Make Mine Vegetarian Friendly, Please! Ideas for Vegetizing Your Neighborhood
Vegetarianism is becoming increasingly accepted, but there are still many communities that don't meet vegetarians' needs. Although many grocery stores and restaurants stock vegetarian items, it is still difficult for most to find a decent meal, vegetarian-friendly physicians, or vegetarian-friendly schools. So, while great strides have been made, there is still much to be done.
by Lucy Watkins
Originally published in Vegetarian Baby and Child Magazine, Volume 4, Issue 3.
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Imagine living in a community where organic vegetarian foods are sold in every store. What a thrill it would be to go to any restaurant and be assured of a wonderful list of vegetarian options on the menu. This might already be a reality in some communities but, for most of us, it is only a dream. With some commitment, effort, and time, our communities can become more vegetarian-friendly. All it takes is a plan, a support network, speaking out, and a little education.
Determine your style and your goals
The first step in making your community vegetarian friendly is developing a plan and deciding how to implement it. This is the time to evaluate your personal style for affecting change in your community. If the thought of banner-waving protests makes you nervous, consider another way to promote vegetarianism. Do you quietly live the life of a vegetarian while cleverly introducing new foods to your friends and family? Maybe you're looking for a social group and dinner at a nice restaurant. While one style is no better than the other, it is important to find yours. Your style will determine what route is best for you.
The next step is to devise a personal plan. Which areas need to be addressed in your community? Some communities have very little to offer vegetarians. In this case, you'll have to start from scratch. Other communities fall short of being havens, but do have vegetarian options available. Once you determine what is lacking, set short-term and long-term goals.
The next step is to find a vegetarian support network. "One of the best things to start off with is to team up with other vegetarian parents for support and encouragement" suggests PETA's Vegetarian Campaign Coordinator, Andrew Butler. "That's really a nice way to see what kind of support you have in your local community in terms of other veggie parents and veggie kids."
Contact local organizations. Keep your eyes and ears open for animal rights and environmental organizations such as EarthSave, PETA, Greenpeace, or vegetarian societies. Quite often, breastfeeding support groups, food co-ops, and some religious and spiritual organizations will attract other vegetarians and health-minded people. Search the phonebook, community bulletin boards, health food stores, newspaper community listings, local universities, specialty shops, farmer's markets, and online.
Unfortunately, there are still a number of communities that don't have organized vegetarian groups. If such is the case in yours, consider starting your own playgroup, vegetarian society, or activist organization. Michele Bissonnette Robbins, Co-president of Youth for Environmental Sanity (YES!), suggests people "start showing their friends the 'Diet For A New America' video and contact EarthSave for information on how to start a local chapter."
The key is to draw interest and people to your group. Create a notice to display at your local health food store, veg-friendly restaurant, grocery store, in the local newspaper, or other appropriate place. Include the reason for the organization (veggie playgroup, animal rights group, etc.), your name and contact information.
Pay attention to the people around you. When you see someone purchasing meat analogs, start a conversation by asking if he/she is also a vegetarian. If so, see if he/she is interested in participating in your group. Exchange contact information and ask them to give your name and number to their vegetarian friends.
Joining with other vegetarians will provide support, encouragement, and information about other aspects of the community such as veg-friendly doctors, preschools, daycare providers, restaurants, etc. Once you have your group together, begin focusing your collective energies on making changes.
Speak up and Speak Out!
During his 1984 run for the Democratic presidential nomination, U.S. Senator, John Glenn, Jr. said, "Every politician knows receiving one letter from one person means there are at least 1000 other people with the same thought or concern." The store managers I spoke to reiterated this same idea saying, "If one person is asking for it, there are probably others also interested in buying it. Tell merchants what you want and how you are willing to spend your money. Fill out special request forms in the grocery stores. If the managers think the items will sell, they will do their best to stock them.
Whether or not you are able to organize a group, it is still important to let people know there are vegetarians in the community. Make your presence known by communicating with merchants and flexing consumer muscle. PETA has created comment cards to be used for making suggestions and rating vegetarian options in grocery stores and restaurants. Your group might consider "blitzing" a restaurant.
Butler warns if the restaurant alters their menu to include vegetarian options, it is important to continue patronizing the establishment or the vegetarian items will be probably be removed from the menu. While there is power in numbers, it is important to remember that flexing collective muscle and telling people about your group is most effective, in the long term, if you are willing to put your money where your mouth is. Remember, if it doesn't sell, they won't stock it. Don't forget to express your appreciation when establishments are veg-friendly and comment specifically on those employees who helped you out.
Matt Ball, founder and executive director of Vegan Outreach says, "Try to raise awareness and/or have more people express a demand for veg products. Some people use our literature -- Why Vegan and Vegetarian Living -- to help with the former. Another idea might be to make a "Vegetarian Guide" to the area. This would make it easier for people interested in vegetarianism to know where to get things, as well as provide a tool to encourage merchants to carry more vegetarian options (e.g., "I'm preparing the second edition of Aberdeen's Vegetarian Guide. Can you tell me what vegetarian options you carry currently, and what your plans are for the future...?)."
As a group, consider setting up a booth at a local exhibit hall, farmer's market, or fair. This is a good way to inform people of playgroup dates, meetings, potlucks, and other activities. It also gives the community a face to put on the group. Have a sign-up sheet and literature available at the table. Andrew Butler suggests using a pre-fabricated display at the booth or at the library. PETA's education department will tailor it to fit your specific needs and audience.
As you make your presence known, begin putting energy into educating the community. Clearly communicate the definition of vegetarianism to everyone involved in your movement to create a vegetarian-friendly community. Explain that vegetarians don't eat meat, sea animals, poultry, animal broth, gelatin or lard. If you are vegan, be prepared to clearly define exactly what that means. It might also be helpful to point out what you have in common with non-vegetarians in order to avoid making the adjustment seem too difficult.
This may seem like a daunting task at first. Many people fear being criticized or mocked for talking about the benefits of a vegetarian diet, especially in communities where it isn't a common choice. The conflicts can be tiresome, but there are ways to handle these confrontations while effectively communicating information.
Matt Ball maintains that one of the keys to educating the community is to avoid putting people on the defensive with harsh, condemning words and inflexible rules. Instead, a friendly, compassionate, informative approach will work towards creating a positive relationship, especially if there are any leanings toward altering their lifestyle.
"In order to spread vegetarianism and veganism effectively, our focus should be on educating people with credible, persuasive, and focused literature; providing well-documented and thorough answers for specific questions; supplying educational materials to schools; working to get vegan options in various settings; working with food manufacturers, grocery stores, and restaurants for more options; and supplying people with lists of local restaurants and shopping opportunities where vegan options exist.
"Our experience has shown that the most effective way to accomplish the above is through understanding and constructive outreach. Positive outreach takes patience and can be frustrating, but it is worth the effort. We don't have to force people to notice us; simply being confident, articulate vegans in public is enough." ("Tips for Spreading Veganism", Matt Ball, Vegan Outreach)
As the time approaches for you to begin educating your community, Vegan Outreach, Vegetarian Resource Group, PETA, and The Physician's Committee for Responsible Medicine each has a variety of informative literature specifically for this purpose.*
Grow your circle!
If at all possible, Amy Lanou, PhD, Nutrition Director at The Physicians' Committee of Responsible Medicine, suggests finding a physician who is knowledgeable about preventive medicine and vegetarian nutrition or one who is open to working with these concepts. "Keep in mind that very few doctors have had more than cursory training in nutrition. For this reason, they tend not to be able to offer useful advice in this area," says Lanou.
She says that it is not generally necessary to share dietary information with your doctor unless the reason for the visit involves a diet-related condition (e.g. diabetes, hypertension, allergies, or failure to thrive). In that case, it is not only important to discuss diet, it is also important to ask for as much information as possible (including lab reports, exam results, etc.). Lanou then suggests patients seek the advice of a trained nutrition professional familiar with vegetarianism.
"When talking about a child's eating habits, it may be better to start with specifics (such as 'well she has oatmeal, fruit, and fortified soymilk for breakfast….) rather than making a general pronouncement about vegetarianism or veganism. Go for a positive approach. If the doctor asks about meat, tell him or her about the protein rich foods your child enjoys. If the doctor asks about cow's milk (and your child is vegan) tell him/her about calcium-rich foods your child enjoys" says Lanou.
The Vegetarian Resource Group and PETA have information and suggestions on how to vegetarianize schools and other institutions. The first step, according to Andrew Butler, is to contact the school board to find out what is currently offered in the school cafeterias. PETA's education department has information packets that will help you get the process started. VRG also has articles listing step-by-step instructions for veganizing institutions and suggestions for making the process a little less painless for the all involved.
On a more personal level, you will eventually have to speak with your children's teachers and daycare providers directly. Again, make sure to clearly define "vegetarianism." Provide alternative foods for your child to replace the non-vegetarian snacks offered at school. Small freezer bags work well for individual slices of soy cheese, individual tofu dogs, and other snacks for to store at the school. You can also provide vegetarian gelatin-like desserts, soymilk, and any other foods.
To make it more convenient for the already busy teachers, create an easy-to-read reference sheet listing non-vegetarian foods. This will provide much needed information when the teacher has questions about a particular ingredient. Another way of introducing vegetarian foods to the class is by volunteering to provide snack or to host parties.
Joanne Stepaniak, author of numerous books on veganism and compassion suggests providing "free vegetarian cooking classes at your local supermarket, highlighting vegetarian products the store carries. Alternatively, ask your supermarket to stock more vegetarian products (be specific about what you'd like them to carry) and offer to provide in-store demonstrations so more customers will know these foods are available and will have a chance to sample them.
Provide vegetarian snacks and meals to your co-workers. When they compliment you on the dish, offer the recipe. Show them how easy it is to convert a recipe. Not only does it make the dish healthier; it may also be less expensive to make.
If you are interested in expanding your group and socializing with non-vegetarians in a vegetarian atmosphere, Joanne Stepaniak offers this suggestion:
"Host monthly share-a-dish meals in your community and invite non-vegetarian
families to participate as a way to try new foods. Be sure to provide guidelines about what ingredients are and are not acceptable, and be prepared to offer suggestions or recipes, if necessary."
"Request showings of animal friendly films such as "Chicken Run" or "Babe" at your local movie theatre," suggests Andrew Butler. "We've found they respond really well to requests for specific features from parents and kids. Make sure you get as many people as possible to ask for a specific film. If they see the interest, they'll go for it." These special showings are also a good time to hand out items with animal-friendly messages.
Butler also suggests contacting your local library and suggesting a reading day focusing on animals. Ask permission to use a display that offers a compassionate message, brochures, and suggestions for animal-friendly stories.
In her article, "Sharing Vegetarianism with Family and Friends" (Vegetarian Journal, May/June 1997, Volume XVI, Number 3, Vegetarian Resource Group), Carol M. Coughlin, R.D. suggests "giving gift subscriptions of vegetarian publications to your school or town library. Donating vegetarian books helps too. Most libraries have limited budgets. Imagine if every vegetarian family donated one book or journal to their library!" Animal-friendly, environmentally-conscious literature and videos promoting veganism also make good donations.
Any of these ideas will help make an impression in your community. Once you come out of the vegetarian closet and begin working for changes, you might find there are many other people interested in what you're doing. They will certainly benefit from the effort, even if they don't tell you. The next step is to enjoy the fruits of your labor. Good luck!!