Life after the NCVA: A memoir of 8 years of volunteerism

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Today was a bittersweet day for me.  After more than eight years, I stepped down from my board seat on the National Capital Vegetarian Association.

It was long overdue; my last term was somewhat involuntary, in lieu of folding the organization. We agreed to hang in there to give people a chance to get involved and carry the torch.  From the great turn out at today’s meeting, and the enthusiasm of the attendees, it seems to have worked. Since I’ve been much more focused on my own vegan projects for the past year or so, it was a relief to officially step down.  I had come to realize that I really did need to do so, so that others would realize how important it is that they step up.

Ottawa Humane Society Summer Harvest Garden Party - July 2014

Ottawa Humane Society Summer Harvest Garden Party – July 2014

It’s been quite the ride. I got involved with the NCVA just as its founders were finalizing its bylaws to make it a real legal entity. I had met vegan athlete Brendan Brazier at a talk, and it was he who made the introduction in late 2006.  I was two years into being vegan and wanted to do something constructive to spread the word. While I had a vegan partner, I realized that many others struggled with the social implications of taking a principled stance.  I wanted to strengthen the social fabric underpinning the movement so that anyone who wanted to follow their conscience could do so with support. I started by creating a newsletter, which we published for four years.  Then monthly potlucks, which also ran about four years.

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Volunteers from the very first Veg Fest, June 2009. The cow on the left is Gwen Hughes, one of the newest NCVA board members.

The initial board members drifted off, but were replaced by Corrie, who would be an incredible partner in building the association. The two of us toiled, creating the membership discount program that many of you know, and ultimately co-creating and organizing Ottawa Veg Fest for the next four years.  The first Veg Fest was really just two volunteers who wanted what they’d seen in Toronto trying to make it happen. And it was a success! On a marketing budget of $0 (but with help from PR wizard Camille Labchuk), the premier event drew more than 2,000 visitors.  The rest is history.  I am proud to be part of what I consider a landmark event, that’s so widely known now that even many omnivores are aware of its existence.

I worked with many volunteers over the ensuing years, and among the most noteworthy have to be Erin and Neil.  Those two are powerhouses, and it was gratifying to work with them both.  It was they who kept me going the past few years, even as I itched to branch out and do other things, and especially through my own personal burn out.  Neil is a numbers magician, and nobody holds a bake sale or caters an event like Erin.  I’ll never forget – or be able to thank enough – Erin cooking for nearly 24 hours straight for the Holiday Howl karaoke event that I put on at the Montgomery Legion with Jenn Lakeshore. Then there was the Ester the Wonder Pig bake sale, and perhaps the highlight – the We Animals reading at the Ottawa Humane Society.  People like Erin and Neil give me faith that we can make a difference.

Glebe Garage Sale, May 2014. We raised a lot of money for Esther the Wonder Pig's sanctuary.

Glebe Garage Sale, May 2014. We raised a lot of money for Esther the Wonder Pig’s sanctuary. Pictured with Josee, who is beginning her second term on the NCVA board.

Another source of pride (and never-ending frustration) is the NCVA Facebook group, which I created at least six years ago.  While I could live without the bickering and complaints, overall it has served as a terrific tool to connect vegans and vegetarians in the Ottawa area.  If you need to know where to find anything vegan-related, just ask it there and I guarantee you you’ll have at least five answers within the next ten minutes.  Friendships have been borne, and so many people have been helped.  I have met so many people through my NCVA work.  I like to say that I know hundreds of vegans, and it’s true. And now those people know each other.  It’s gratifying to know that I played a part in creating so many ties between people.

So in some ways it feels like goodbye, but really, it’s just goodbye to an official, provincially governed role within a non-profit organization. For the past six months I’ve been developing two side businesses, including PlantKind, which lets me continue to focus on vegan education and advocacy, while also hopefully eventually being able to earn some income from my passion.  And of course there’s this blog, which is now one and a half years old.  I’ll be around, it’ll just be in a different capacity.

I am also looking forward to helping like-minded businesses and organizations with their marketing, communications and public relations through my freelance business services.  I have accumulated a wealth of professional experience in this area, and after donating thousands of hours of my time to volunteerism, I do need to now focus on putting a value on my time.

Poster for the Holiday Howl, December 2013, which raised nearly $2,000 for animal rescues.

Poster for the Holiday Howl, December 2013, which raised nearly $2,000 for animal rescues.

To all of you who have volunteered, you have my deepest thanks. And to those who have become a part of our community, thank you as well.  We have built something real, something tangible, and I hope everyone can take a moment to appreciate that and consider the ways that you can contribute into the future. Each and every one of you has the potential to be a part of this, and not only do the animals need you, but your community does as well.

I truly believe that focusing on vegan retention is critical, and that creating that social infrastructure to support fledgling vegans and vegetarians makes a huge difference.

Best of luck to the new board. May your experience be as deeply fulfilling as my own.

Antiquated Canadian government regulations threaten vegan food manufacturer

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The impact of antiquated  government labelling requirements are disproportionately punitive to small manufacturers, discouraging innovation, and favours unhealthy animal-based products.

Lynda Turner, owner and founder of Zengarry Cashew Cheeses.

Lynda Turner, owner and founder of Zengarry Cashew Cheeses.

This is highlighted by the Canada Food Inspection Agency’s recent crackdown on a tiny Ontario company specializing in manufacturing vegan, dairy-free cashew “cheeses.” That company, Zengarry Cashew Cheeses, now faces weeks of bureaucratic wrangling that will at best hold up its expansion plans and cost the sole owner thousands of dollars, and at worst could shutter the business.

Zengarry clearly labels its products as “cashew cheese” and “dairy-free”. Zengarry was ordered by CFIA to change its business and product name so that it did not include the protected word “cheese,” claiming that cheese must be made from animal milk, and the term “cashew cheese” would mislead consumers.

Meanwhile, other protected words like “milk” and “butter” are commonly used on labels for “peanut butter”, “almond butter”, and “coconut milk” without confusion. The CFIA has not attempted to enforce labelling regulations against such products for use of protected words, and appears to be singling out Zengarry.

While Zengarry owner Lynda Turner was told by CFIA inspectors that they had received no complaints against her business, and her CFIA product testing came back with no concerns, the CFIA ordered her to complete two Corrective Action Plans – one to address manufacturing processes, and a second to address changing her business and product name so that it did not include the protected word “cheese” – within a matter of weeks.

“I received an email informing me that I had to stop using the word “cheese” on my label since my product was not made of milk. I was told that by using the term ‘cashew cheese’ on my label, I was identifying my product as cheese and that it does not meet the cheese compositional standard  under section of B.08.003(1) of the FDR and as such, would be in contravention of section 5(1) of the Food and Drugs Act,” Turner says.

The act states

No person shall label, package, treat, process, sell or advertise any food in a manner that is false, misleading or deceptive or is likely to create an erroneous impression regarding its character, value, quantity, composition, merit or safety.”

Turner, a government scientist on unpaid leave for one year to expand her business, has been diligent to ensure her business complies with relevant laws at all levels of government. She now must drop her expansion efforts and instead grapple with paperwork and regulations that she says are beyond her capacity. even as a bureaucrat.  She says she asked if any resources were available to help small business owners with compliance, and was told that she was on her own.

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A platter of Zengarry Cashew Cheeses. The word “cheese” is currently considered a protected word under CFIA labelling regulations.

“The plans required and the deadline provided are unrealistic for small business owners. The average lay person has no hope of interpreting these requirements on their own,” Turner says. “While I 100% support the objective of securing food safety for Canadians, the process creates an unfair advantage for large industries with deep pockets, and puts undue stress on small businesses trying to produce natural, healthy products.”

Turner has requested an extension to complete the two Corrective Action Plans, as well as to postpone the requirement of a new name and labels as she has thousands of dollars invested in current inventory.

The Plant Foods Council, a new organization that seeks to protect and promote the interests of plant food manufacturers in Canada, and educate the public about eating plant-based foods,  asserts that the traditional animal food products in this category not only enjoy a deep and abiding cultural history with consumers, but also benefit from large government subsidies, powerful trade associations, a favoured bias in current labeling regulations and support from industry-funded nutrition associations.

Health Canada and the CFIA for their part would seem to agree that the regulations require updating: The agencies are seeking feedback on options to change food labels and modernize the food labelling system. Specific options, such as expanding food class names (i.e., “vegetable oil” or “flavour”) are proposed in an online survey for comment that’s available until June 30, 2015.

Zengarry will need to replace thousands of dollars worth of labels if it is required to comply with the June 30 deadline the company was given.

Zengarry will need to replace thousands of dollars worth of labels if it is required to comply with the June 30 deadline the company was given.

Nobody is sure why CFIA has taken such a keen interest in Zengarry, but this not the first time a plant-based manufacturer has been singled out. In 2014, the CFIA forced Seattle-based Field Roast, which makes vegan grain meats, out of the Canadian marketplace. The company was required to reformulate its products to mimic the nutritional profile of animal meat, a long and expensive process.

The Plant Foods Council is asking Health Canada and the CFIA to amend regulations to:

  • Recognize and regulate the term “vegan” as a descriptor of plant-based products.
  • Allow the use of terms like “cheese”, “milk”, and “butter” to describe plant-based products.
  • Remove the requirement that plant-based meats must have the same nutritional profile as animal meats.

“Plant-based products like grain meats, vegan cheeses, and soy milks are now pervasive in the Canadian market place. Food labeling regulations that prohibit calling a product ‘cashew cheese’ or ‘soy milk’ are out of step with the way consumers think about and refer to these foods. Health Canada and the CFIA must take immediate steps to modernize labeling regulations to reflect this reality and end the discrimination against plant-based foods,” says Camille Labchuk, a director of the Plant Foods Council.

Anyone who is interested in protecting the innovative and delicious products that vegan and vegan-friendly business are providing should fill out the survey, and consider joining the Plant Foods Council either as an individual member, or as a manufacturer.

On the Yulin dog and lychee festival

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There has been a lot of buzz in the media about the Yulin dog and lychee festival in Guangxi, a south-western province of China, for the past few weeks.  It is thought about 10,000 dogs (and cats) would be killed during the festival for their meat, which is a delicacy there.  People – Westerners in particular – have denounced the festival, and tried to stop it from happening.

I learned today that despite the worldwide outcry, the festival went ahead.  Ten thousand innocent lives were lost, all in the name of satisfying tastebuds, and celebration.

The creature who I love most in this world is a dog.  Freyja is very special to me and having lived with her for three years now I have witnessed how unique and individual she is. I would do anything to protect her, and am acutely aware of how wholly dependent she is on me for her protection and safety. I also foster dogs, and know many dogs through our park visits. Each and every one of them has his or her own personality; quirks, favourites, things that annoy them, and so on.

The thought of 10,000 Freyjas meeting a horrifying, torturous, and completely unnecessary death makes me feel like i’ve been punched in the gut.

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Many animal activists have fairly pointed out that the Yulin event is really no different from what we in the Western world do on a day-to-day basis to cows, pigs, chickens, and other “farmed animals.”  They also argue that we are taking a culturally imperialist position in protesting the slaughter of some types of animals, while turning a blind eye to the slaughter of other species of animals who share many of the same attributes.

I don’t know enough about the Yulin festival to know whether or not it is uniquely awful, but I do believe that it is probably a lot easier for people who choose to eat animals to protest a faraway festival’s horrors, than to turn a critical eye to the Western habits, customs and celebrations that lead to mass death and destruction on an even larger scale than Yulin.

I think it’s always a good thing when people are sparked in a way that results in empathy and a desire to improve the lot of others.  I would not want to discourage that.

But I do hope that those who oppose the Yulin festival also consider opening their hearts to the billions of farmed animals who suffer a fate not unlike the 10,000 dogs and cats at Yulin.

Each of those animals also has sentience, the capacity to feel harm (and pleasure!), and a desire to live. Some – like pigs – could think circles around dogs. Not that lesser intelligence = lesser right to life is a slippery slope that we should really go down.

I’ve seen lots of debate online about whether or not what happens to the Yulin dogs is worse than what happens to farmed animals. I’m not sure that it’s a distinction that’s really necessary or meaningful.  To me, it comes down to choosing kindness and life, or choosing to end lives unnecessarily.

Very often the passion and urgency expressed by vegans is read by non-vegans as being personal to them. It’s not. It’s my hope that non-vegans will consider how horrifying they find the Yulin festival, and all of the feelings that it evokes within them, and understand that this is not unlike the trauma that vegans experience when considering the fate of farmed animals. I feel like I’ve been punched in the gut when I think too long or hard about their demise, as well.

Be outraged and devastated for the dogs of Yulin, but also consider that similar treatment is doled out in the name of our own traditions and habits on a daily basis.  The difference between farmed animals and companion animals is pretty arbitrary. And know: You CAN make different choices.

In honour of the Yulin dogs, whose immense suffering I cannot even let myself think about, I have donated the shelter “pull fee” for a tiny pit bull girl who was used as a bait dog.  May she spend the rest of her days safe in loving care. <3

The end of an era: Auntie Loo’s Treats closes

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It’s always a sad day when a hard working small business owner closes the doors to his or her business.

But what kind of day does that make it when a trail-blazing, virtuous, culturally game-changing enterprise is shut down?

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When I learned the news about Auntie Loo’s Treats – in a call from Mandi Loo herself – I felt strangely unemotional.  I didn’t cry. I didn’t feel sick. I felt numb.  She needed my help, so I was strong for her.

Now at the end of a day of seeing tributes roll in for this magnificent punk rock bake shop – the first vegan bakery in Eastern Ontario – I feel gutted.  It’s like re-living ZenKitchen all over again (I still choke up a bit when I drive by).

mandi loo 2

While my personal shopping habits tend to revolve around the Auntie Loo’s-type businesses of the world, I’m reminded that many people’s still don’t.  And that’s a big part of why so many of them fail.

Grab a well-designed package off the shelf.  Look for the cheapest option, not the best or most ethical product.  Complain loudly at the slightest mistake when it’s a small business because we feel we’ll be heard, but let it slide when it’s a conglomerate, perpetuating the tyranny of mediocrity and the race to the bottom.

The birthday card my colleagues made for me, December 2014.

The birthday card my colleagues made for me, December 2014.

Auntie Loo’s Treats has contributed profoundly to the development of a vegan culture here in Ottawa.  While Mandi herself is a deeply passionate ethics-based vegan, it manifested itself in the most positive way possible: Cupcakes and treats.  She was a legend in Ottawa for her birthday bashes, and her pop up diners – at which she would serve vegan comfort food classics – were hotly anticipated.  The wedding cakes that came out of the bakery were masterpieces.

Her brand of outreach was to feed people so that they’d smile. She opened countless minds to the possibility that vegan food could be not only edible, but delicious.  She truly became Ottawa’s lovable vegan Aunt, who happened to also be tough as nails and pretty in pink all at once. She’s a hustler, a connector, and a maven all at once.

She helped to make vegan seem… cool.

That’s to say nothing of the rest of her crew. Miss Kate, cake artist extraordinaire and crazy cat lady, Little Jo Berry,  a living doll, Darcia (who I did not know well), and various other staff who served bakery customers with trademark enthusiasm and zest. I hope that other businesses snap these ladies up.

mandi loo 1I am fortunate to count Mandi among my close friends, and I know she’ll bounce back. But I also know she’s in a world of pain right now. It’s the end of the era. When ZenKitchen folded last year, Mandi was among the first to offer her help in the resurrection campaign. That’s just how she is, always supporting others.

I know that the business has had its ups and downs, especially the past while.  Despite what I imagine must be crushing devastation, I hope that Mandi feels a small shred of relief that the merry-go-round has ground to a screeching halt.

And I hope that we can all give her our support, followed by some breathing room, so that she can find the next way to make her mark.

RIP Auntie Loo’s Treats, but Vive Mandi and her amazing team. xo

Finds from Ottawa Veg Fest

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Wow! What a weekend!

The sixth Ottawa Veg Fest was held this past weekend, June 6-7, and the organizers knocked it out of the park.  Words and even photos can’t possibly describe the amazing energy that characterized the event.  It was consistently busy, attendees were happy, exhibitors were happy, and all-in-all it was a terrific showcase of the vegan lifestyle (as well as some peripheral elements.)

This year I had several roles at Veg Fest, none of which included organizer. I was an exhibitor (PlantKind and Live the Smart Way), I was an attendee, and I also delivered a surprise cooking demo!  I was asked with about 24 hours notice, and ended up giving a humourous demonstration of mango summer rolls with peanut dipping sauce. I’ll post that as a separate post soon,

Our PlantKind booth was hopping! We gave people who signed up for our blog a sample of Kyle and Jane’s simple lentil dahl recipe – a nod to our “Vegan Living, Simplified” tagline.

plantkind team veg fest

I was disappointed that some of the local veg hot spots were not represented at Veg Fest – it is a community event as much as a marketing opportunity, so big props to The Table Vegetarian Restaurant for its enduring support – but the event was definitely not lacking for great food!  On Saturday I forgot to take photos of what I ate. I had some of our lentil dahl, a Jamaican patty from Strawberry Blonde, and some amazing oat-based ice cream – fried banana and walnut – from Oat & Mill.  On Sunday, I bought a Caribbean platter and patties from Baccanalle for later (it was fantastic!), and then ate a decadent mac and cheese platter (three cheeses!) from Nona Vegan Foods. 

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Some of the other things that I picked up include:

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Squirrel spatulas from La Belette Verte

Butter Me Up moisturizer from Demes

Lip Colour from Penny Lane

Nettle mint stevia tea from Take Charge Tea

I haven’t tried everything yet, but I am so excited to do so!  There were also lots of products that I buy regularly that I didn’t happen to purchase at Veg Fest, such as Zengarry Cashew Cheese, Garlic Garden Hummus and Nelakee meats, and organizations that I support like Rideau Carleton Wildlife Sanctuary and the Ottawa Humane Society (I worked with them on a co-branded brochure about veg lifestyles).

Why don’t you share your finds now? :)

Six reasons not to miss the sixth Ottawa Veg Fest

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We’ve come a long way, baby.

Exactly six years ago today (May 31, 2009), the first Ottawa Veg Fest was held at the Glebe Community Centre. I was there; I was one of its co-founders. Corrie and I wanted to have a vegan festival like we’d attended in Toronto, to showcase all the great vegan products and services that we loved, and weren’t going to sit back and expect someone else to step up.

So through sheer grit and determination, Ottawa got its Veg Fest. We had no idea how many people would come – a few hundred, we thought hopefully? – and were stunned as more than 2,000 people poured through the doors.  Not bad for a promotional budget of $0. It was an early lesson for me of the power of social media.

Volunteers from Ottawa Veg Fest 2009.

Volunteers from Ottawa Veg Fest 2009.

This coming weekend, June 6-7, will mark the 6th Ottawa Veg Fest.  It’s now a two day event held at the RA Centre, and has nearly three times the number of exhibitors as the inaugural event.  I am no longer an organizer, but I am so proud to see how big it has become.  The best part is that many of those people are not vegan or vegetarian, but have come out because they want to learn more about kinder, healthier alternatives!  All the info you need is here: www.vegfest.ca 

Here are six great reasons to attend Ottawa Veg Fest 2015:

1. The Speakers

NCVA volunteers have lined up a fantastic roster of speakers, speaking on a range of topics. From internationally renowned cookbook authour Dreena Burton, to world traveler Kristin Lajeunesse, to pig father Steve Jenkins, to Ottawa vegan athlete Kyle den Bak, there’s great information at your fingertips from the experts.

2. The Cooking Demonstrators

The cooking demonstrators showcase a great variety of culinary talent; from Ethiopian to raw foods to gluten-free baking and beyond.  And you really don’t want to miss the demo by Auntie Loo, where she’ll reveal her top secret scone technique!

For a full listing of speaker/demo times visit www.vegfest.ca).

3. Learn Not Just Why, but HOW 

Veg Fest is basically like vegan immersion, or a vegan starter kit.  Many people want to reduce or eliminate the animal products that they’re consuming, but are hung up on figuring out HOW. If you don’t know how, you surely won’t succeed, and there’s all kinds of pseudoscience and complicating misinformation floating around, especially on the internet.  There are the speakers, cooking demos and food, but also the 31 Day Vegan Challenge led by registered dietitian Susan Macfarlane. Stop by the PlantKind booth to chat with medical and educational professionals with more than 30 years of combined vegan experience.  Also learn about household products, cosmetics, cleaning products and more that are cruelty-free and vegan. It’s all at Veg Fest!

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4. Source Allergy-Friendly and Ethical Products

Not only can you find vegan alternatives, but Veg Fest also tends to attract businesses that make products for all kinds of allergies and sensitivities.  Overall, there’s a much stronger awareness and sensitivity amongst product manufacturers that serve the vegan community. At Veg Fest you’ll find gluten-free, nut-free, soy-free options, and more.  Also, there are products that you can truly feel good about purchasing, such as fairtrade clothing from Adorit and coffee from the Barking Barista, which helps dogs in need.

5. Show Ottawa that Vegans are a Consumer Group Worth Serving

If as vegans we don’t even support our own vegan events, we can’t expect other businesses to provide vegan options for us.  So if you’re vegan, come to Veg Fest to show some love to the businesses that serve you and make your life easier and more delicious, and if you’re not vegan, come and see what all the fuss is about!  Some of the alternatives will surely blow your mind, AND you’re supporting great people who are trying to make our plates a little bit kinder. Which leads me to…

6. The FOOD!

Oh right. The food!! If you come to Veg Fest hungry I can guarantee you won’t leave that way.  Restaurants that will be serving food include The Table, Asian Stars, SimplyRaw Express, La Belle Verte, and The Tea Party, but some of the real fun starts with the speciality food vendors. From Magic Vegan Bacon Grease, to maple floss, to Zengarry Cashew Cheese, to Garlic Garden Hummus, to Oat&Mill oat-based ice cream, this is the place to find innovative plant-based alternatives.  It’s a far cry from the boring options I had as a new vegan more than a decade ago, so take advantage!

What’s your reason for coming to Veg Fest?

 

From Auntie Loo's

From Auntie Loo’s

 

Vegan omelette with Zengarry Cashew Cheese.

Vegan omelette with Zengarry Cashew Cheese.

The Secret to my Transformation: Revealed!

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(I posted this yesterday to http://www.plantkind.ca but didn’t want my Mindful Mavens readers to miss it!)

Ten years ago, I was about 30 pounds heavier than I am now.  I was 25 years old, sluggish, struggled to stay awake, and experienced frequent muscle spasms.  I would often spend up to 12 hours at my desk.

Within a six month period, I lost those 30 pounds. But more than that, I have kept the weight off for more than eight years – the vast majority of people who lose weight put it right back on within a few years.

2005 and 2007
Age 25 and 27
May 2015. Age 35
May 2015. Age 35

People who have seen the before and after photos have commented that I look like an almost entirely different person and want to know what is my “secret” for transforming how I look.  I am finally ready to share the answer.

2005 and 2007
Age 25 and 27
Running on a hot day. May 2015.
Running on a hot day. May 2015. Age 35.

So how did I do this?  I wish I could tell you that there was a specific diet or a fad exercise regimen that I followed, or that it was a certain supplement or diet pill.  I didn’t join an international weight loss program, or even a local one.  I didn’t join a gym even.  I didn’t start eating foods that are known to “blast fat,” or eliminate gluten.  I didn’t start dropping my paycheque on superfoods, and I didn’t participate in a single detox or cleanse.

I’m not even going to try to claim that it was going vegan that did the trick. That wouldn’t be true.

It was changing my diet and exercise habits, and keeping them changed. I overhauled my life, with the goal of setting a positive example of a healthy and happy vegan.

I started exercising – modestly at first, on an elliptical trainer in my basement, followed by starting to run, which i have done consistently now for eight years.  A couple years later I added in ultimate frisbee, and snowshoeing in the winter. I walk my dog(s) every day.  Occasional yoga and strength training are also part of my routine (although the latter should be a more regular part, admittedly.)

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I do not have washboard abs, but I am happy, healthy, strong and comfortable in my own body.

But I also changed my diet.  This was not an overnight process, and I tried lots of different variations (yes, even some superfoods!), ultimately settling on a diet that is whole foods centred, but with the occasional treat, fake meat, or fried food thrown in for good measure.  I eat a mountain of fruits and vegetables every single day, with starches (like sweet potatoes, rice, quinoa, and yes, some bread/pasta) and lean vegan proteins.  I allow myself unlimited fruits and veggies, but keep an eye on the portions for the others. I rarely drink alcohol, but it’s not off-limits. Nothing is really, aside from animal bodies and ingredients.

I also jealously guard my sleep time, and am getting better at removing the things from my life that do not serve me, thus reducing stress.

That’s it. I know, it would be more simple if we could pop a pill or do a two week detox and voila!  Who knows, maybe you can lose weight that way, but is weight loss really the objective?

It wasn’t for me. I realized at the ripe age of 25 that my habits were not serving me well, and that I should feel a lot better than I was feeling.  In fact, I don’t think the objective should ever be losing weight.*  The objective should be to develop good habits that result in a stronger, happier and healthier you. If weight loss results, so be it.  It was one of the side effects for me, along with about a million other physical and mental benefits that accompany good health and fitness habits.  (*Unless ordered by a qualified physician or medical professional.)

People have suggested that I offer counsel to others, but I have been reticent to do so as I lack professional qualifications. I simply do not have the knowledge of the human body that’s needed to offer this kind of advice to people.  But I could see people struggling – fixating on micronutrients and seeking a silver bullet that simply doesn’t exist.

But it was that encouragement which led me to form PlantKind.  I decided that I would partner my communications, outreach and community building skills with those who ARE qualified and share my vision, and bring the best of all worlds together.  Kyle brings his background in education, being a vegan chef, and years of experience as a personal trainer. Susan is a registered dietitian who recently completed her studies to earn a Master’s Degree in human nutrition. And Jane is a critical care cardiac nurse who counsels patients during her day job. She also happens to have a degree in human kinetics – the science of the human body.

Stay tuned, because we are working hard to be able to offer vegans and vegan-curious people everywhere our advice and support for being healthy and well.

Nothing I am doing is anything that can’t be done by an average person.  I was not raised playing sports and being athletic.  And my diet was a lot of frozen entrees and Kraft dinner.   You don’t need to become an elite athlete or eat a perfect micronutrient-quantified diet.  Just move and adequately fuel your body.

Effective Animal Advocacy: A Guide

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I wrote recently on the PlantKind blog about advocacy, and a few people commented that they are sometimes overwhelmed by all of the suffering that animals endure, leaving them unsure how to advocate for them effectively. It’s a feeling of helplessness to which many can surely relate.

I don’t have all the answers, but I do not subscribe to the notion that all advocacy is good advocacy. It is important to consider what will resonate with those whose opinions and actions we seek to influence, otherwise our actions could hinder rather than help. It is about the people who we want to impact positively, and the animals, NOT us.

Here are what I believe to be sound starting points for being an effective advocate for animals and veganism.

Companion animal rescue is one of my chosen areas of advocacy.  Even within that, I have realized that there are certain things I simply can't do effectively, and have had to condition myself to live with the fact that I can't save everyone.

Companion animal rescue is one of my chosen areas of advocacy. Even within that, I have realized that there are certain things I simply can’t do effectively, and have had to condition myself to live with the fact that I can’t save everyone.

Know what you want to achieve.  Often advocates for animals experience a sense of helplessness and urgency;  consequently their social media feeds become a long and scattered list of graphic images, hyperbolic expressions, and seemingly random news articles on a wide range of peripheral issues. The result is that those who are still reading do not come away with a clear message, and are likely to be confused about where to focus. I know when I am taking in a message (or an advertisement, or infographic), and don’t know upon what to focus, my response is often to simply tune out.

And then act accordingly.  Think about what you hope to achieve with your advocacy, and then line up your messaging and tactics to accomplish your objectives.  If your goal is to help people to become vegan, then focus on the things that will accomplish that. If your goal is to “normalize” veganism, then align your actions to that. (The two things I just mentioned are my primary focus.) If your goal is to end circuses, build your activism around that – but don’t expect anyone to take away a “go vegan” message.

Accept that you can’t do everything.  Aside from avoiding confusing messaging, having a goal and objectives – and sticking with them – can also help with the sense of futility that can overtake advocates.

Pick your battles.  Along the same line as accepting you can’t do everything. This applies to both issues, and situations.  Do not waste your time and energy on “battles” that cannot be won (this is why I do not spend my time proselytizing on animal agriculture sites, for example.) Just tune out the stuff that you can’t influence or change.

Set a good example.  Most mainstream people will meet only a handful of vegans, and if you’re one of them, try not to perpetuate the negative stereotypes.  They may not be fair or always accurate, but perception is reality.  This doesn’t mean you have to blend in with the scenery, but it does mean that people are more likely to take you – and your messages – seriously, if you are relatable, likeable, and leave a good impression.  Share your light; don’t snuff out others’.

Be kind, but assertive.  You absolutely don’t need to roll over or give your endorsement to actions that you consider to be ethically problematic, but remember that people don’t remember what you do nearly as often as they remember how you made them feel.  Open people’s minds to new ideas but leave shaming and aggression out of it.  When you’re sharing information that people will find troubling, try to do so in a way that is mindful of how people will receive that information.

You don't have to protest to be advocating for animals. I realized years ago that my strength is building community, not telling people that they're wrong. One of the reasons there are so many ex-vegans is because they lack support. I've made it a big part of my personal mission to provide that support. This photo is from a recent PlantKind meet up at Hareg, which also served the objectives of feeding people and supporting enterprise that provide products and services for vegans.

You don’t have to protest to be advocating for animals. I realized years ago that my strength is building community, not telling people that they’re wrong. One of the reasons there are so many ex-vegans is because they lack support. I’ve made it a big part of my personal mission to provide that support. This photo is from a recent PlantKind meet up at Hareg, which also served the objectives of feeding people and supporting enterprise that provide products and services for vegans.

Feed people – and yourself.  Don’t hesitate to introduce people to vegan food, or suggest a veg restaurant for a meal out. Sometimes eating at a non-veg friendly place is unavoidable, but be proactive with suggesting an alternative. Every time others see you eating something delicious, rather than picking at a crappy salad, it makes veganism seem more realistic and less like a big sacrifice.

Remember that it’s about the animals.  This cuts both ways. On one hand, we are their voice, and to advocate for them we need to speak up, even if it’s uncomfortable for us and those to whom we speak.  But if you do so in a way that is kind and informative, no matter how others respond to your message, you have planted the seed. On the other hand, it can be easy to let ego and passion get in the way of being an effective advocate.  Next time you want to lash out at someone – particularly someone who is already partly there, but could maybe use some further guidance and understanding – stop and ask yourself if that’s really going to  accomplish anything aside from alienation and hurt feelings.

If Kyle didn't proudly declare his veganism, how would people know that vegans can be healthy, strong, compassionate, and run marathons in less than three hours?

If Kyle didn’t proudly declare his veganism, how would people know that vegans can be healthy, strong, compassionate, and run marathons in less than three hours?

Find your safe spaces. It’s okay to be angry and frustrated.  The things that are happening to animals are truly horrific.  But consider limiting your expressions of these things to others who are like-minded and who can support you, rather than those to whom you are hoping to win over.

Don’t be afraid to use the “V” word.  It’s true that there is baggage attached to the label. But after doing all of these other things to make a good impression and change people’s hearts and minds, how are we ever going to change people’s perceptions of the word vegan if we don’t wear it with pride?

 

Substance Over Style: Cheap and Filling Vegan Eats in Ottawa

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I used to be a bit more of an experiential eater.  I wanted it all – innovative yet healthy cuisine, generous portions, served in a serene (or trendy, or upscale) atmosphere.

These days, eating out is more about avoiding cooking than it is about creating a memorable experience.  It’s just the nature of having a life in which I pack in a lot to each and every day. But eating well and eating delicious things are still important to me, and fast food is barely an option as a vegan; even if I wanted it, it’s all meat and fried foods.  Plus, I prefer to eat at locally-owned restaurants.

When I’m looking for a place that puts substance over style – generous servings, packs a nutritional punch, AND doesn’t leave a huge dent in my wallet – these are my top picks.  Incidentally, they also take you on a bit of a world tour of culinary delights.

Photo by Jane Kearnan den Bak

Photo by Jane Kearnan den Bak

Hareg  (Ethiopian)

587 Bank Street

This adorable restaurant was recently “discovered” by Ottawa vegans and is loved for its authentic and delicious all you can eat vegan buffet.   I am so enamoured that I’ve created a verb; we don’t eat at Hareg, we simply Hareg.   It’s super healthy, but also incredibly delicious.  The hot buffet alone has 16 different dishes.  The redder they are, the spicier they are.  My favourites are the spinach, the split peas, the green lentils, and the potatoes and carrots.  The price is more than fair (about $10-11), and the all-vegan buffet is available every day of the week.  For the uninitiated, you eat with your hands at Ethiopian restaurants, using sour injera bread.

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Ceylonta  (Sri Lankan)

403 Somerset Street W.

Ceylonta serves authentic Sri Lankan cuisine.  Much of the menu is vegan, or can be easily made vegan upon request including the veg thali, some dosai, the rotti, and many appetizers.  The food is relatively inexpensive, and very filling. The veg thali is enough food for two moderately hungry people (like my husband and I) if you also have a couple of appetizers, and is one of Ceylonta’s signature dishes.  Tamara who works there is especially knowledgeable about veganism. There is an all you can eat lunch buffet on weekdays for $12.99 that is about ⅔ vegan, and they’ll make you vegan rotti upon request.  There’s also a location on Carling, but I’ve never been to it.

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Flavours of the Caribbean  (Caribbean)

259 York Street

Flavours of the Caribbean recently re-opened after nearly six years closed! It’s run by the charismatic Frederick and his two charming sons, and is currently open seven days a week.  It is noted for its vegan roti, including tempeh, tofu, chana, vegetable, sweet potato and potato. You can also get the roti as a platter, and many of the sides (such as fried plantain) are vegan and delicious. There is limited seating available and it does fill up on a weekend evening.  This place is not particularly fancy or modern, but it’s homey, and it has a chilled out ambience.  I will sometimes buy a couple of tempeh rotis, and eat half of them at once for lunch along with a smoothie or fruit/veggies.  The most expensive one is something like $11.

Pad Thai

Pad Thai

Asian Stars  (Asian Fusion)

1380 Clyde Avenue

Tucked into the side of a business complex and a Denny’s, Asian Stars has a separate vegan menu with about 20 dishes, and daily vegan specials.  It offers huge bowls of soup, delicious appetizers, and a range of stir fry and noodle dishes that include a choice of faux meat or tofu.  The food is very fresh and beautifully presented.  Don’t miss trying the pad thai, the kung pao tofu, and the Thai tomato soup.   The spring rolls and summer rolls are also excellent, although leave them out if you’re trying to be on the cheap.  The pad thai is enough for two small-ish lunches, much like Flavours’ roti.  Its decor is efficient and clean, and the staff are very friendly.  They are so cute and eager to please. Your meal is served with ice water or jasmine tea (when it’s cold out).

blog house of targHouse of Targ  (Polish)
1077 Bank Street

House of Targ is actually a basement pinball arcade. It’s dark and loud, and doesn’t have much ambience. BUT, they make special vegan “cheddar bacon” perogies, which are served with a side of cashew dill “sour cream.”  Those are available on the evenings that HofT is open, but the real value can be found with their brunch.  On weekends, House of Targ has a vegan brunch platter; for only $12 you get six perogies with the fixings, toast, a fruit cup, and unlimited coffee (juice or tea also available.)  It’s super filling, and there are no additional drinks or desserts to tempt you and raise the bill.  Plus, a scary dude announces your order through a megaphone when it’s ready.

What are your favourite vegan food value picks?

On burnout – and recovery

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Those of you who follow this blog may have noticed that my posts have been few and far between for the past while, especially the past few months.  It’s time to share what’s been going on with me.

One of my areas of responsibility  with terra20 was media/PR.

One of my areas of responsibility with terra20 was media/PR.

On March 10 I was laid off from my job at terra20.  It came as a complete surprise to me. While there had been challenges, as there are with any job, not working for terra20 had seemed like an impossibility.  I had put my heart and soul into it, and become a walking and talking billboard for the company and its values.  Furthermore, I had dropped my other side contracts, and hadn’t even been perusing job boards.

I was both terrified, and completely knocked off-kilter.  Because it wasn’t as though when it happened, everything else was going just great.  Mooey had just passed away, and the six months prior to that had been among the most difficult periods of my life.  In late October, after consistently sliding backwards for several months (and after years of fending it off), I burned out.  Hard core, for real, burned out.  I’ve had periods in the past when I’ve come close, but have always managed to pick myself back up and keep trucking along. This time was different.

It was an accumulation of things, touching on every facet of my life: personal, professional, financial, extra-curricular. Especially the latter.  I had tried to reduce my commitments, but always managed to top them up again, even adding more while becoming less fulfilled and able to make time for the things I really wanted to do, and more resentful.

The balls in the air that I had carefully juggled for so long started to drop. I felt increasingly frantic as I sensed it happening, but it was as though I could only move in slow motion, sort of like running as hard as I could in water.  Then several things simultaneously came to an abrupt end, creating a huge void but also creating the pressure release that I needed to just…stop.

I knew it was coming – I could feel it for months – but figured I’d be able to cope, to bounce back quickly, since I always had in the past. I tried to hit the pause button, by taking a few extra days off work and trying to breathe, and to clear the growing pandemonium in my head.  But it had finally caught up with me, and it was time for me to face things head on.

I posted this to my Facebook on Oct. 25. It received more positive responses than anything I’ve ever posted.

After a great deal of consideration, I’ve made the much-needed decision (at the urging of my friends and family) to take an extended hiatus from volunteering, and begin an intensive period of self-care.

My constant companion, and source of love and strength.

My constant companion, and source of love and strength.

I’ve given a lot of myself over the past seven years or so, and have had so many wonderful experiences. I consider volunteering to be paying my rent for living on this earth and using its resources, so it was difficult to accept that I badly need this break. I’ve tried doing it piecemeal, but I keep getting drawn back in because there’s so much need.

I find the need overwhelming, and at times it breaks me down. I’ve ridden out periods of burn out and rebounded and kept going, but the burn out I’m feeling now isn’t going away, and I’m realizing that it’s compromising my ability to function in other areas of my life.

I plan to spend the next while focusing on what I need to do to become strong: My physical fitness and health, my mental health, my career, and my family and friends.

I strongly encourage everyone to volunteer, if you don’t already. Find what you believe in, and just do it. The world needs more contributors. I just can’t be one of them for a while.

As commitments evaporated, I experienced a crisis of being. If I wasn’t the person fundraising for animal rescue, advocating for veganism at every turn, and putting in 110% effort at work, who was I?  I felt – for the first time in my life – like maybe I couldn’t accomplish whatever I set my mind to.

Even simple day-to-day tasks felt like they required monumental effort.  I struggled to keep up with even those, while wondering how on earth I had managed to accomplish what I used to in the average week.  I felt like I was drowning.  (I continued to work full time during this period.)

For a while, I found myself struggling to fill the void left by the commitments and activities that I was no longer undertaking.  I was impatient with myself, and frustrated that it was taking me so long to pull it together, and resume my previous pace.  I felt as though time was slipping away as I floated over its passage, observing, unable to reach down, grab it and put it to productive use. Other times I would stop fighting and just yield to it. I sit almost motionless, letting my mind wander, feeling the warmth of my space heater wash over me, and think, “So this is what it’s like to do nothing.”

Around the end of February the fog was starting to lift.  I was becoming more productive, and could admit that I had desperately needed to slow down, take a break, and hit reset.  The personal work I was doing, with the help of a psychotherapist and the support of my friends, was taking hold.  I was still frustrated by how long it was taking, and that I couldn’t force the outcome that I wanted, but I could see light at the end of the tunnel.

With Kathy Smart and China Doll.

With Kathy Smart and China Doll.

And then I received what I thought would be the proverbial knock out punch – being laid off. But something amazing happened. It didn’t knock me out. Instead, it filled me with ambition and kicked me into survival mode.  I made a website about myself (that felt really strange on many levels).  And the outpouring of support I received from friends, family, acquaintances, and even strangers lifted me during my period of fear and grief.  I am still amazed and flattered by how closely many people have followed my activities and career.

But it was still scary, and I wondered what on earth I would do.  It was the last day of March when someone very special reached down, grabbed my hand, and pulled me to safety.  It was someone who I’d known for several years and considered a friend. As it turns out, I had no idea how highly she thought of me and my abilities.  She put her money where her mouth is, and hired me.

While I had become very strong on my own, Kathy Smart has given me the inspiration and the opportunity to soar again, even higher than I could have imagined. It’s not just giving me a job.  It’s the way she believes in me, and adamantly encourages me to seek work-life balance. She is so thankful and giving with every interaction. We could all learn a few things from Kathy Smart about how to treat people.

At the wildly successful Live the Smart Way Expo with Kathy and friends.

At the wildly successful Live the Smart Way Expo with Kathy and friends.

So now I am working to help Kathy with building her Live the Smart Way business, mostly on the community development side, but at this point it seems the sky is the limit. Kathy is a star, and in my hour of need, she decided to bring me along with her.

I’m feeling pretty grounded these days. I’m working with Kathy, building PlantKind, working with a few clients on the side, and doing a lot of running, playing ultimate, and spending time with dogs.

Finally, I’m doing things MY way.