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April 15, 2008

Students rise to Vegan Week challenge

There were a number of facts I learned at Try Vegan Week that represented the different impacts of veganism. For example, a lot of pasta is made with eggs in it. Individually, vegans use 300 gallons of water daily, while omnivores use 4,200. And the semen and vaginal secretions of vegans taste better and are more nutritional than those of meat eaters.

The Chicago Vegan Society hosted Try Vegan Week last week to challenge students to try veganism for the week. Free food each night and lectures about the goals and challenges of being vegan were offered to encourage students. Roughly 100 people committed to being vegan for a week, and over 200 attended different Try Vegan Week events.

“The idea is to really break down the stigma people have about vegans and the fright people have about a vegan diet,” said Vegan Society Co-President Ksenia Konkina, a first-year environmental studies major.

I wasn’t frightened of my temporary vegan diet. It just made me angry. The challenge of a pure vegan diet is the most obvious element of veganism. After I had committed myself to eating vegan for the week, I went to Bartlett. Before I even walked into the dining hall, my dietary angst had started when I realized that I couldn’t get my favorite meal, a chicken quesadilla.

Or fried chicken. Or corn muffins. Or pasta.

My fixation on food was appropriate for vegan week. There are so many products that use meat, dairy, and eggs that being vegan requires a great deal of attention to what you eat. As I watched my friends sprinkle chocolate chips on their ice cream, I began to understand what a serious commitment being vegan was.

By Monday night of Try Vegan Week, I swore at my non-vegan friends whenever I saw a sign for pizza. I was ready for some free food and motivation, and I wasn’t the only one. The McCormick Lounge was filled with others seeking the same things, and they weren’t disappointed. There were a number of resources available for short-term vegans: a presentation by environmentalist

and animal-rights activist Mia MacDonald, veganism and animal rights pamphlets, and free vegan paella from the Chicago Diner. The food certainly didn’t taste better than normal food, but MacDonald’s lecture helped. MacDonald spoke about the different ways veganism related to larger social and political issues, which was one of the main points of Try Vegan Week.

“For people here…a successful approach really focuses on tangible impacts of factory farming and flesh consumption,” said Konkina, who felt the week had been a success. “Arguments about morals and ethics don’t resonate on this campus as much as they do on other campuses…. Here it’s really more effective to call out the statistics.”

The social implications of veganism are important, and they motivate many to stick with what can be a frustrating lifestyle choice. “Being vegan is a firm refusal of an industry and practices you feel are wrong,” said one of the signs on the wall, in response to the common accusation that “one person being vegan doesn’t change anything.” The latter was part of a list of the top 13 misconceptions about vegans, along with statements like “All vegans are hippies,” and “Eating meat is natural.” The response to the second argument began, “Have you ever wondered about our natural repulsion to slabs of bloody flesh?”

I actually hadn’t wondered much about that, but I did wonder about the equally natural repulsion to chunks of tofu. However, the reasoning of environmentally conscious vegans was sound, and the reasons that I found for veganism would have been hard to argue against.

“I think a meat diet is too resource intensive. The city I grew up in had a big meat packing plant.… It makes you aware of the resources and land and water that we sacrifice to be able to produce meat on the scale we do,” said Susie Smith, a graduate student participating in Try Vegan Week. Smith normally eats vegan at home and is a vegetarian when eating out with friends.

The personal impact of being vegan was addressed somewhat during Tuesday night’s question-and-answer session in Hutch. I ate falafel and listened as the panel addressed, among other things, one of the most interesting vegan concerns: the nutritional benefits of vegan oral sex. Apparently a vegan’s vaginal secretions and semen contain more Vitamin B-12 than human blood. More practical issues were also addressed, such as why the four members of the U of C Vegan Society who served as panelists became vegans in the first place and what their experiences have been.

“I’m vegan because I love and respect animals; I love and respect any and all animals that feel pain,” said Konkina. “Also, I’m vegan because I love my body. Veganism has been shown to correlate to, over time, lower rates of cancer, heart disease and heart problems in particular.”

Third-year Joe Riina-Ferrie was another vegetarian gone vegan for the week. His reasons for being vegan were mostly environmental. “For me, it’s not that big of a jump [to be vegan for a week],” he said. “I don’t know if I could do it for my whole life.”

I had to agree. Normally a meat-eater, I had to severely restructure my diet for the week. Although I was eventually able to establish a clear diet, my restricted food drove me to french fries, Oreos and vegan brownies.

Try Vegan Week continued with an ice cream social and Korean food, as well as more literature to promote conversion to a vegan diet. The Tea and Pastries event on Friday was accompanied by a screening of Charlotte’s Web and, to my amusement, Styrofoam cups (which aren’t biodegradable).

By then, my vegan rage had mostly abated, and I was able to reflect on Try Vegan Week with a clear mind. I have learned that regular chips at BartMart are vegan, but the Lime style ones are not. I learned that after a vegan week I miss chocolate a lot, and I dream about Harold’s Chicken Shack. I learned that one vegan eater uses up 1/6 acre of land each year, while an omnivore’s average land use is 3 1/3 acres. I also learned that being vegan is possible, and I can now say that I have done it, if only for a week.