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Throwback Thursday: Remembering Why I Went Vegan

I get to reflect on my reasons for going vegan every year on my birthday. You see, I happen to have been born on what would later become World Vegan Day. It seems fitting that World Vegan Day would start in 1994, right around the time I became vegetarian. But I grappled with my feelings on animals as food long before that.

I don’t remember how old I was, I think maybe 5 or 6, but I must have been very young, when it sunk in that my dinner was a live animal at some point. I remember knowing that meat came from animals; I think I even knew that animals had to die to become meat. I remember my sister was telling me that I was eating animal muscle, and that was really gross to me. Before that, I must have had some crazy idea that there was this “meat” section of an animal that was something else entirely. When I was younger, I also thought that all the animals were well cared for on the farm, lived to be a ripe old age and then died, at which point people ate them because you could have some food and burying a cow sure seems like it would be a lot of work. When I had realized that none of this was actually true, that I was in fact eating animal muscle, I decided then and there that I would be a vegetarian. I took matters into my own hands. For the next couple of days, I ate nothing but cheese singles and an orange drink. After I had a barfing fit, my mom told me that vegetarianism wasn’t working for me, and I abruptly ended my brief vegetarian stint. I was sad, but I obliged.

I had a few more touch and go stints with vegetarianism. None of them ever lasted. When I became vegetarian for real in middle school, it was for a very stupid reason. A girl I had a falling out with had just given a speech in class about why she was vegetarian. The 14-year-old diva in me said, “I can be a better vegetarian than her.” Since I had something to prove this time, I had to really commit. I also had the profound realization that it is called “vegetarian” for a reason, that I should probably learn to like vegetables. At that point, I was a bit older and could actually cook for myself. I started eating more salads and put fresh veggies on pizzas and tacos where they were largely absent before. No barfing this time.

In high school, I turned a corner and became vegan. I was working in the local public library, and I had a close friend who ran with the vegan straight edge crowd. He told me to check out a book called Old MacDonald’s Factory Farm. He said that if I was being vegetarian for ethical reasons that I really needed to read it and consider veganism. When I came across the book at work, I had to give it a look-through. I was horrified by what I saw in the book, particularly the pictures. But I was also perplexed; I lived in Wisconsin for crying out loud! How was it that our state could be filled with small family farms and this was still going on? I came to the realization that mass-produced fast foods and processed foods containing dairy and eggs weren’t supplied by the farmhouses lining the interstate; those products came from the factory farms that I saw in the book. So, I gave them the ax.

E.G. Nelson, back in the day (also known as 1994)
E.G. Nelson, back in the day (also known as 1994)

Since I couldn’t know if the eggs and dairy that my parents bought were coming from a factory farm or not, I decided to cut them out altogether too. While I sorted through ingredient lists to see if anything was animal-derived, I also began to notice how many chemicals were in processed food and paid closer attention to nutrition labels. I began to get a clearer picture of what was really in food I was buying, and I began to opt for freshly prepared food whenever I could. I wanted to know what I was putting in my body. This isn’t to say that I never eat junk food, but increasing my awareness of what was in my food definitely had an impact on my consumption. Despite being more particular about my food sources, becoming vegan actually expanded my food horizons; I was eating more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains than ever, and I was experimenting with new styles of cuisine I would otherwise never had known about.

I have now been vegan for more than half my life. A lot has changed since I began back in the nineties. Once limited to a single brand of watered-down soymilk and a mass-produced veggie burger, I now see an amazing array of nondairy milk and meat alternatives from a broad range of producers, all available in the same grocery store. An increasing number of restaurants are offering tasty vegan options beyond the salad bar. Responding to market demand, food producers are becoming more sensitive to food allergens and dietary preferences and are labeling their products accordingly. That’s a big help for someone who chooses an “alternative” diet.

Nevertheless, some barriers, be they real or perceived, can keep people from embracing veganism. To minimize the obstacles, it is critical that those who are veg-inclined continue to share our experiences as well as work towards making healthy food accessible for all. In that way, individuals can proactively make food choices. I write this post just a week after the release of the Minnesota Food Charter, a prescribed road map for policymakers and community members involved in food work in the state. The food charter takes many factors into consideration: who has access to food, how what we eat impacts our health, who profits, how are workers treated, how are animals treated, how far food travels, and how sustainable the system is. My experience with veganism has motivated me to think more deeply about these issues and discuss them long before the release of this document. I still have a lot of unanswered questions, but one thing I do know is that when we talk about our personal experiences with food, we begin to think more deeply about the food system and how it works. Not everyone agrees that veganism is the best practice for animal welfare, the environment, or health, but hopefully in talking about why we eat what we eat, we can begin to identify common values that will help to build a more ethical and equitable food system.

A Vegan Thanksgiving is Here for You!

If I were a turkey on a farm sanctuary, I’d be giving thanks to all of the vegetarians in the world for keeping me off of the menu at Thanksgiving. Wouldn’t you? Or at least, I’d just be thankful to be alive, enjoying life and all of those awesome turkey things I like to do.

Holidays are a time for community, friendship, and family. While many of us enjoy spending time with our families around the dinner table during the holiday season, some of us may also feel a sense of disconnect. Why is that? Since Thanksgiving is the ultimate food-centric holiday with the traditional meal centered around eating turkey flesh, it can be a challenging time for many vegetarians and vegans who want to take part in the festivities.

If you have a family like mine, you’ve probably shown up at Thanksgiving dinner with Tofurky and vegan gravy in tow. Maybe you’ve also whipped up some mashed potatoes, “veganized” with a little vegan buttery spread and nondairy milk. You’re excited to share you cruelty-free cuisine but are met with scoffs and derision. If this has been your experience, please know that you are not alone and that Compassionate Action for Animals is here to offer you a cruelty-free Thanksgiving that you can share with like-minded folks.

Your vision for a truly uplifting holiday celebration will come to life at our 12th annual Vegan Thanksgiving Potluck on Saturday, November 22 from 1:00 to 4:00pm at Matthews Park Recreation Center in the Seward neighborhood of Minneapolis. We welcome all of our supporters, donors, volunteers, families, and friends in the animal advocacy community. Delicious Thanksgiving goodies will abound, and all of the food will be vegan. No scoffing here!

Join us for a chance to make new friends, connect with old friends, and eat…and eat…and eat…and then eat some more! Bring your favorite vegan dish to share with a list of ingredients to place beside it. You may also bring copies of your recipe to share. Feel free to share the Facebook event. This turkey-free Thanksgiving is an opportunity for all of us to come together with gratitude for our growing compassionate community.

Could You See Yourself on the Twin Cities Veg Fest Planning Committee?

Would you like to be a part of the team that plans Twin Cities Veg Fest 2015? We’ll be holding an orientation session for all interested participants. I’ll do a brief presentation on what’s involved in planning the festival. Then, we’ll answer any questions you may have. Food will be provided. If you’d like to attend the orientation, fill out this Doodle form and let us know what times work for you.

You don’t have to attend the orientation to be considered for the festival committee, and you needn’t commit to planning the festival to attend the orientation. It’s just an opportunity for you to learn what’s involved in putting on our annual celebration of compassion. Please check out our  committee position descriptions and our website on how to plan a festival.

We estimate that nearly 2,500 people attended our recent festival, and next year’s festival is going to be even bigger and better. We’re moving to a larger venue, and we hope to expand the festival activities. We’re getting a lot of attention for our  efforts, getting people to think about their food choices and embrace plant-based options. Of course, to pull off such an ambitious undertaking we need the help of committed, enthusiastic individuals like you. Join the team and help make Twin Cities Veg Fest 2015 great!

Chicago VeganMania 2014

Chicago VeganMania hall

It was a feeling of connection, of being in the right place with like-minded people. On Saturday, October 11, about a dozen Minnesotans went to Chicago VeganMania 2014. This event is similar to our Twin Cities Veg Fest in that it has exhibitor booths, cooking demos, speaker presentations—but, well, it’s in Chicago. And it’s a little bigger. The event drew 4,000 to 5,000 people. We arrived early before the doors opened and enjoyed the beautiful weather waiting in line outside as locals handed out fliers and coupons to those in the crowd.

Where do you start at an amusement park? That was the feeling I had. There was so much information, so many things going on all at once. We visited some of the exhibits during the first hour. There were T-shirts, sweatshirts, bumper stickers, soaps, cosmetics, non-profits, toys, popcorn, nachos, and books. One of the book tables was even selling Mistress Ginger’s cookbook! (Mistress Ginger is local to the Twin Cities and gave a cooking demo at our own festival a few weeks ago.)

The hardest part was choosing what to do. Cooking demonstrations, speaker presentations, and panel discussions were all offered at the same time. We sampled a cooking demo – Paleo Vegan by Ellen Jaffe Jones –  to learn how to be “primal.” (I enjoyed a raw veggie salad.) We caught the last few minutes of a presentation with Robert Cheeke, the vegan body builder. (He made me want to go work out.) And we saw an interesting panel on the intersection of animal rights and other causes.

And then it was time for the food court. This is where it really hit home that I was in an all-vegan event in a city with numerous vegan restaurants. How do you choose one meal when a number of restaurants including Ras Dashen Ethiopian and Arya Bhavan Indian are all tempting you with their delicious vegan eats? We could choose from soul food, pizza, kale burgers, vegan buffalo wings, and so much more!  The dessert options included Sandi Swiss cupcakes, Chicago Vegan Foods soft serve ice cream, and Robin’s Frozen Fantasy raw ice cream. How does one choose?! The answer: you eat more than one meal.

Not everyone at VeganMania was vegan. I spent an hour staffing our CAA table and invited passersby to watch the 5-minute video showing some of the horrors of factory farming. One woman sat there sobbing as she watched. At the end, she said, “I’m so glad I’m already vegan.”  Most of the viewers were not vegan but said they wanted to be or were transitioning. The key thing was that many of the 4,000 to 5,000 people were either vegan or showed an interest in moving towards a plant-based diet.

The weekend was amazing not only because VeganMania was amazing but also because Chicago offers numerous vegan dining options abound in Chicago. For example, the after party at Dimo’s Pizza was another opportunity to eating more than once; the vegan slices included a Hawaiian slice, mac and cheese pizza, and even lasagna pizza, with a free vegan brownie for dessert if you posted a picture of their restaurant on social media. I was in Chicago for a total of about 36 hours, during which I ate at three different restaurants AND at the VeganMania food court. (I’m ready for that workout now!)

This weekend felt right to me. Respect for animals was a given. Veganism was normal, and I felt very much at home.

Bring Meatless Monday to the University of Minnesota

Pleading for Meatless Monday

The current state of the University of Minnesota dining halls, while diverse and comprehensive in most aspects, could do much more to encourage and enable a vegan or vegetarian diet. Not only is their lack of veg options a frustrating hindrance to vegetarian and vegan students who are required to purchase a meal plan, but it is also a significant road block for other students exploring the health and global benefits of adopting a plant-based diet.

For this reason, Compassionate Action for Animals has launched an exciting campaign to bring Meatless Monday to University of Minnesota dining halls. Over 146 campuses worldwide follow the guidelines for Meatless Monday, asking students to refrain from consuming meat and reducing the meat served in their dining halls one day a week. We think that the University of Minnesota should join the growing number of higher learning institutions that are giving students the opportunity to explore vegetarian options.

You can help make this campaign successful. Here’s how:

Sign the petition! It only takes two clicks from here to sign, and then you’ll have the option to share the petition via social media. Please do!

Like our Meatless Monday Facebook page! Support our online presence and share the posts with your friends.

Get informed! Learn more about Meatless Monday and understand why it’s such a great thing.

The university will listen if we can show them that there’s a lot of support for Meatless Monday. With the recent Meatless Monday Proclamation for Minneapolis, this campaign is clearly part of a growing trend. Now it’s your turn to show your support. Be an ambassador for the campaign and help spread the word in whatever ways you can. Programs like Meatless Monday support the transition towards a plant-based diet and help to create a more compassionate world for all beings.

Pay-Per-View Pays Off at Twin Cities Veg Fest!

Our pay-per-view outreach efforts at Twin Cities Veg Fest paid off. In exchange for a dollar, almost 200 Twin Cities Veg Fest attendees watched a five-minute excerpt from Farm to Fridge. After viewing this powerful movie exposing the lives of farmed animals, participants received a pamphlet packed with ideas for cruelty-free eating. Through this outreach effort, we can show how everyone has the opportunity to make compassionate choices rather than supporting the industries responsible for millions of animals living and dying on factory farms.

Most participants were speechless after the viewing. Many were shocked but expressed their gratitude. They were not only thankful to have a better understanding of where their meat, dairy, and eggs come from, but they were also thankful to the volunteers who shared the video with them.

Anna and Candace, a couple festival attendees, remarked that the video gave them a lot to think about. Anna eats a vegetarian diet and was moved to consider adopting a vegan diet. She had the opportunity to talk to one of our volunteers about nondairy alternatives to cheese. Candace, an omnivore who cares about the welfare of animals, remarked that she is concerned about the vague and misleading “free range” labels.

Anna and Candace
Anna and Candace

At Compassionate Action for Animals, we value any steps taken towards a plant-based diet. Whether it’s participating in Meatless Monday or having one plant-based meal a day, whenever we choose not to buy meat, eggs, and dairy products, we decrease the demand for those products. As more individuals opt for vegetarian fare, fewer animals will be raised and killed.

Jessica and Ryan, another couple who stopped by the pay-per-view table, have been vegan for a couple years. They initially went vegan for health reasons, but have since realized the ethical motivations for choosing a plant-based diet. Both commented that they feel better as well as stronger. In fact, Ryan is a certified personal trainer and competes as a heavyweight body builder at 250lbs. He said that going vegan was the best thing he’s ever done for his fitness and body building career. He not only feels stronger and recovers faster from workouts, but also feels great that going plant-strong is also the most compassionate choice.

Jessica and Ryan
Jessica and Ryan

If you’d like to get involved with pay-per-view outreach opportunities with CAA, contact Grace Van Susteran at If you haven’t already, watch the video and share with your friends. Videos such as this one are powerful tools for getting others motivated to take action for animals.

Autumnal Comfort – Vegan Cooking with AmyLeo


AmyLeo Barankovich will be serving up some delicious autumn-inspired dishes at Valley Natural Foods at 13750 County Road 11 in Burnsville, MN on Wednesday, October 8, 6:00 – 8:00pm.

If you want to serve a delicious season meal or one for the holidays or simply have a great family meal without spending hours in the kitchen, this menu will delight you, your friends, family, and guests. These classic dishes with a hint of nostalgia will satisfy the desire for comfort food during the cold winter months.

For only $10 (Vally Natural Foods co-op owners) and for $15 (non-owners) you will get:

  • Lots of recipes to take home: Mock Chicken Ala Queen, Sour-Creamed Mashed Potatoes with Roasted Garlic, and Almond-Crusted Pumpkin Pie with Cashew Cream, and Sesame Steamed Kale
  • Samples of all the dishes prepared to eat during the class! You will not leave hungry!
  • 10% off coupon for your next visit at Valley Natural Foods

Register today! 15 people must be registered by noon on Monday, October 6 or the class will be cancelled and all attendees refunded and/or notified.



Throwback Thursday: Remembering Why I Went Vegan

Matt with a chicken

One night in August 1995, I polished off a slice of pepperoni pizza. (Fine! I polished off four or five slices. I was 15 years old, okay?) I went out to a small patch of woods near my family’s house. And for some reason, the image of a pig popped into my mind. It became very clear to me that I had just eaten part of this pig.

Image of the author as a baby
Baby Matt getting frenched by the family dog

What do you do with that?! Nothing in my life had prepared me for that experience. I had eaten and enjoyed meat since I was a baby (see right). I had no idea how pigs were raised. (FYI, most pigs are raised on factory farms with thousands of other pigs. Conditions are, shall we say, not ideal for animals.) I hadn’t known more than one vegetarian in my entire life. All I knew was that a creature who didn’t want to die any more than I did had been killed so that I could have a pizza topping. That just didn’t seem right.

So I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about whether the pig in my mind had “rights,” or whether I’d eat it if I were starving and there were no other choice, or anything like that. I didn’t worry about what I’d eat instead. I just listened to my heart. I stopped eating pigs and cows that night, and chickens and turkeys a few months later.

Going vegan took longer. I knew that dairy cows and laying hens eventually were killed for their meat, which I didn’t like. But after months without eating eggs, I’d crack when the holiday cookies started coming out of the oven. And I never thought I could give up cheese.

Thankfully, I got to see Howard Lyman speak in early 2000. He’s the former rancher who got sued with Oprah for disparaging (read: telling the truth about) beef. After hearing his story, I went vegan and haven’t looked back for almost 15 years.

I love my plant-based diet. I enjoy so many different kinds of foods now that I never would have tried before. I don’t harm the planet as much as I would with an animal-based diet. And by eating plants, I keep animals from suffering and dying.

After almost 19 years without eating meat, I’m struck by how strange a mix this path has been. Several times in my life, I felt really inspired to make immediate changes in what I ate (no cows/pigs, then no chickens/turkeys, then no eggs/dairy). But it took me a while to get to each stage. This keeps me humble, and it helps me remember that even people who think they could never live without meat (or ice cream, or cheese…) might someday shift towards a plant-based diet. And really, even a gradual shift away from eating animals still prevents animal suffering and death. That’s a good thing because the animals that we eat aren’t imaginary, like the pig that put me on the path to veganism. They’re intelligent creatures with as much will to live as ours, and when we see them that way it’s better for them, us, and the planet.

Twin Cities Veg Fest 2014: Fun, Food, and Compassion

Sunday’s third annual Twin Cities Veg Fest was a lot of fun and a lot of work. As usual, I was nervous about the event. This is Compassionate Action for Animals’ largest event. Those of us who planned the event invested months of effort into it, and we want this event to go well for ourselves, but more importantly, for the animals on whose behalf we do this work!

Well, my fears were (as usual) for naught. The event was a smashing success, with around 2,300 people coming to try delicious vegan food, learn more about animal issues, and celebrate compassion. We had a long line of people even before we opened, which was good because Minneapolis city council member Cam Gordon came by to read his Meatless Monday proclamation for Minneapolis. We’re so grateful to Cam for his support on this crucial campaign.

Once we opened the doors, the flood started. Based on the number of bags we gave out, more than 500 people entered in the first hour alone. Needless to say, it was crowded, and there were lines for all the delicious samples and food to buy. I was particularly excited to try a new donut from Glam Doll Donuts. They had a maple bacon donut with vegan bacon from The Herbivorous Butcher. It was delicious.

Continue reading

Twin Cities Veg Fest in City Pages and on Fox 9 News

Word has gotten out! Twin Cities Veg Fest is happening this Sunday, September 28, 10:00am – 4:00pm at Coffman Memorial Union at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. This family-friendly festival is free to attend and offers vegan food, cooking demonstrations, speaker presentations, a variety of exhibitors and more!

We expect to draw 2,500 attendees to our third annual Twin Cities Veg Fest, open to vegetarians, vegans, and omnivores alike. Record numbers! The popularity of this event is evident in some of the press we’ve been receiving:

City Pages recently posted a glowing preview of what you can find at the festival and said that “you’re sure to find something that tickles your fancy.”

Also, one of our four chefs who will be giving a cooking demo at the festival made an appearance on Fox 9 News last week. Mistress Ginger showed how to make a Tie-the-Knot Chocolate-Peanut Butter Pie and managed to veganize anchorman Tom Butler in the process. The self-proclaimed “pink-haired showgirl” will be showing how to prepare three simple yet delicious recipes from her cookbook at the festival at 3pm.

If you can’t make it to the festival on Sunday, be sure to tune in to Fox 9 News at 10:15am that morning as Elise Armani, a CAA volunteer leader, gives a three-minute interview about the exciting new Meatless Monday proclamation for Minneapolis.

What’s more, the Twin Cities Veg Fest Facebook page has nearly 10,000 likes! We are trying to make it to 10,000 by Sunday. Please visit the page, “like” it if you haven’t already, and then share it with your friends.

And speaking of your friends, you had just better bring them to the festival on Sunday. Come one, come all! Come, celebrate compassion!


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