Wednesday, January 27, 2016

10 Questions: Vegan Rock Star with Rae Sikora


I’m just going to lay it all out there: Rae Sikora is one of my very favorite people. John and I met Rae in 1997 or so, when she was working at the Institute for Humane Education (IHE), which she co-founded with Zoe Weil. Back at the time, I worked in humane education at a large animal shelter in Chicago and I was ready for a career change. One day, I was copying materials in the shelter’s resource library when I glanced at an advertisement in a magazine for an activists’ retreat at the IHE and I made a copy for myself. John and I planned a road trip out to Surry, Maine to go to the retreat and we decided that on that long road trip, we would figure out how to work full-time doing “vegan stuff” because, while I enjoyed my work on behalf of dogs and cats, I felt constrained by the subjects that I could talk about and that my calling – and our calling together – was to devote ourselves to veganism in some capacity.

On our way to the IHE, we tossed around this loose thought like a beach ball but after the retreat, it crystallized for us: I remember driving out of a gas station and the words Vegan Street just materialized fully-formed in my head, popping out of my head like a word balloon from The Electric Company and filled up our little car. Vegan Street. Now in the years after that fateful trip to Maine, we have taken many circuitous paths, including one that left Vegan Street dormant for more than 10 years, but we have remained dedicated to our original goal of doing “vegan stuff” and I have to think that the seeds planted by Rae that magical weekend of playing in the Maine woods is a big reason for this. Maybe she sprinkled fairy dust on us or there was something in the water but whatever it is/was, we’ve never been the same since crossing paths with her indescribably enchanting spirit and we’ve remained friends ever since.

Am I being hyperbolic? I don’t think so. I think that Rae is one of the great unsung heroes of the vegan movement. I think everyone who knows her would agree. With a delicious sense of humor, a charismatic, thoughtful speaking style that draws people in, an incredible capacity to listen and, more important, to hear, and a rich, deep heart that brims with empathy and understanding, Rae is really a rare individual. When she gives you her time, you have the commitment of her whole presence. I think if Rae had less of a nomadic, unconstrained and wild spirit, her name would be as well known as it should be but that wouldn’t be true to who she is. She needs to be free and to be guided by her own compass. As such, Rae and her partner, the wonderful JC Corcoran, have co-founded Plant Peace Daily, where they often a wide array of programs near their home in Santa Fe and wherever the wind takes them. They even have a free PDF of their book, Plant Peace Daily: Everyday Outreach for People Who Care, available on their website, an incredible animal advocate resource with practical, fun and effective ways for creating a more compassionate world as part of our simple daily lives.

I cannot recommend visiting their website and trying to see Rae and JC at one of their many speaking gigs across the country enough. If you run an organization, consider getting them to speak. I am so grateful that my eyes glanced at that magazine ad all those years ago at the animal shelter and my path crisscrossed with Rae’s. She is a truly magical being who has inspired my life and influenced my life’s direction in so many ways; I cannot imagine how many other lives she has touched. I am proud to say that Rae Sikora is my friend; she is truly a Vegan Rock Star.

1. First of all, we’d love to hear your “vegan evolution” story. How did you start out? Did you have any early influences or experiences as a young person that in retrospect helped to pave your path?

I think that the path starts the moment we look into the eyes of another species and see the individual rather than our perception of the group they are part of. So mine started when I was 5 years old and was afraid of all animals. My father brought home a puppy from the shelter and for the first time in my life I connected with the individual inside those eyes. I fell in love with that pup. Then I could see the individual in all the non-humans I met. Oddly enough I was still eating animals. At 15 years old, I realized I was eating the ones I love. I stopped eating all flesh. But I had never met a vegetarian or heard that word. I was overjoyed to meet my first vegetarian and to have a word for what I was doing. It was not easy back then. I had no idea what to eat and mostly ate crappy junk food. Then, years later I witnessed the separation of male calves from their screaming mothers. The babies were screaming for the mothers and the mothers were screaming for the babies being loaded on the truck. I stopped eating ALL animal products at that point, but didn't know the word vegan and had no idea others were doing the same thing. When I discovered other vegans, it was instant community...a total game changer. Back then there were no cheese alternatives that you could buy. I even made my own tempeh from scratch. But having friends making the same choice to live a compassionate life was powerful in sticking with it.

2. Imagine that you are pre-vegan again: how could someone have talked to you and what could they have said or shown you that could have been the most effective way to have a positive influence on you moving toward veganism?

If I had met someone who was kind to me and invited me to align my values with my choices, without making me feel like I was a bad person for my non-vegan choices, I would have loved it. But, I wouldn't want them to sugar coat it either. I have always been one of those people who needs the heavy-hitting reality right in front of me to change my ways. I was a cheese-aholic...maybe I always will be. But, if someone had shown me the reality, early on, in a non-judgmental way, I would have jumped on the chance to make more compassionate choices.  

3. What have you found to be the most effective way to communicate your message as a vegan? For example, humor, passion, images, etc.?

I have found that if I take the time to communicate from the most loving place that it works wonders. It is not always easy to find love when faced with someone who is being violent or supporting violence and does not want to be called on it or to face the reality of their choices. But this is my life find love in the most difficult situations. When doing presentations, I LOVE using images and telling true stories of the amazing beings we share the planet with. Most people, even long time vegans, are surprised at the emotions and intelligence in the species who are the most unfamiliar to us. So, the images and stories help people fall in love with the planet and all life on it. Then, from there, people can protect and speak up for who and what they love. But they have to connect and love this place and their big animal family first...then they will do anything to preserve and care for it.

4. What do you think are the biggest strengths of the vegan movement?

It is hard to argue with compassion. It is pretty easy to make a clear argument for caring and non-violence. Not so easy to get the public behind a move toward injustice and violence. We have history on our side. Humans are slow, slow learners. Slower than any other species. But, over time we have learned that all humans deserve to be treated fairly and are not property. Not everyone is on board with that yet. Some cultures and some individuals still want to own or oppress other humans. But the general world population is in agreement that humans should have the right to freedom from oppression. And I can see that the next big social justice movement is animal rights...the rights of all species to self-determination and basic rights. I can feel that tipping point coming soon for this movement. The time has come.

5. What do you think are our biggest hindrances to getting the word out effectively?

We humans are our own worst enemy. It is so hard for us to get along with each other. As soon as you have more than one human in any endeavor you usually have trouble. So, even in our movement, there are groups and individuals who do not get along. The in-fighting keeps us from focusing all of our energy and resources on helping other species and the environment. I do see that there are the welfarists and the abolitionists. Other movements have had these divisions, too. I choose to be very clear about communicating the issues in a way that does not leave any of the reality out of the conversation. I focus on what my methods are and try not to get caught up in the other conflicts. I would say I am an abolitionist if asked. And I just go full steam ahead with communicating that in the most loving way possible. But, I know that angry, judgmental and unloving vegans can actually turn some people away from the compassion path. I think it is possible to be consistent, honest and clear without making others feel judged.  

6. All of us need a “why vegan” elevator pitch. We’d love to hear yours.

My "pitch" usually comes in the form of questions. I try to understand the person I am connecting with. When I ask them about their lives and their choices, then they get to ask themselves the same questions without feeling like they are a total uncaring loser. And I get to know more about their path and how they make decisions. So, I work on understanding rather than being understood. Here is a current example taken from the "elevator" I am in. We are here in Costa Rica now. I go snorkeling everyday. And, everyday, some fisherman offers to catch me fish or give me dead fish for my meals. Yesterday, our neighbor, Carlos asked if I like fish. I told him that I LOVE fishes. "Oh good," he said, "I have fish I will give you that are delicious."  I explained that I love them alive and that I get more joy from seeing them free than eating them. I asked him if he ever goes snorkeling. He said he did as a boy. I asked how that was for him. He got dreamy-eyed and told me about it. I asked if he missed having that kind of relationship with the fishes in his home waters. He said he did miss that. We have had a few conversations since then and I can tell we go deeper into the reality for the animals and for his community. The overfishing has destroyed what his village once was.  

7. Who are the people and what are the books, films, websites and organizations that have had the greatest influence on your veganism and your continuing evolution?

I don't know if I would have stayed completely dedicated to animal rights for the past 40 years without all the inspiring people in our community. I am so grateful to my partner JC for his 24/7 activism and for veganizing Santa Fe, NM and the world. Who else would have the nerve to start a FB page called Bring It On Down to Veganville before they have completed the veganizing process?  You and John are two of my favorites. [Ed. note: Same back at you, sister!] The films from Tribe of Heart, and Earthlings and Cowspiracy and so many others make me feel part of something bigger than me and a few activists. They are such powerful culture shifters. Emily the Bite Size Vegan videos are GREAT). And the pioneers who saw things that I wasn't so clear on...and taught me so much...Karen Davis, Zoe Weil, Howard Lyman, Harold Brown, Jonathan Balcombe, and many others. I think we grow constantly from our relationship with others on the compassion path. I am always growing. The dedication of people like Mary Finelli and Kari Bagnall is often what keeps me going when I lose steam. I am also inspired by all the young people who are waking up to compassion and are non-stop in their advocacy. Stacy Shepanek is veganizing Charleston, SC, Keith Allison went from teacher who was losing his job over a FB post to powerful spokesperson, Adena Kling and others who have full-time jobs and still manage to organize meet-ups and other events, and on and on it goes. I would need 100 pages to mention all those who inspire me and keep me feeling grateful in this movement.

8. Burn-out is so common among vegans: what do you do to unwind, recharge and inspire yourself?

I know about burn-out, despair and compassion fatigue.  The only way I don't totally lose my way in this movement is by finding balance. It is not always easy. I make sure I spend a lot of time in the parts of the planet that are still healthy and alive. Hiking in beautiful forests, snorkeling with my underwater family of sea life, gardening, bird loving, biking in fresh air, dancing my butt off with other wild human primates, etc. I also do yoga, meditate and eat healthy whole foods. If I feel good physically I am happier and feel like I can face anything in the world.

I also like to mix the educational aspects of the work with actual rescues. I like the tangible feeling of rescuing beings who are suffering or imprisoned. It is such an immediate result...they go from misery to joy. So, I do the rescues on my own or with my partner JC whenever possible or we volunteer at sanctuaries. It is pure bliss being with these grateful non-humans.

9. What is the issue nearest and dearest to your heart that you would like others to know more about?

I cannot say one issue. It is usually the issue right in front of me. Right now it is the oceans. We have seen the decline of the oceans and the coral and fishes in just the past five years. The oceans are dying before our eyes. It is nearly impossible to find healthy coral and places to snorkel with a diverse group of sea animals. Most of the animals in the sea are fed to livestock. Even when I am swimming with the fishes here everyday of our vacation, I am aware of the suffering of those who are being caught in nets and on long lines as I swim with those who are, for the moment, free.

10. Please finish this sentence: “To me, being vegan is...”

To me being vegan is being true to the most loving and honest part of myself.  I am grateful every day for my mind, heart, eyes and ears being wide open to the life around me.  

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

How to Break Your Vegan Resolution.

Did you make a vow to go vegan January 1 and now it’s looking like it’s do-or-die time? Having been there myself the first year of my veganism and having talked to countless people who have faced a lot of challenges despite their intention to make it work, I have some ideas on how to break your vegan resolution. I finally figured out that the biggest difficulties we face that jeopardize our desire to be vegan come from within us: they are the ways in which we inadvertently sabotage ours best intentions. I know what they are because I’ve been there, people.  I also have some ideas on how to make your veganism successfully stick. I’m hoping that you’ll choose the latter. Read on…

How to Break Your Vegan Resolution

1. Have no fun ever.

One of the most surefire ways to break your vegan resolution is to have no fun ever. Never ever. Often for new (and even not-so-new) vegans, there is a mindset that anything that you once enjoyed – dancing, amusement parks, pottery class – is off-limits now because it feels selfish to enjoy life as you once did now that you are aware of so much suffering in the world. Not only that, with this mentality, you also become allergic to humor, laughter and that facial expression that occurs when the corners of your mouth curve upward. If you want to break your vegan resolution, be sure to strip your life of all fun and enjoyment.

Or…you could remind yourself that you can never take on pain to relieve someone else’s burden. Just as your pleasure does not need to compound anyone’s pain, withholding enjoyment from your life cannot lessen someone else’s real misery. We are not proxies. However, if, in fact, you allow yourself to enjoy life now and then, you could actually serve to help diminish another’s suffering by modeling to the world that vegans aren’t all doom and gloom, which encourages other people to be positively influenced and inspired by you. It’s that whole “I’ll have what she’s having” phenomenon and it works.

The reversal of this resolution for a successful long-term integration of veganism: Remember that your enjoyment does not need to compound anyone else’s suffering and, in fact, living a life with pleasure allows people to be more positively influenced by you.

2. Cultivate an all-or-nothing attitude. (Alternatively but related: animal products are present nearly everywhere, thus perfect veganism is futile.)

You ate a potato chip before you noticed that it had honey in it. You discovered too late that your smoothie had whey in it. You were so hungry when visiting your family over break and you didn’t plan well so you ate your mother’s casserole without asking questions about the broth. Whatever happened, it happened, and now you are wracked with guilt and a feeling of being both a fraud and a failure. You cannot do this. Veganism is impossible. Not to mention that, there are animal products in virtually everything, from the bicycle tires that take you to the grocery store to the glue that holds your bed together. It’s hopeless. You shouldn’t even try anymore because no one can be a true vegan, least of all flawed you. If you want to break your vegan resolution, be sure to have an all-or-nothing mentality.

Or…you could remember that we live in a profoundly non-vegan world and while we try to do our best to avoid contributing to harm, veganism is ultimately not about our egos but about moving closer to our ideals all the time. A wise and apt proverb comes to mind: “A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor.” Veganism is a practice and you know what practice makes: perfect. Or ultimately imperfect but still doing our best. Those who manage to maintain a vegan practice over the long-term understand that it is essential to remain committed despite the obstacles, blunders and bruises to the ego that will inevitably come up. Here’s an analogy: You’re going to college and you’re so excited about your education but you just got your bad grade. This was not how you were imagining your future. Does getting a bad grade mean that you should drop out of college – because clearly you are a failure and a fraud – or should you instead chalk it up as a learning experience to deepen your education in the long run? Life is full of bumps and disappointments; it’s about how we respond to these challenges that matters for our evolution in the long run. The simple solution is to dust yourself off, learn from your mistakes, resolve to do better and be thankful of how you are progressing.

The reversal of this resolution for a successful long-term integration of veganism: Accept that you will make mistakes in this deeply non-vegan world. Don’t take this as a reason for either self-flagellation or giving up: Resolve to do your best. (And remember that it does get easier.)

3. Isolate yourself.

If you want to guarantee that you’ll fail at your vegan resolution, be sure to isolate yourself. Stop communicating with your pre-vegan friends – this is a given because they are evil, right? (see next point) – and top that off by not making an effort to create community for yourself with other vegans. Feel misunderstood. Feel rejected. Feel alone. Steep in those feelings of isolation regularly. If you want to break your vegan resolution, be sure to isolate yourself.

…you could be mindful that humans are a social species whether we are introverted or extroverted and we need some interpersonal connection to thrive optimally. Especially with adopting a fairly big lifestyle change that swims against the current, if you don’t nurture and create a support network for yourself, you will feel alone and your veganism will be at stake

The reversal of this resolution for a successful long-term integration of veganism: Maintain and cultivate the community you need for yourself, online and in person.

4. Decide that you despise everyone who is not vegan.

They are all wretched, cold-hearted sadists, right? Now that you’re vegan, it’s best to be really clear that non-vegans are The Enemy just so there is no confusion about that. If you want to add another layer of doom to the clouds of gloom perpetually hanging over your head, remind yourself that you are surrounded by billions of bloodthirsty barbarians. If you want to break your vegan resolution, be sure to hate all non-vegans.

Or…you could remember that at one time, you were a “bloodthirsty barbarian” as well and, honestly, if you are trying to get omnivores to listen to you, it’s probably best to not think of them in this way. You do want to be a positive influence on them moving away from eating animals, right? This isn’t to say that you need to tone down your message but that treating people like you think they are despicable might make you feel superior in the short term but is probably not going to create a lot of meaningful long term change for the animals. Also, walking around hating 97% of the world pretty much guarantees an increasingly bitter and lonely existence and we all know how appealing that sounds. My own experience is that very angry vegans don’t last very long because hate takes too much energy to maintain.

The reversal of this resolution for a successful long-term integration of veganism: Remember that humans are flawed, yep, all of us, but omnivores are the ones who can create the most change for the animals and they are the very people we need to be reaching in our outreach.

5. Immerse yourself in watching graphic videos, looking at violent images and reading about animal suffering at every opportunity.

Similar to the first point but rather than simply removing all joy from your life, here is where you actively add as much trauma and sadness into it as possible. You become a virtual sponge for soaking up as much pain as possible as if, by proxy, you could relieve theirs. If you want to break your vegan resolution, be sure to submerge yourself in misery.

Or…you could remember that bearing witness is one thing; drowning oneself in torment is another and it is debilitating. While educating ourselves is critical to our advocacy work, immersing ourselves in pain and violence is a recipe for burn out. It takes a huge toll on our psyches and our morale. If you focus too much on the misery, not only will your worldview become warped, you will lose your confidence about effecting change. Get to know and respect your own limits – have you been dwelling in darkness too much? Are you feeling on the edge? I’ve been there and it still happens today. When it does, I know that it means I need to unplug a bit because I am not being an effective advocate for the animals. Turning away from more graphic videos, images and stories will not amplify the suffering of the animals but if you get burned out as a result of not respecting your own need to have some light and some hope, it is a very sad and preventable loss. Please take care of your tender heart.

The reversal of this resolution for a successful long-term integration of veganism: Educate yourself so you can be a good advocate for the animals but respect your boundaries and aim for balance  so you don’t burn

6. Be unprepared and fail to meet your needs.

Some examples of how we allow ourselves to be unprepared and fail to meet our needs: When we go to restaurants without options for us just to go along with what the group wants. When we travel without knowing if and where we’ll be able to eat. When we go to parties without knowing if there will be food for us. When we don’t bring our lunch to school or work and we know that there are no decent options near us. If you want to break your vegan resolution, be sure to be unprepared and have our needs unmet.

Or…we could be kind to ourselves and make sure that we will have decent vegan food so we don’t find ourselves feeling good and hangry and eyeballing the questionable protein bar with 5-inch ingredient panel at the 7-11 out of sheer desperation. We need to be allies for ourselves and not leave our needs in the lurch. In other words, don’t do what I did. When I first started out, I said yes to everything to prove that I was not an irritating vegan. I was defiantly not the irritating vegan! Would I be willing to go to the crab house to see relatives? Oh, sure, I could just eat some lemons. They will help me ward off scurvy. Could I go to a steakhouse for the office holiday party and just eat a dry baked potato while everyone else is chowing down for hours? Oh, sure, not a problem! I love dry potatoes! Maybe they’ll even give me some salsa on the side. First of all, is that really fine? Is this the optimal way to showcase veganism, you and your dry baked potato and your little side of maybe-salsa? We let ourselves down when we don’t plan for having our needs met. At a certain point, I decided that I was doing veganism no favors by jumping through hoops to be perceived as “a nice vegan” and not showing the world the fabulous array of gorgeous, appealing plant foods available to us. So here is what I did and it’s infinitely easier today with menus being online and communication being more direct: I called restaurants. I familiarized myself with their menus so I could ask questions about preparing a meal. I had a variety of restaurants at the ready that I could recommend as alternatives when people suggested meeting at establishments that would leave me hungry. If I’d go to parties, I would ask what I could bring. When I traveled, I did some research and planning, something much less easy than today but still doable. I remembered to pack a Lara Bar when I was uncertain if I’d have access to food for the day. In short, I stopped leaving myself in the lurch because if there is one thing I know, a low-blood sugar me is not someone who is going to make the best decisions or model the best example of happy, integrated veganism. Learn from me and don’t make these easily avoidable mistakes.

The reversal of this resolution for a successful long-term integration of veganism: Be prepared and speak up for your needs.

7. Think of your veganism as a resolution.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with the concept of a resolution, we need to look no further than how gyms that are crowded in January and February begin to dramatically clear out by March to see how effective they tend to be as a means for creating lasting change. While I have certainly met some people who made a New Year’s resolution to be vegan and stuck with it, this is the exception to the rule. Perhaps because we associate resolutions with white-knuckling our way to a new, less pleasurable life that we’re trying to will ourselves to live, we can’t help also seeing veganism through a lens of deprivation, hardship and scarcity when we frame it using the language of resolution. As I have observed, a fun-free, all-or-nothing attitude is almost a guarantee that your vegan practice will fail. If you want to break your vegan resolution, think of it as a resolution.

Or…here is what I propose instead: think of your veganism as an evolution toward your goals of living consistently with your compassionate convictions. Think like a marathoner rather than a sprinter. You are in it to win it over the long haul and it is both an honor and a joy. When you catch yourself thinking in a win/fail false binary, unclench, breath, and remember why you are doing this. Not to prove to anyone that you are perfect but to live in harmony with your values and to help usher in a new consciousness that actively rejects the mentality that our pleasures are enough justification for our habits.

The reversal of this resolution for a successful long-term integration of veganism: This is not a resolution. This is a way of living.

Ready to do it right? Yes!

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

10 Questions: Vegan Foodie with Jill Nussinow


Jill Nussinow
is a Registered Dietitian and a die-hard plant enthusiast as all RDs should be. A popular public speaker, culinary educator (she’s been teaching cooking for more than 25 years), consultant to help businesses and organizations offer more vegan menu items, recipe developer and award-winning author, Jill is passionate about helping people learn how to incorporate more delicious and health-promoting plant foods into their diets, transforming their diets and their lives in the process. Jill is especially renowned for her expertise in pressure cooking and she has a beautiful new cookbook out full of speedy recipes, Vegan Under Pressure: Perfect Meals Made Quick and Easy in Your Pressure Cooker. (We will be sharing a recipe from Vegan Under Pressure tomorrow.) Thanks to Jill for agreeing to be our featured Vegan Foodie this week! 

1. How did you start down this path of creating delicious food? Was a love for food nurtured into you? Did you have any special relatives or mentors who helped to instill this passion?

I began cooking as a teenager when I decided that I wanted to eat more natural foods. I had already given up meat and felt like I needed more whole foods. I got a copy of The New York Times natural food cookbook and Diet for a Small Planet and did some exploration. I learned how to make whole grain sourdough bread and many other things but then I went off to college and had nowhere to cook. Well, the universe took care of that when I got into a car accident and found myself back at my parents’ home recovering. They both worked so I “played” in the kitchen and made all kinds of food. They were appreciative of most of it.

My mother cooked “real” food but it wasn’t that exotic. Most likely because my father didn’t like mixed foods. He liked things seasoned but plain, as in meat, carbs and vegetables but not mixed together. My mother did use a pressure cooker but it only made me more afraid of it.

My grandfather had had a heart attack when he was in his 40s and he was one of the first people on the Kempner rice diet. My grandmother, who was a wonderful cook, made him special food. When they would come visit, I always wanted to have some of his food. It was amazing – baked potatoes, tomato sauce, fresh vegetables.

After my accident recovery, I moved to Florida, where my grandparents lived. I got to have more of my grandmother’s great cooking. She made incredible vegetable dishes. She was a big inspiration but not in the way of learning how to cook at your grandma’s knee. She didn’t teach me much but I learned from tasting her wonderful food.

2. What was your diet like when you were growing up? Did you have any favorite meals or meal traditions? Do you carry them over today?

Until I was a teenager we eat meat of some sort almost every night. My mother made vegetables and salad, too. She loved pasta so we had that often. I have always enjoyed potatoes, especially baked. My grandmother made them often for my grandfather.

Also, it was my mother who introduced me to kale on a winter break from college. That changed my life – for the better.

I eat salad most days. It’s what makes me feel good.

When I was young, my favorite meal was tuna on toast. I have completely given that up.

3. What is the best vegan meal you've ever had? Give us all the details!

There is no such thing, except maybe the last great vegan meal that I’ve had which could be as basic as bean and rice tacos with nut cheese, salsa and cilantro. Fancy food doesn’t necessarily impress me. I love good clean food with vibrant flavors.

4. If you could prepare one meal or dessert for anyone living or dead, who would it be for and what would you create?

It would be for Thomas Jefferson because he and I share a birthday. I would research some of the more unusual vegetables that he had in his garden at Monticello and make a dish inspired by them – which would vary according to what time of year I was making this magical dish.

5. What do you think are common mistakes in vegan cooking and how do you avoid them?

The most common mistake in vegan, or any other cooking, is not seasoning your food enough. I am not talking about using salt, because I use very little, if any, but using herbs and spices, which are Mother Nature’s answer for making plain food into fabulous tasting food. I can make a pot of millet taste wonderful, at least 15 different ways by using herbs, spices and condiments such as vinegar and mustard, along with citrus juice and zest. We have an amazing palette available to us. Learning how to use it is key.

6. What ingredients are you especially excited about at the moment?

Right now, it is Brussels sprout tops and all winter vegetables – the ugly step-children of the vegetable world. But give me parsnips, turnips, rutabaga, celery root and more, I am off to the kitchen, I also love heirloom (and other) beans.

7. What are your top three cuisines from around the world?

Thai, Indian and Middle Eastern.

8. Who or what has been most influential to you on your vegan path? Individuals, groups, books, films, etc. included.

My colleagues and my students have helped direct my life, along with Mother Nature.

9. What issue is nearest and dearest to your heart that you would like people to know more about?

Food security. I want to see all people fed well which I believe is possible, certainly here in the U.S. Eating well doesn’t have to be expensive but people need culinary and nutrition education.

10. Last, please finish this sentence. "To me, veganism is…"

About love, kindness and compassion plus some of the cleanest and tastiest food around.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

10 Questions: Vegan Rock Star with Dr. Milton Mills


Dr. Milton Mills
is one of my favorite people in the world, a very smart and engaged individual with a holistic perspective and a warm, approachable, curious demeanor that belies his impressive résumé. A graduate of Stanford University School of Medicine and a practicing urgent care physician in the Washington, DC-area, Dr. Mills’ compassionate and encompassing worldview has led him to apply his knowledge about preventative healthcare toward the unique challenges of those who are under-served by the mainstream medical model: minority and less affluent populations. As Associate Director of Preventative Medicine for Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine and co-author of published articles on the racial bias in U.S. nutrition guidelines, a powerful public speaker and, most important, a empathetic healthcare ally, Dr. Mills is a fantastic ambassador for the vegan message. (Side note: tired of all the people who insist that our “canine teeth” means that we should be eating meat? He has a thoughtful and informative lecture on if the human body is designed to eat flesh that should be required viewing for everyone.) Dr. Mills is a truly compassionate, pioneering and original soul and I am fortunate to call him my friend. I am honored that he is this week’s Vegan Rock Star.

1. First of all, we’d love to hear your “vegan evolution” story. How did you start out? Did you have any early influences or experiences as a young person that in retrospect helped to pave your path?

My journey to a plant based lifestyle started with God.  In my early teens I joined the Seventh-Day Adventist (SDA) church because after much study I found it was the denomination that most closely adhered to what the Bible had to say and taught. One of the fundamental tenets of the church is that God’s original diet for humans (Genesis 1:29) was an exclusively plant-based vegan/vegetarian diet.  In fact, in the Garden of Eden all creatures were vegan (Genesis 1:30).  The SDA church teaches that it was God’s original desire and it is still His will that we eat a plant-based diet for our health, mental well-being, and for the sake of the planet and its other creatures.

Knowing this, I still found it difficult initially to give up meat because I thought I couldn’t live without it.  But as I progressed in my relationship with God, I found myself struggling with problems I was having difficulty dealing with.  I was talking with God one evening in September 1974 about my struggles and the fact that I did not feel as close to Him as I wanted to be.  And He said to me “if you want a closer relationship with Me, you need a better diet so you will have a clearer mind.  You need to give up meat.”  So I said to Him, “If you want me to stop eating meat, You have to take away the desire for it from me.”  That night I became a vegetarian.  I was mainly lacto-ovo vegetarian until the late 90’s when I was invited to Vegetarian Summerfest to present the paper I had co-authored with Dr. Neal Bernard and Dr. Patricia Bertrand on Racial Bias in the US Dietary Guidelines. At Summerfest of course everything is vegan and I became more fully aware of the many reasons it is important to eliminate eggs and dairy from my diet.  That is when I began to transition to a more vegan lifestyle.

2. Imagine that you are pre-vegan again: how could someone have talked to you and what could they have said or shown you that could have been the most effective way to have a positive influence on you moving toward veganism?

If I were pre- “plant-based,” for me still the most important and compelling point that someone could make to persuade me to change my diet would be to show me that this is what God wants me to do.  I want to make it clear, however, that in saying this I don’t mean to imply that this would be an exclusively “religious” impulse.  This is because God never asks us to do things that don’t make sense or that aren’t for personal or general good. So bound up in God’s desire and reasons for us to be plant-based are the fact that it is best for our personal health, it does not cause or perpetuate cruelty to or the killing of God’s other creatures, and that it is best for the planet. And in highlighting God’s instructions to humans to be vegan, it is vitally important to emphasize ALL these points.

3. What have you found to be the most effective way to communicate your message as a vegan? For example, humor, passion, images, etc.?

As a physician, I have found focusing on the health aspects of being plant-based to be very compelling. I have spent a lot of time and effort in designing lectures to illustrate how the human body is deigned to be exclusively plant-based and that it functions best when we adhere to that diet. So using science and research to show people the health benefits of veganism can be very persuasive. Of course, it is important to use humor when doing so and to show that you are passionate about the lifestyle.  And because humans suffer from what I call “a failure of imagination,” that is, it is difficult for people to imagine what they’ve never experienced, I find it very helpful to share vegan food with those who haven’t tried it to show them that it is delicious and satisfying. 

4. What do you think are the biggest strengths of the vegan movement?

The biggest strengths of the vegan movement are its benefits to human health, the Earth’s ecology and the decrease in/elimination of animal cruelty that being vegan allows. 

5. What do you think are our biggest hindrances to getting the word out effectively?

The hindrances to spreading the message are many and often subtle and sometimes not readily apparent. One of the reasons is that because the movement has emanated from more Caucasian, affluent, educated communities, it can be misperceived as elitist.  Oftentimes the message and didactic hasn’t been translated into forms/terms that are accessible to minority communities, low-literacy/low-income environments, and ESL communities. Because a large portion of the driving force in the movement stems from the animal rights movement, that fierce passion does not allow some proponents to either see or understand that people struggling every day just to make ends meet and find any kind of food may not be immediately moved or impressed by the animal rights aspect. This does not mean these people are immoral or uncaring, it is simply that they have competing exigencies. We have to make a more concerted effort to reach out to ethnic and minority communities and THEN be ready to make room for these individuals when they begin to show up. Some people may find it somewhat uncomfortable to suddenly find themselves in a multicultural/multiethnic environment when they are used to one that is more primarily “Caucasian.”

6. All of us need a “why vegan” elevator pitch. We’d love to hear yours.

“If you think you’re concerned about the environment and you drive a Prius, but still eat meat; you need a lot more fiber in your diet!”

7. Who are the people and what are the books, films, websites and organizations that have had the greatest influence on your veganism and your continuing evolution?

Vegetarian Summerfest is probably the greatest influence on my continuing evolution. I find it is the most informative conference in the country; and it is a great place to network, meet and learn from prominent individuals in the movement and it’s a wonderful sanctuary where we get to relax and “recharge.” I started to “name names” of people who are awesome positive influences, but decided not to because I honestly can’t name everyone who inspires me. As far as films that had a big influence on me, it’s “the usual suspects”: Forks Over Knives, Food, Inc., Cowspiracy, Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead, among others.

8. Burn-out is so common among vegans: what do you do to unwind, recharge and inspire yourself?

Not a good question for me because I work too much.  But “burn-out” hasn’t been a problem for me because I realize that I have been blessed to have the “Truth.” I know what I’m doing is what’s right and best. I also know that God has appointed me an “ambassador of truth” to help spread the message to others. I’m not just in this for myself, I have a job to do to help change the world.

9. What is the issue nearest and dearest to your heart that you would like others to know more about?

The issue that is most important to me is the health benefit of being vegan/plant-based.  When you’ve seen as many individuals and families crying and devastated from the untimely and unnecessary loss of a loved one to a preventable disease, it moves you to want to do something to change things.  I want people to know that they don’t have to live in fear that their bodies will one day attack them or suddenly fall apart. A lot of what we go through heath-wise in this country can be prevented. 

10. Please finish this sentence: “To me, being vegan is...”

To me being vegan is about caring about yourself, your family, the planet and the planet’s other creatures; and it’s about doing God’s will.