Remember When? Reminiscing About The VRG’s Past 30 Years
By Amanda J. Gilley
This upcoming September will mark 30 years since The Vegetarian Resource Group first set out on its journey to promote vegetarianism and veganism. To celebrate this milestone, I interviewed several VRG staff members and volunteers about their most memorable moments with this nonprofit.
Reed Mangels, PhD, RD, is a familiar name within the organization. She has written countless articles for Vegetarian Journal and The VRG website and has contributed to many of the cookbooks that The Vegetarian Resource Group has published. Her most memorable activities with the group have included the ‘firsts.’ She remembers the first VRG exhibit at the annual meeting of the American Dietetic Association (ADA). Reed describes this event, which was held in San Francisco, as very exciting because there were so many “other exhibitors, including the Dairy Council and the Pork Producers Association.” These conferences remain rewarding for her because “so many people come up and tell us that they ‘always’ refer clients to our website and use our brochures.”
Suzanne Havala Hobbs, DrPH, is the Director of the Doctoral Program in Health Leadership at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She has worked extensively with The VRG, contributing to Vegetarian Journal and acting as a nutrition advisor. Her most unforgettable moments also involve the ADA conferences. She remembers one of the meetings when The VRG’s booth was located right beside the National Pork Producers Council table, “a situation that piqued the ire of the two large women perched on barstools at that table.” She also said, “Later in an elevator, two guys from a company promoting steaks asked two of us from The VRG out to dinner. They were befuddled when we said we were vegetarians, and needless to say, there was no date.”
Brad Scott mentioned that The VRG’s Vegetarian Expo 1992 was the most memorable event for him because he organized it. The event attracted 380 guests, with Michael Jacobson, PhD, Executive Director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, providing the keynote speech. There were many booths, cooking demos, free samples, nutrition information, and several presentations. “The one-day ‘conference’ provided me the opportunity to work with many VRG volunteers and staff members both during the organizing phases and obviously on the day of the event,” Brad remembered.
VRG’s Consumer Research Manager/Web Developer John Cunningham also remembers some ‘firsts.’ When he began working at The VRG in August 2001, he read a research article stating that 25 percent of teen girls thought that vegetarianism was cool. John said that watching the changes in attitudes towards vegetarianism has been outstanding. “Back in the ’70s, being vegetarian was a ‘joke,’” he stated. “It was the punchline on sitcoms. It has moved from being thought of as only something strange people do to being thought of as virtuous.” He has seen this change directly through exchanges with various Eleanor Wolff Scholarship hopefuls, and he thinks their passion is a promising sign for the future of vegetarianism.
Mark Rifkin, RD, has worked with The VRG on many projects, but his most memorable activity is Call-a-Dietitian Day. To Mark, this project in particular was incredibly fulfilling because it allowed him to answer questions and clear confusion for those who are vegetarian or vegan and those who have been considering a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle.
Heather Gorn says that one project that stands out for her is VRG’s Guide to Fast Food and Quick-Service Chains. This is a long-term project that involves VRG researching menu items at fast food and quick-service chains to determine which are suitable for vegetarians and vegans. “This project has meant a lot to me personally because I spent a lot of time helping to update it when I was younger,” she said. “It really taught me how to do research and gave me tremendous insight into the complexities of food ingredients.“But besides this, the effects of this project were felt nationally and internationally when one of our researchers confirmed that the French fries at McDonald’s were made with natural flavorings from an animal source,” she stated. “This information was reprinted in the best-selling book Fast Food Nation as well as in Atlantic Monthly and resulted in a class-action lawsuit against McDonald’s. The research continues, and we also now publish the latest updates on our blog, Facebook page, and Twitter account.”
Saurabh Dalal, President of the Vegetarian Society of DC and a volunteer for the International Vegetarian Union (IVU), feels that The VRG, as its name suggests, has been a tremendous resource since its founding 30 years ago. “My strong affinity for the group comes not only from their prompting and supporting my choosing to become vegan in 1991, but in the consistent and dedicated effort of providing well-thought-out, practical information, tools, and guidance,” he said. “From supporting inspaniduals’ changes and the groups who promote change in turn, The VRG helped lay the groundwork for so many other groups today. VRG continues to do the hard, day in-day out, grassroots work that truly helps create meaningful change towards a vegan world.
“Undoubtedly for me, the personal friendship that I developed with VRG Co-Directors Debra and Charles, as well as with so many members of VRG’s team of educators and activists over the years, always stands out in my mind,” Dalal continued. “It is absolutely this type of interaction with many people and organizations that will lead to further, powerful successes in time.”
Thinking back through 30 years of memories, each person I interviewed described their most memorable moments with obvious joy. Reed remembers her first pre-Thanksgiving potluck as delivering happy emotions. She had never really known other vegetarians, and to be at a vegetarian feast with an assortment of amazing people was really pleasant and welcoming. In fact, she says she still smiles when she remembers how happy she felt that day. John grinned thinking about the interns who have brought their spirit and motivation into The VRG office. And Suzanne remembers the milestone of blessing the group with a name. Even though her idea for a name was not chosen, she finds it “hard to imagine it as anything but The VRG today.”