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[whitespace] Laurie Reaume and Barbara Baker
Photograph by Michael Amsler

Spreading the word: Laurie Reaume and Barbara Baker pass out pamphlets at the Santa Rosa Farmers Market.

Veggin' Out

Trouble in Veggieville--vegetarian movement gains followers, loses leaders

By Marina Wolf

ON THE SURFACE, Vegetarians of Sonoma County is doing as well as it ever has. More than 8,000 copies of its free quarterly newsletter, the Vegetarian Grapevine, are distributed at points throughout the county. And the group is getting ready for its annual Vegetarian Fair (see sidebar), which, according to newsletter editor Laurie Reaume, is going to be its biggest event ever. But in a later conversation, Reaume sounds a more subdued note about VSC's future: the group will cease publication of the newsletter in May and close up shop if they haven't found more board members by February.

"We need people to participate on more than an occasional basis, otherwise we're not going to make it," she says. "We don't have the consolidated identity and we don't have the core."

How can this be happening in Sonoma County, home of the widely popular McDougall healthy-heart diet and great organic vegetables, HempRella cheese, and liberal political ideas? Where have all the vegetarians gone?

Veggie Land

Truly, a problem of this sort seems out of place here, where the culture is extremely supportive of alternative-food lifestyles. Local vegetarians have long been accustomed to having at least one restaurant that caters to their needs. That niche currently is filled by Slice of Life in Sebastopol, which sports a menu that is entirely vegetarian and primarily vegan (completely lacking butter, eggs, and other animal products). After the McDougall diet came out, many mainstream restaurants offered at least a few vegetarian and vegan options. While that crush has faded in recent years, restaurants are still trading briskly in "heart-healthy" eating, and note their McDougall selections.

Meanwhile, a few establishments have developed a primarily vegetarian client base. One manager at California Thai in Santa Rosa estimates that at least 60 percent of its customers ask for the vegetarian menu.

The county has a number of vegetarian groups on tap, from the quiet McDougall potluck group to the politically active Sonoma People for Animal Rights and even a raw-foods potluck and magazine. But organizers of these groups, while more optimistic about the future of their groups than Reaume is about VSC, acknowledge the existence of the "invisible-vegetarian phenomenon."

SPAR members recently agreed to make the promotion of a vegan diet their No. 1 priority. "SPAR's mission is to reduce animal suffering," says activist and newsletter editor Stephen Wells of the shift in focus. "And the number of animals being processed into food far outnumbers those that die in other industries."

Wells' partner, Alex Bury, is a trained chef and has poured her energy into the SPAR vegan potlucks, which began meeting regularly after last Thanksgiving's dinner. The attendance is averaging around 25, which is up from the original 12 or so, but still is a small percentage of the 450-plus subscribers to SPAR's quarterly newsletter.

"There's a huge number people that get the SPAR newsletter," Bury says. "But we never see them at a potluck or a meeting. They keep it to themselves."

Just Another Diet?

If, as it seems, the vast majority of Sonoma County vegetarians "keep it to themselves," we may thank science for that. With new dietary recommendations from various health organizations and increasing medical evidence that a plant-based diet may prevent a variety of human ills, more and more people are moving away from meat.

One study, conducted in 1996, concluded that around 66.2 million Americans were eating meatless meals more often than the year before. Of the respondents in this study, 46 percent were trying to reduce their red meat consumption, and 15 percent were considering becoming vegetarian.

Food manufacturers have been quick to hail this rising demand as a window of opportunity for introducing vegetarian and vegan products to a whole new market of consumers. The "meat and dairy alternatives" industry more than doubled its sales from 1989 to 1994, from $138 million to $286 million.

Unfortunately for vegetarian groups, the shift in America's eating habits doesn't necessarily translate into new members to plan and participate in social and political activities. For many people, vegetarianism is simply a way of cleaning out the arteries and preventing cancer, rather than a total lifestyle commitment that takes into account ethical and environmental considerations, as well as health issues.

Those who take up vegetarian eating for the sake of health may eventually cross over to an understanding of the larger social and political issues behind their food choices. Barbara Baker, president of VSC, has traveled that path herself since she went vegan three years ago. But she admits to now being a little bemused by the vegetarian-for-health approach, especially when it comes to these vegetarians' lack of involvement with the same movement that made their diet possible. Baker recalls her recent trip to Costa Rica on a McDougall tour, where most of the 160 people in the tour group were there for health reasons. The difference in their motivation level, she says, was apparent.

"They found it much easier to 'stray' from the diet than did those of us who believe in it for other reasons, environmental and ethical reasons."

Virtually Vegetarian

Jill Nussinow, a nutritionist who teaches vegetarian cooking classes in Sonoma County, says that about a quarter of the people who take her classes identify as being vegetarian. The rest, she guesses, just want to learn for their friends and family, or would like to cook vegetarian some of the time. But she's not too concerned about the motivations of her students.

"It doesn't matter to me if you're a vegetarian or not, if you want to learn about it I want you to learn," she says. "And if you want to call yourself a vegetarian, I don't mind."

A lot of people are calling themselves vegetarians these days. The shelves of vegetarian cookbooks are filled with titles that acknowledge this trend: Almost Vegetarian, The Gradual Vegetarian, The Meat-Lover's Vegetarian Cookbook, The New Not-Strictly Vegetarian Cookbook,
The Occasional Vegetarian

Two polls commissioned by Vegetarian Times magazine in 1992 and again in 1996 concluded that about 7 percent of Americans self-identify as vegetarians, or about 12.4 million people. But polls that have gotten more specific about vegetarian behaviors place the total number of actual vegetarians much lower, at about 1 percent of the population. The majority of those self-identified vegetarians, then, may eat fish, poultry, or meat from time to time. They want to be vegetarian, but they aren't quite there yet.

In any case, these "new vegetarians" have helped push vegetarianism to a previously unparalleled level of mainstream acceptance. The food is available as never before, the concepts are reaching wider understanding, and vegetarianism itself has moved from a mark of freakishness to a desirable descriptor (even if you don't practice it all the time).

So is mainstreaming a problem? It is if you're trying to maintain a certain level of political involvement. Brian Graff, co-director of the North American Vegetarian Society, remembers the first world vegetarian conference that his New York-based group sponsored in 1975. At that time, an attendance count of 1,500 people was considered a stunning success. The conference has never been as large since, according to Graff; it's been diffused by all the other options.

"There are so many groups to choose from, so many events like food festivals, conference, potlucks. Even through the media you can get information without having to go to a group," he says simply. "It's a different world now."

Find out how you can get involved in the Sonoma County vegetarian community at the Vegetarian Awareness Fair, sponsored by Vegetarians of Sonoma County in honor of Vegetarian Awareness Month. Sample foods (this ain't your college-days tofu and brown rice), pick up some cooking hints, and visit community booths. Friday, Oct. 15, from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. New College, 99 Sixth St., Santa Rosa. The $5 donation benefits the excellent programs of New College. 528-2892.

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From the October 14-20, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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