real thing.

During the Peace Corps process they want to know that you are reliable, flexible and strong (and I don't mean physically). Flexible just might be the most important quality that they look for in a volunteer. Flexible means you are not easily phased.. you are resilient.. and you understand that things don't always go as planned. They want to know you won't starve to death because you can't read an ingredient label for every little thing you eat. Those don't exist in the third world. If you take this questionnaire as what it really is, an attempt for the peace corps to understand you more fully so that you can be properly placed... and you don't view it as a personal attack. This questionnaire will help you in the long run.

What I learned after this point in the application process was yes.. there are many countries where the peace corps doesn't feel safe sending vegetarian volunteers... but there are also countries designated as “Vegetarian Friendly.” A good portion of my training group was some form of vegetarian... because Benin is vegetarian friendly!! Peace Corps gets you to this point... they get you to where you need to be... now its up to you to make it work. Your host family has been informed of your dietary restrictions.. and at this point YOU DO NOT have to eat the food they give you if it isn't right (and once you get to your post you cook for yourself anyway). I was really really lucky and I had an awesome family who fed me right. There were a few times when they did offer me non vegetarian food before making my dinner... I turned it down and they made me vegetarian food... no biggie no hurt feelings it was just them testing something they didn't understand. However, I can see at this point where some volunteers might have felt obligated to take the non-vegetarian food.. causing a downward spiral of confusion.. you ate it yesterday it didn't kill you so you can eat it today too. You might have been accepting it to be polite.. but they won't understand that.. if its a health issue you didn't get sick... if its a religious issue or a question of values THEY DO NOT expect you to compromise that just to be polite. The peace corps told them.. the peace corps is paying them to feed you... and they want you to be happy as a guest in their house... be honest with them.

The Peace Corps does not want you to compromise who you are in order to serve in the country where they sent you to work. They will tell you this over and over again. This was one of the big cultural topics during training (Benin has a great support network of both volunteers and faculty who are always there to talk if you are having an issue) .. and one of the big goals of the Peace Corps is to teach the people who work with you about Americans. If you compromise who you are... you won't be happy.. and you won't be successfully completing that goal. A happy volunteer is a successful volunteer.

Here in Benin I have been a healthy and happy vegetarian volunteer. My neighbors and friends even know not to offer me dairy products or eggs (a local staple). The peace corps placed me in a country where they knew I could be successful (which they couldn't have done if I wasn't honest with them).. and the local staff made a point to place me in a region where fruits and vegetables are diverse and widely available. I take my vitamins everyday. People here understand what vegetarian means.. the problem is the understanding of why. A lot of volunteers have found it easy just to explain that something will make them sick. Some people go the religion route (however that opens a whole can of worms about God and other things). For me I have decided to go with a more simple explanation that is highly understood and allows for little confusion. I just tell them “It's the way of my family.” no one is going to argue with that -- tradition and family is just something that is respected. The best part is it's true too! 


WOW it is October... I have started receiving all of the winter jacket advertisements in my e-mail. Sorry guys I won't be needing that this year!! 

Also: I know people were wondering if I was surviving food wise here... That being said if there is anything else you would like me to write about specifically.. let me know!! 


  1. Awesome post! I agree with everything and I hope this helps prospective volunteers who are concerned that dietary restraints will keep them out. There are plenty of places in the world that a vegetarian can serve happily :)

  2. have you been to a church yet--that would be interesting and I'm sure very different experience!

  3. Dear Z,
    I'm so glad you have been able to maintain your belief system. Je suis qui je suis.

  4. Thanks for this! I applied for the Peace Corps 2nd time around on January 16th and listed Morocco as #1, Armenia as #2 and anywhere else as #3 on the assignment selection form of preferences. Few days back, I got an email saying how my application has been placed into consideration for Armenia and that I should hear back on March 15th if it will be considered further. I pray I get in with my big interest and after having done a year of AmeriCorps and some NGO work abroad in India.

    Plus, I am a Vegan who avoids all animal products and recall how there were only specific countries listed for me after completing the health form after I mentioned how I avoid animal products for better health. Any feedback would be great, thanks!

    Lastly, do you think one can ever be Vegan in Ghana, Africa as one Vegan friend applied for Humanist Service Corps in Ghana?

    1. Hi Samar,

      Sorry for the delayed response! I know it is probably super outdated now.. I will answer anyway just in case it still helps you.

      One thing I will say, as a Vegan, is that one thing that I did have to get used to overseas was living in a part of the world where not everything has ingredient lists and labels. Sometimes it was necessary to just use faith that there was no hidden ingredients that couldn't be detected. Otherwise there would be nothing to eat! It was a hugely difficult thing to get used to, and is a big part of why, when not traveling, I did almost all of my own cooking.

      Make friends with people in the markets, and once the relationships are built it is easier to find out if their food is OK for you to eat. For example, make a habit of buying a safe product (such as oranges or plain rice) and sitting and talking, and then eventually after you get to know them ask about their other products in a curious manner.

      I was incredibly lucky to live in a place that was very understanding -- and have friends who understood and did their best to accommodate my "weird" foreign requests.

      As far as Ghana, I don't see why not! The food in Ghana is generally very similar to Benin. From my experience vacationing in Ghana (mind you in the city/more touristy areas) there are grocery stores in Ghana that carry many imported products, and quite a few vegetarian/vegan restaurants. Culturally however, I don't have any deeper personal experience to comment on for Ghana.

      Good luck on your adventures!!

  5. I've been thinking about joining the peacecorps for a while and this was one of my concerns. I read through the FAQ and a lot of the questions did make me think they didn't accept many vegetarian volunteers. I'm so glad you posted this! How did you answer some of the hypothetical questions? Did you tell them when you were applying that you wouldn't eat meet just to be polite? or was that a decision you made after they'd already accepted you?

    1. Hi Ashley,

      Sorry for the delayed response!! I hope you are still thinking about (and applying for?) Peace Corps. :)

      I was very honest with the PC about my position on the matter. From my experience, people who "chose not to be upfront" definitely were not happy about this in the long term. This could range anywhere from being placed in a country or village with little to no produce access.. Or on the more micro-level thinking that they needed to be "culturally appropriate" the first week in a village or with a host family -- and then not being able to explain their "change of heart" to their new friends later on (creating an even bigger faux-pas in the long run). In my opinion PC really just wants to place you in a location where you will be happy and have the greatest chance of success!! They can not do this if they don't know the full picture!

      Being honest with PC Headquarters and in-country staff allowed them to place me in a site that would be the best possible match for me to thrive and be happy. If I hadn't been honest with them they might have placed me in a village with little to no vegetable access & that would have been bad!!

      In practice, close friends in the community were incredibly important for navigating social situations related to food. They have a better knowledge than me on how to navigate fetes or situations at peoples homes. Almost always, instead of me having to turn down food, a local friend who knew me would intervene on my behalf before it even became an issue. Friends are so important for so many reasons but this is a huge one!! ---

      One of the goals of Peace Corps is cultural exchange, and a big part of cultural exchange is sending volunteers who have diverse skills, experiences, and beliefs! So I say be upfront about your views!! Hope that helps!

      Good luck with your adventures!

  6. Hi, I would love to ask you about applying as a vegetarian/vegan & couple - is there any chance you would could provide your email so I could ask you some more personal concerns I have ? Thank you :)

  7. Beautifully said! I was in the Peace Corps (Congo) in the 70's and not a vegetarian at the time, but I recall that we rarely had access to meat/dairy/eggs anyway. Now, in my 60's, I have applied to the PC Response for a position in Rwanda. I have been a complete and dedicated Vegan for many years now, and have no intention of compromising my beliefs. However, I have had very few misgivings about the situation, as I feel and am hoping! that it will be easily managed. We shall see! Thank you for this.

  8. Beautifully said! I was in the Peace Corps (Congo) in the 70's and not a vegetarian at the time, but I recall that we rarely had access to meat/dairy/eggs anyway. Now, in my 60's, I have applied to the PC Response for a position in Rwanda. I have been a complete and dedicated Vegan for many years now, and have no intention of compromising my beliefs. However, I have had very few misgivings about the situation, as I feel and am hoping! that it will be easily managed. We shall see! Thank you for this.