Vegan is something of a trendy word these days.
The Economist declared 2019 the year of the vegan, and it seems as though every week some new vegan alternative — from zucchini noodles to watermelon steak to the Impossible Burger, a plant-based patty that bleeds like real meat — is generating millions of clicks on social media.
With the vegan movement gaining a national spotlight, two local women are working to promote the movement right here in South Bend.
Valerie Schey is a local animal welfare advocate, and Rama Ganesan is the founder of Vegan Michiana. Together, the two women work on Michiana Meatless Mondays, a movement to partner with South Bend restaurants on the first Monday of each month to offer a special menu of meatless, plant-based foods.
Since starting in September 2018, Michiana Meatless Mondays have hosted events at several South Bend locations, including South Bend Brew Works, Chicory Café, Purple Porch Co-op and Tapastrie, all for the purpose of allowing local individuals experience vegan dining through the lens of culinary exploration.
“It’s a movement,” Valerie says. “We want to promote the idea people can go one day a week — or more — without meat, and still have a great meal.”
The ways Valerie and Rama came to promote a plant-based diet couldn’t be more different.
Rama is a lifelong vegetarian, who became vegan four years ago after reading the book “Eating Animals” by Jonathan Safran Foer, where she learned about the impact of factory farming.
Valerie, on the other hand, is not vegan. She still eats dairy, chicken and eggs, but embarked on a journey to cut back on her meat consumption a few years ago after a discussion with friends made her realize that she needed to be doing more to make her diet reflect her role as an animal advocate.
One thing the women do have in common is that they believe that a plant-based diet is healthy, ethical and animal-friendly.
“There are so many benefits to a vegan diet, you almost can’t count them,” Rama says.
Rama and Valerie are not the only ones touting the benefits of a plant-based diet.
In a 2019 article by the Lancet, a peer-reviewed medical journal, researchers suggested that veganism is one of the most sustainable diets available, and recommended that global consumption of red meat and sugar decrease by 50 percent by 2050.
Vegan and vegetarian diets can also be beneficial to personal health, according to the Association of UK dietitians. When planned and executed correctly, these diets associated with lower risks of heart disease, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, obesity, certain cancers and lower cholesterol levels. This could be because vegetarian diets are often lower in calories and saturated fats and contain more fiber than non-vegetarian diets.
However, Valerie and Rama said that despite the benefits of a plant-based diet, they know that vegan food has a bad reputation as bland and unappetizing. This is where they hope Michiana Meatless Mondays can come in and change that reputation.
At a recent Michiana Meatless Monday hosted at Tapastrie, Rama and Valerie said that vegan options are no longer as restrictive as they once were as they ate several vegan dishes — including chilled cucumber soup and a black bean burrito — all of which were bursting with color and flavor.
“I think vegan food is amazing. It beats non-vegan food hands down,” Rama says, as she digs her spoon into a chickpea parfait topped with coconut whipped cream. “There is no comparison. There are so many flavors and things you can discover. There is a whole cornucopia that people don’t know about. Vegan food is a chance to discover.”
“At first when I started my journey I thought it was a challenge, but then it sort of became a culinary adventure,” Valerie adds. “I thought we could really promote this in a fun, inclusive way, where people aren’t intimidated by thinking this is an all or nothing type thing. On [Michiana Meatless Mondays] you might not change your life, but you will go in and try new, delicious foods.”
So far, Rama and Valerie say that Michiana Meatless Mondays have received positive feedback from the South Bend community and local restaurants. However, they want to see the Michiana Meatless Monday movement grow and continue to provide fun, meatless food alternatives to the people living in South Bend and surrounding areas. Ultimately, they said their goal is to see more people cutting back on meat and dairy or choosing veganism as a permanent lifestyles choice, whether they are doing so by joining Valerie and Rama on the first Monday of the month for a Michiana Meatless Monday meal or cooking up a plant-based dinner in the comfort of their own home.
“I want to see this continue and to see more people try vegan menu items,” Valerie says. “I hope we can make a difference by offering something fun and inclusive and beneficial.”