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Food is an incredibly powerful component in the activist’s toolkit. It is imbued with special meaning in the psyche of humanity: we need food to nourish our bodies, but we also look to food as the centerpiece of many of our rituals and ceremonies.
Because of food’s unique position in our lives, it also offers the promise of transformation, for what we place in our bellies can be the bridge to a higher level of compassion — a rich appreciation of life itself. The simple act of sharing a delicious plant-based meal with someone more accustomed to dining on dead animals may not inspire them to immediately embrace a cruelty-free lifestyle, but it removes another brick from the massive edifice built upon the myths of ethical eating: that vegan food is strange, that it is hard to prepare and, perhaps the biggest false premise, that a meat-based diet is ideal for optimum health.
If you’re new to vegetarianism or veganism, or you’ve just never used your love of plant-based food in your activism, getting started can seem a bit daunting. How does one begin? You needn’t be a professional chef or cooking instructor to have an impact on another person. Erica Meier of Compassion Over Killing recommends starting with your immediate circle: friends, family and co-workers. “Bringing vegan treats to the office or hosting a vegan dinner party for your neighbors or meat-eating friends are two simple yet effective ways to introduce others to animal-friendly eating,” she says.
One crucial point about using vegan food in your outreach: Make sure the food is delicious. “I will happily eat good vegan food, but I will never offer good vegan food to non-vegans,” says Erik Marcus, author of Meat Market. “Any food I offer to non-vegans has to be outstanding, or I won’t offer it at all. We don’t want non-vegans to try vegan food and decide it’s only okay. We need them to think this is some of the tastiest food they’ve ever eaten.” This attitude applies not only to the food Erik offers, but to the food products he recommends, the cookbooks he suggests and the restaurants he takes his friends to. “Vegan food is indeed a powerful outreach tool, and that’s why I make sure that non-vegetarians get only the very best of what the vegan world has to offer.”
Whether you’re bringing in treats to the office or having friends over for dinner, if you’re hoping to encourage someone’s own vegan culinary adventures, don’t start them off with anything too complicated or that contains hard-to-find ingredients. “The food must be easy to make, so that those eating might actually make it at home,” advises activist Monica Engebretson. Chilled Avocado, Tomatillo and Cucumber Soup with Saffron-Lime Ice may be impressive and delicious, but any recipe that calls for saffron threads and toasted Hungarian paprika is not for beginners, and we want to emphasize that veganism is easy! Fortunately, one outreach effort that Monica and countless other activists have found particularly successful uses some of the easiest vegan foods you can find.
The idea is pretty simple: Hand out free vegan food to the public. After all, who doesn’t like free food? For a feed-in, activists prepare some vegan versions of popular meat-based foods, such as veggie burgers and “chicken” nuggets, and pass out samples at a location with lots of foot traffic ― like the front of a fast-food restaurant. Passersby get to try some tasty vegan treats, have a non-confrontational encounter with an animal activist and, we hope, walk away feeling that veganism isn’t that strange after all. Feed-ins can be as basic as one person with a platter of Tofurky sausage samples and some vegan literature or several activists going all out with a table, veggie dogs with condiments and a banner declaring “FREE Vegetarian Food!”
“The challenge with feed-ins is that the food has to be really good,” says activist Nora Kramer. “Plus, you need to present it in a way that looks good and tastes good at that moment, like on a street corner. Vegan chicken nuggets, for instance, taste really good, if they’re hot, with ketchup or barbecue sauce. If they’re cold? Um, not so good. You’re really not helping any chickens. Same thing with giving out vegan ice cream – you’ve got to keep it cold. If it’s a hot day, no one’s going to want you’re melted, liquidy ice cream. So, keeping things hot or cold and presenting it in a way that will make people want to try it is important.”
Nora also notes that it’s important people know why you’re there. “It needs to be clear that you’re not representing Soy Delicious or whatever,” she says. “You’re there volunteering your time because you care about animals and you want people to know that vegan food tastes really good.”
Nathan Runkle of Mercy For Animals (MFA) advises getting the food donated, if possible. “When soliciting food donations,” he says, “keep in mind what will be easiest to prepare and how you’re going to distribute it. Soy ice cream in tubs, for example, is going to be more difficult to distribute than Tofutti Cuties, which come pre-wrapped.”
Getting companies to donate food is not that difficult, according to Caroline McAleese of Vegan Campaigns, which organizes annual food fairs and monthly vegan food and information stalls in busy shopping areas. “If you do not already have a contact name at the company,” she says, “I would send an email to the general address, then follow it up with a phone call and keep the contact name for next time. I normally write quite a detailed email about the event or stall. I would include how many people you would expect to come, the venue and the aim of the event.”
Caroline also recommends giving the company an incentive, such as adding their name to a flier for the event, offering to give out their leaflets at the event and posting a link on your Web site to theirs. “It’s good to feed back to the companies afterwards, to show them photos and let them know how it went.”
If this all sounds like feed-ins are a complicated exercise demanding many people, relax. “Most of the feed-ins we do are just a couple people,” Nathan says. “It’s taken us a little while to master the marketing of feed-ins, because if you just go the street corner wearing regular clothes, and you’re handing out food, it seems kind of sketchy, and people get a little nervous taking food from strangers.” So now Nathan and his fellow activists don black aprons and plastic gloves, giving their feed-ins an air of professionalism. “We also have a large banner that reads ‘For the Animals, Earth and Your Health ― Enjoy a Free Vegan Sample.’ This makes it look more like an event so people will come up to try the food.” To really make an impact, MFA sometimes sets up a table with the dipping sauces, vegetarian starter kits and local veg guide. “The veg guide also lists health food stores, so we can tell people how to find specialty items,” he says.
Of course, there are countless other ways to use vegan food in your outreach, from bringing homemade cookies to work or school to asking your favorite restaurant or campus cafeteria to carry (more) vegan entrees.
Although there are many other tactics for helping animals, when we speak of animal cruelty, the overwhelming majority of abuse is suffered by animals who are bred, raised and eventually slaughtered because humans happen to enjoy eating them. And because most of the Earth’s human inhabitants directly contribute to the needless cruelty suffered by so many billions of non-human animals each year simply by eating them, changing the hearts and minds of these people yields extraordinary benefits. So if you’ve never used vegan food in your outreach, give it a try. I’m betting you’ll find it fun.