Charles Stahler is codirector of the Vegetarian Resource Group, an organization that works with businesses, schools, and consumers to provide information about and advocate for vegetarian and vegan lifestyles.
Monday, 4 Feb 2002
My day always starts off by answering questions. Today, the Vegetarian Resource Group received an email that began, “I am a junior in high school in Ankara, Turkey and becoming increasingly interested in vegetarianism. For two years I have not eaten a bite of meat, and have become a vegan. When I saw your advertisement for the scholarship, I was very excited, and was wondering if the offer was applicable to all students internationally.”
Thanks to an anonymous donor, the Vegetarian Resource Group will be able to offer $10,000 in college scholarships every year to graduating high school students who have promoted vegetarianism in their schools or communities. We will give two awards of $5,000 each to students who have shown compassion, courage, and a strong commitment to promoting a peaceful world through a vegetarian diet/lifestyle. If you are a U.S. citizen (as the student in Turkey is) and are interested in more information, please visit our website and let your guidance counselors, vegetarian friends, school newspaper, animal rights or environmental group, and others know about this scholarship.
The next question for today, which also came from an email, concerns the clothing company L.L. Bean. The company says it carries a brand of ice skates made from synthetic leather, which is, apparently, made from leftover scraps of leather blended to create a new material. The author of the email had never heard of “synthetic leather.” It was news to us as well, and would certainly make many vegetarians think twice. I asked our intern to call L.L. Bean to confirm the product information (never assume any statement is true just because you hear it!), as well as talk to the cruelty-free mail order companies such as Heartland, Pangea, and Aesop, contact some shoe manufacturers, and check the code of federal regulations. Perhaps at the end of the week Raena will have some information on synthetic leather to share with us. (In the meantime, read up about sources for nonleather products.)
The Vegetarian Resource Group is like the story of the blind men and the elephant: depending on what part of the group you first come into contact with, you get to know us very differently. Some people are familiar with our Vegetarian Journal, while others have used our Simply Vegan cookbook, which has sold over 80,000 copies. Some people — 100,000, to be precise — visit our website every month, and are only familiar with that aspect of the VRG. Dietitians and doctors see us as a professional organization, thanks to our exhibits at conferences of the American Heart Association, the American Dietetic Association, and the American School Food Service Association. Because we do so many different things, I’m lucky to be involved each day in very different projects, as well as administration and fundraising. On the other hand, sometimes I think it would be nice to focus on honing one or two skills.
Today, I’m working on promoting our new Passover book. In earlier generations, many people celebrated this important Jewish holiday by filling an extra refrigerator with cases of eggs. When The Vegetarian Resource Group and Debra Wasserman first offered No Cholesterol Passover Recipes in 1984, we were immediately deluged by thousands of requests. Now, partially due to our influence, there are numerous commercial options for healthier Passover products, such as vegetarian kiske. Whole wheat matzoh is pretty common everywhere and rabbinical authorities have even okayed quinoa for use. Chef Nancy Berkoff has created new Vegan Passover Recipes (suitable for the Eastern European Ashkenazi Jewish tradition, which doesn’t use beans or rice on Passover). Since Passover is in March, we’re rushing to get this book into print and send out press releases. I’ll keep you posted on what happens this week.
Tuesday, 5 Feb 2002
On days like today, I feel like a traffic cop, coordinating the flow of staff and volunteers as they come to me with a host of questions about different projects. My goal is to move these projects forward and to help people accomplish their tasks. Someone in California needs a sales tax number for an outreach booth. A woman in Chicago is looking for a volunteer opportunity. I ask if she would help input data for our “Guide to Natural Foods Restaurants in the United States and Canada,” and she agrees to give it a try. The person who worked on our Passover recipes needs a bill paid. Our intern fills me in on the work she was doing concerning a question on leather. I field several inquiries from people asking about trends and statistics concerning sales of vegetarian foods, and I help our computer person figure out how to deal with the more than 500 emails he received today.
All of the above probably sounds mundane, but the reality is that most organizations cannot function unless someone is handling these kinds of tasks. Sometimes people who love going to protests decide they want to work for the causes they believe in. But a lot of people don’t understand the difference between the daily responsibilities of working for a nonprofit and the “glamorous” weekend activities where someone else has already taken care of the details.
Still, some of the details are fun, too. Today, for example, we received several entries for our student essay contest. I’m trying to read the stories as we receive them so that I’m not overwhelmed when the deadline rolls around. The essay contest is important to me because it gives students a chance to express themselves, helps us old folks remember what kids are thinking, and gives teachers a chance to focus a classroom lesson around vegetarianism. I find that I learn a lot, too.
Today, two statements from two different essays struck me. One teen wrote, “People often make generalizations about me, but…” This is certainly a problem for members of any movement. People make assumptions about you if they know that you are a vegetarian or an environmentalist or a Republican or a business person. So how do you have — and convey — strong beliefs, yet get past those assumptions? Teenagers aren’t the only ones struggling with that problem.
On a different topic, another entrant wrote, “I experience what my heroes in the Old Testament went through. They could not eat unclean meat and after many trials they came to the conclusion that they should not sacrifice animals.” To me, the real meaning of this sentence has nothing to do with religion. It doesn’t matter what your beliefs are or if you have no religious belief. This sentence is a reminder that people’s beliefs evolve. Therefore, we should appreciate the small steps that people take. If someone gives up meat for one day, maybe someday he will become a vegan. If someone recycles today, maybe tomorrow she will take a carpool or public transportation to work. We are all at different points in our lives, and we all have different steps to take. An important reason for me to commit so much to the Vegetarian Resource Group is to teach people that you can have very strong beliefs while still having tolerance for others. Surprisingly, this is a very hard concept for many people to grasp.
My day ends by going out to dinner at a Chinese restaurant with one of our founding members, who is a vegan and a holocaust survivor. He escaped to the United States; the rest of his family went to South America. He recently visited his relatives and wanted to share information on some of the great vegetarian food he ate during his trip. We’ll let our members know about this in case they are traveling. Although you can spend forever discussing the philosophical reasons for being vegetarian or vegan, most people really want the practical information: What is there to eat, and will it taste good? Of course, everyone has different ideas of what tastes good, so one of VRG’s major purposes is to support businesses which provide vegetarian and/or vegan food.
By the way, we ordered vegetarian hot and sour soup, vegetarian wonton soup, tofu with spinach, yuba and mushrooms, and hot and sour seitan. Sound strange? Don’t worry, my vegan three-year-old ordered a more common vegetable lo mein and rice. But he did eat the tofu from my hot and sour soup.
Wednesday, 6 Feb 2002
Today, after responding to emails, glancing at faxes, looking at a grant request, and dealing with some government forms, I had to call the American Dietetic Association. The ADA is a professional organization representing the more than 50,000 registered dietitians in the U.S. To spread the word about vegetarian diets, we give a presentation each year at the ADA’s annual meeting — along with Coca Cola, McDonald’s, beef and pork producers, the trade association for MSG, and so forth. Last year, our presentation was about introducing vegetarian foods into institutions. This session helped encourage dietitians who work in places like colleges and hospitals to serve more vegetarian and vegan options.
The Vegetarian Resource Group would like to ensure that consumers and health professionals have adequate information about vegetarianism and related issues. This would mean being everywhere “the other side” is, but for time and budget reasons, that’s impossible. Just for us to attend one exposition costs about $7,000. For example, a 10-foot-by-10-foot booth at a medical conference can easily cost $1,500 to $3,000. And that doesn’t include the costs of a table, handouts, shipping, and so forth. The total isn’t much money to large industries, but for many nonprofit groups it is. So each day we have to make decisions about what we will and won’t do. You can’t do everything, and the most successful organizations know when to say no.
Each year during the American Dietetic Association annual meeting, we hold a vegan dinner at a local restaurant for dietitians, members, and the general public. Since this year’s meeting is in Philadelphia, I investigated several restaurants near the city’s convention center. After looking at a menu and discussing details with the restaurant, I’m ready to sum up all requirements in a letter and send a deposit check for the gathering, which will be held in October. I’ll pass on the info to our Vegetarian Journal and email editors so they can inform our members. During the summer, I’ll send out a mailing to dietitians and the local Philadelphia media. Because we’re always planning six months to a year ahead (and more), I often feel like I’m living in two different months at the same time.
Working with the restaurant in Philadelphia is an example of how you can bring about change by influencing businesses. This can be done by encouraging consumers to patronize companies that produce vegetarian, vegan, organic, or environmentally-friendly products, or otherwise act according to ethical or social beliefs. In order to help forge some of these bonds between responsible businesses and conscientious consumers (as well as to encourage businesses to produce more good products), we have exhibited at the annual meetings of the National Restaurant Association and the Food Marketing Institute.
In March, we are exhibiting at the Natural Products Expo in Anaheim, Calif. This trade show for the natural products industry is attended by 30,000 retailers, food product manufacturers, wholesalers, and media reps. At the Natural Products Expo, our foodservice advisor will be doing a book-signing and giving a presentation on how stores can meet the needs of vegans. I need to hunt down some food samples for her from vegan companies and arrange for them to be shipped to her in time for the presentation. I’ll start today by emailing companies to ask for the samples. Also today, I need to retrieve forms off the web and register our exhibit, plan for what we are going to ship to the show, and make sure we have our tables and chairs for the booth.
There are many organic exhibitors at Natural Products Expo, which is great for the environment. We know we are succeeding because so many large companies such as Kraft, ConAgra, and Kellogg’s have bought natural foods companies in recognition of how important the market it. It’s great that these companies can make more good products available to more people, but at the same time, many activists are looking closely at these companies’ other practices. Do you buy a good product from a company and thus encourage it to produce other good products? Or do you boycott it because of its other products and policies? Or do you only buy from small companies which can’t reach as many people? People have very different opinions about these issues, but our job is to present the choices and let our members and consumers act on their beliefs.
Thursday, 7 Feb 2002
One of my favorite parts of my job is finding and supervising interns. When I work with interns, I try to help them gain an in-depth understanding of nonprofit organizations, think in sophisticated ways about making change in the world, and learn advanced research methods. Hopefully they can apply what they learn to whatever they do in the future to make the world a better place.
Because we expose our interns to such a wide variety of skills and programs, I often think they learn more here than they would at larger, more “glamorous” placements. It is very time-consuming to interview interns, orient them, and try to teach them as much as we can in a short time. Our payoff, of course, is that we are constantly exposed to fresh new ideas. Our current intern, Raena Blumenthal, hopes to be an environmental writer, so today I’d like to give her a chance to contribute to this entry. (Raena is an avid reader of Grist, so it’s fun for her to get a chance to participate from the other side.)
Thursday, 07 Feb 2002
It’s close to 9 a.m. when I enter the Vegetarian Resource Group’s building and pick up my mail. When I first saw the office, it met my expectations of how a nonprofit organization would look. It was cramped, but well-organized. Bins of envelopes waiting to be mailed filled the main entrance, and the first few covers of the Vegetarian Journal were proudly displayed on the wall. Today, as I head to my desk, there’s a new batch of envelopes waiting to be sent out; glancing at my paper-cut hands, I think to myself how glad I am to have less dangerous tasks to do today.
I read my mail as the computer warms up. Charles Stahler, one of the editors and coordinators of the Vegetarian Resource Group, has given me more news articles and clippings to help me understand the complexities of running a nonprofit organization. Thanks to these readings, as well as to my internship’s up-close-and-personal view of what goes into running a nonprofit organization, I am in constant awe of the people who devote their lives to this work.
For the past two weeks, I have been working on a project that was spurred by a question from one of our readers: whether or not synthetic leather contains leather scraps. Trying to find the answer has been harder than you would think. Many emails and phone calls later, I finally have a response that seems to be based on actual information, not just guesswork. Still, I wonder if this information applies to just one item, just one company’s products, or to all articles labeled as having been made with synthetic leather. More research!
The question posed by the reader could not have come at a better time, because I’m currently working on an article about how to have a vegan backpacking and camping experience. In the article, I discuss, among other things, non-leather alternatives for such essentials as hiking boots.
In addition to my own projects, I work with different members of this small staff to learn the various aspects of running a nonprofit organization. More than anything, I am getting an education on how to multi-task. Today, I’m helping to update a natural foods restaurant guide, the cause of much hand cramping. On the plus side, if I’m ever in Massachusetts, I will know exactly where to find a restaurant that serves vegetarian food.
Everyday I enter this office and am confronted with new and interesting tasks. The experience I am gaining from the Vegetarian Resource Group is not only helping me learn more about vegetarianism; it is also helping me learn how dedicated, hard-working, and organized a nonprofit must be to effectively advocate for its cause.
Friday, 8 Feb 2002
Today got off to a great start: I received notification that we’ve been awarded a grant, and also found out that we’ve gotten additional resources for our annual scholarship. This certainly relieves a lot of stress. Since there is no history of funding vegetarian organizations, obtaining money is difficult.
Notwithstanding the good news, I’d rather be hiking the Appalachian Trail today; it’s a beautiful day outside. But I remind myself that the reason the Vegetarian Resource Group is one of the few vegetarian advocacy groups to survive and thrive for over 20 years is that we stick to our work, even when it means putting responsibility over fun.
Part of our success also comes from figuring out what we can and can’t do. A president of one large vegetarian food company once told me that because the company still had trucks, it was still polluting, and thus “imperfect.” I’d say, do the best you can and don’t expect to be perfect. To quote Hillel: “If I’m not for me, who am I? Yet, if I’m only for me, what am I?” Pursuing an ethical career is a life-long adventure in figuring out the balance between those questions.
Almost all of our staff, volunteers, and supporters have an interest in making the world better. Vegetarianism isn’t really the end goal, but part of a larger view of our role in life. This makes our work very different and much harder than if we were just intent on one objective, such as convincing everyone to be vegetarian or vegan. But that was never the goal of the Vegetarian Resource Group. Its purpose from the beginning was not to convert people but simply to expose them to options and give them practical and scientific information so they could make their own choices.
Our approach is to be willing to talk to and work with the mainstream. Personally, I understand why people should shop in small stores run by collectives and buy from an organic farmer at a farmers’ market. But the reality is that most people shop in supermarkets and eat in restaurants. If you want people to be vegetarian (or buy environmentally friendly products), vegetarian food has to be available in those places. Moreover, people have to know about and buy these food items for stores to keep stocking them and restaurants to keep making them. If you convince someone to buy a veggie burger in a fast food restaurant (I know this makes most of you cringe), it will be easier to eventually convince them to buy an organic sandwich in a locally-owned cafe.
Since you are reading Grist, I know you want to make the world better. Do-gooders need all the laughs we can get, so I’d like to leave you with a good joke, but I’ll end on this serious note instead. Because activists can’t do everything, and are often met with criticism, it’s easy to burn out. Be supportive to others and to yourself. Remind yourself to laugh. Remember that you can’t solve all the problems in the world; you can only focus on the little pieces you’ve chosen to improve. It’s easy to be mean, destructive, and critical. It’s more challenging to work towards a better world. Thank you to all the readers who are doing this in their own important ways.