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A local vegan and vegetarian group will meet Saturday in La Plata to connect, share resources and discuss ways to encourage local restaurant owners to offer more vegetarian and vegan dishes.
Southern Maryland Vegan & Vegetarian Group invites vegetarians, vegans and people who are “veg-curious” to show up from 10 a.m. to noon March 2 at the La Plata library.
Natalie Evans of Mechanicsville, who heads the group, was introduced to vegetarianism by her daughter, Whitney, who as a student at Towson University interned at the Vegetarian Resource Group, a Baltimore-based nonprofit organization that aims to educate people about vegetarianism and related issues.
After watching documentaries — “Forks Over Knives” and “Peaceable Kingdom” — and reading books on plant-based diets, Evans and her husband, Tony, decided to go vegan.
Evans was a vegetarian for about a year before becoming a vegan — a person who doesn’t consume any animal products, such as meat, cheese, eggs and dairy products. Tony went “straight vegan,” Evans said.
They thought they might be the only vegans in the county, but the more they learned, the more vegetarians and vegans they met in the community, Evans said.
Last September, the family set up a booth at the St. Mary’s County Fair for VRG to spread the word about the lifestyle and its health benefits. Evans said a farmer who raises cattle stopped by to discuss how he was limiting meat from his diet for health reasons. The family will likely set up booths at county fairs this year and participate in festivals and other community events.
They also have meet-ups scheduled. The get-togethers are not about preaching to people but about forming connections and maybe seeing if local restaurants would be open to offering more vegetarian or vegan options on their menus, Evans said.
According to 1994 research done by VRG, 1 percent of the population was vegan or vegetarian, and in 2012, the number edged up to 5 percent, said John Cunningham, consumer research manager with VRG.
In any group of friends or family, there is an increased likelihood that one of the members is vegan or vegetarian, he said. It makes sense for eateries to offer one or two options or a group is not going to go to the restaurant, Cunningham explained.
The local group has its sights set on local restaurant owners, not chains. Right now in the Southern Maryland area, the restaurant options for vegetarian and vegans are limited, Evans said.
When eating out, it’s usually Chinese, Thai and maybe the occasional salads without cheese and a sweet potato on the side while dining with her in-laws at Outback Steakhouse. Ledo’s will make a pizza (hold the cheese) for customers, she said.
She just wants more options and variety out there — appetizers like zucchini sliders that aren’t loaded with cheese, or hummus and vegetables — a vegan or vegetarian restaurant like those that are prevalent in big cities would be great in the area, Evans said.
Becoming vegan “has been fun for us,” Evans said. The couple was surprised how easy it was and how much fun they had cooking together and trying out new recipes.
Tony’s usual morning egg sandwich was changed to tofu flavored with black salt, which mimics the smell and taste of eggs.
Evans, a wine drinker who used to go through two blocks of cheese a week, had to get off dairy. Now they use Daiya, a cheese substitute.
There are so many substitutes, marinades and options that their 17-year-old son, Josh, doesn’t mind Tofurky sandwiches or her award-winning vegetarian chili.
“This is not something I find I have to push on people,” Evans said.
A lot of people are curious about changing their diet, she said.
“There are lots of reasons that people become vegetarians,” Cunningham said.
Some are concerned about the ethics of the way animals are treated; for others, it’s the health issues associated with consuming meat and animal products. And more and more people are turning to the diet because of the environmental impact animal agriculture is having on the planet, he said.
There are no rules to becoming a vegan or vegetarian, said Cunningham, who has been a vegetarian for 13 years.
“It’s not like you have to change all at once,” he said.
He reduced his meat consumption until he ate meat about once a month and finally was “forgetting” to eat meat.
For Evans, being a vegan is working. She has dropped 25 pounds since switching her diet, noticed a difference in her skin and is more clear-headed now. “I might be too clear-headed,” she joked.
Right now, the local group is meeting at Southern Maryland libraries but hope to have potluck meetings at members’ homes in the warmer months and continue to network and socialize while spreading the word about vegetarianism and veganism.
“We’ll see how it grows,” Evans said.