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A new vegan and vegetarian group is just getting started in Southern Maryland.

The Southern Maryland Vegan & Vegetarian Group invited vegetarians, vegans and people who are “veg-curious” to its first meeting on Jan. 12 at the Leonardtown library. “We had between 12 to 15 people,” said Natalie Evans of Mechanicsville, who heads the group.

To learn more

Southern Maryland Vegan and Vegetarian Group will participate in the Earth Day celebration in Leonardtown on April 21. The group’s next meeting will be held May 4 from 10 a.m. to noon at the Calvert Library in Prince Frederick. Vegans, vegetarians and those who are curious about a plant-based diet are invited. RSVP to Natalie Evans at nrevans1117@yahoo.com or call 301-481-2741.

For more about the group, see smvavg.webs.com. The group is also on Facebook.

The second meeting was held March 2 at the La Plata library, where 20 people came out to participate.

Evans is encouraged by the turnout, and by what she said is good feedback from people who heard about the meetings too late but who are interested in the group. The group was set up, she said, to encourage local restaurants to add more vegetarian options, educate the community about the benefits of going vegetarian or vegan and provide resources and a regional network of like-minded people.

Evans was introduced to vegetarianism by her daughter, Whitney Blomquist, a St. Mary’s Ryken graduate, who later attended Towson University, where she interned at the Vegetarian Resource Group, a Baltimore-based nonprofit organization. Blomquist has since graduated from Towson and is now writing for a publication about vegetarianism in Philadelphia.

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 area, 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 the Vegetarian Resource Group to spread the word. 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, Evans said, but about forming connections and maybe seeing if local restaurants would be open to offering more vegetarian or vegan options on their menus.

According to 1994 research done by Vegetarian Resource Group, 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 said.

The Southern Maryland vegetarian 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 salad 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.

Evans said she has approached a couple of St. Mary’s County restaurants about adding vegetarian options and has received positive feedback. The critical issue seems to be whether vegetarian dishes can be created from the foods currently on hand at the restaurants, 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 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 said he reduced his meat consumption until he ate meat about once a month and finally was “forgetting” to eat meat.

Evans said 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 every other month, moving the site from county to county. The next meeting will be held May 4 at the Calvert Library in Prince Frederick. In addition, the group plans to have a stand at the Earth Day celebration in Leonardtown on April 21, when the group will be participating in the Worldwide Vegan Bake Sale.

During the warmer months, the group hopes to move its meetings to members’ homes and have potlucks, where participants can continue to network and socialize while spreading the word about vegetarianism and veganism.

“We’ll see how it grows,” Evans said.

staylor@somdnews.com

Staff writer Susan Craton contributed to this report