By Lee Chottiner
It’s Saturday, and the Ohio Valley Vegetarian/Vegan Meetup Club has gathered for lunch at Panera’s in the Highlands.
It’s not a large crowd, just six people dining on the kind of entrees you would expect: salad, soba noodles, tomato soup, oatmeal with apples, and black bean soup.
A business lunch, this isn’t. There’s no agenda; no deals are made.
It’s a friendly get-together.
And that’s just the way Lindsay Spaar wants it.
“They’re very informal,” said Spaar, the organizer behind the lunches, which are periodically held at bistros about town. “I want it to be a welcoming place for everyone, no matter where they are on their dietary path.”
Small as the turnout is, it doesn’t begin to model the interest in the vegan/vegetarian lifestyle in the Ohio Valley. Begun in 2009, the club now has more than 200 names on its mailing list.
Spaar features links to all kinds of relevant events on the meetup club’s website: lectures and festivals, road trips to Pittsburgh, screenings of movies and concerts. October is Vegetarian Awareness Month, so the Ohio County Public Library, where she is a librarian, has on display vegetarian/vegan cookbooks.
By far, though, eating out at local restaurants is the members’ favorite activity, and a good gateway, Spaar believes, for newcomers to sample the vegan/vegetarian lifestyle.
“It’s a way you can come and not be judged, no matter where you are,” she said. “It’s a very welcoming, nonjudgmental environment where you can come and see what’s available locally and enjoy.”
Why go meatless?
Wheeling residents become vegans or vegetarians for various reasons. In Spaar’s case, it was a deep love for animals.
“I was always the kid who stopped bugs from being stomped on,” she said. “When I was 8, I made the connection between farm animals and what I was eating, and that something very unpleasant had to happen for those animals to get there. I decided I wasn’t going to eat meat anymore, so I stopped.”
After a while, her parents, who were always health conscious, adopted meatless diets themselves – with some modifications.
“I still have eggs and dairy products in my diet, said Mindy Spaar, Lindsay’s mother. “I eat out so much, and I prefer cream in my coffee, and sometimes cheese in my salad. I don’t want to be so strict.”
Sometimes, people make the choice for health reasons.
Christie Fontaine, another member of the club, became a vegetarian after she was diagnosed with high cholesterol. Not wanting to use drugs to control her condition, “I decided to change my lifestyle a little bit.”
She had once given up meat for lent, so she was sure she could do it again.
“I knew I wanted to do that rather than be stuck on medicine after medicine,” Fontaine said, who has been a vegetarian for five years. “It’s worked out well. I lost weight, which I didn’t think was going to happen, and I tell people that I feel a whole lot better now than I did 10 years ago, and my cholesterol level dropped 48 points, so it was a good experience for me.”
Some people change their eating habits for ethical reasons.
Jeffrey Cohan, executive director of Jewish Veg, a Pittsburgh-based organization for Jewish vegans and vegetarians across North America, also writes a blog called the Beet-Eating Heeb. He reports on inhumane treatment and slaughter of animals at “factory farms,”
Along those lines, environmentalists, according to an NPR story, cite the enormous drain meat production has on natural resources – the amount of food, land, water and energy it takes to raise cattle compared to growing produce.
These reasons and more affect people’s decisions to choose plants over meat – to differing degrees.
By definition, a vegetarian is one who does not eat meat for moral, religious or health reasons.
Vegans go even further. They won’t eat any animal products, which includes eggs, milk and butter.
And while many people are not vegetarians or vegans, they do practice dietary habits that limit their meat intake, such as pescatarians (vegetarians who eat fish) and people who live kosher and halal lifestyles – Jewish and Muslim dietary practices that allow only ritually prepared meat and no pork or blood. Kosher adherents also forego seafood.
While many people are simply not ready to become vegans or vegetarians, they see value in cutting their meat consumption, if only a little, to be healthier or to save money.
“A lot of different organizations are promoting meatless Mondays … for the benefits that reducing meat consumption have,” Spaar said. “So I think meatless Mondays are making a dent, too. I know a lot of people, who are definitely not vegetarians, who are doing the meatless Monday thing.”
Tracking interest in the vegan/vegetarian lifestyle is difficult. Reliable figures are hard to come by and are, according to Cohan, “notoriously inaccurate.”
But the U.S Department of Agriculture does track meat consumption in America. Citing USDA figures, the Voice of America reported in 2013 that per capita meat consumption in the United Sates had fallen for four consecutive years, from 2006-2010 – the first time in U.S. history that that had happened. The cost of meat, as well as changing consumer habits, both drove that decline, according to the VOA. The same story, however, also reported that worldwide meat consumption continued to rise.
Still, while meat consumption has dipped here, the United States, as of 2012 was the still the second largest per capita consumer of meat in the world, according to an NPR report. Only Luxembourg consumed more.
Meanwhile, the market for vegan products is growing fast, demonstrating a growing interest in the vegan/vegetarian diet.
“The best indicator is the free market,” said the Cohan. “We're seeing explosive growth in the vegan processed foods sector and in vegan and vegan-friendly restaurants.”’’
Locally, the availability of vegan products gets mixed reviews.
“It’s a lot easier now,” Spaar said. “I was a vegetarian for 25 years, then slowly cut out the dairy and eggs a year ago. It’s much easier because the local stores have so many vegan products; there are so many different brands now.”
But Fontaine thinks local supermarkets are actually scaling back their vegan product lines.
“Three years ago, you could get anything you wanted,” said Fontaine, a self-described vegetarian who lives a vegan lifestyle (her son is also a vegan). “It’s interesting because I think more people are opting for vegetarian lifestyles.”
Ironically, she said, fewer vegan products on the shelves have made her even healthier. Instead of buying the processed versions of these foods, she makes her own.
“One thing I’ve noticed is vegetarian products are similar to other processed meat in that they have a high sodium content,” Fontaine said.
So when she craves vegan sausages, instead of purchasing them from a store, she uses a recipe that calls for ground rice oatmeal, onions and spice – and a food processor.
“Everything you fix is not processed,” she said. “It’s natural food.”
Dining out in Wheeling can still be tricky for a vegan. Menu items may appear vegan-friendly when they’re really not.
“You can have a plain baked potato if nothing else,” said Harry Spaar, Lindsay’s father, who also is a vegan. “Some people talk about pasta with marinara sauce, but you have to be careful about that because some places put cheese in it.”
Even a dish as simple as steamed vegetables, he said, may be cooked with butter.
Nevertheless, eating vegan while dining out in Wheeling is getting easier, though vegan joints are by no means widespread.
“I don’t think that’s standard in the area at all,” said Matt Welsch, co-owner and chef of the Vagabond Kitchen, which does have regular vegan items on its menu and vegan specials, such as this past week’s southwestern kasha tacos. “It takes a little more effort, a little skill, to make a good vegetarian meal than to throw a burger on the grill.”
That said, he, too, thinks more local bistros are catering to vegan and vegetarian diners.
“I do think it’s starting to change. And I think places like ours – and Avenue Eats, Later Alligator and Cilantro – are setting the stage for those changes. You raise the bar and people come to expect it wherever they go, and that’s how you create a powerful change.”
Whenever he caters outdoors events he tries to bring a vegan or vegetarian option with him. People frequently tell him at those gatherings that that one food is the only thing there they can find to eat.
That pleases Welsch.
“It’s important,” he said. “Everyone deserves good food.”