Vegetarian leaders say Long Island is becoming veggie-friendly

"Sweet and sour chicken," "killer tofu sticks" and a "Philly cheese steak hero" from the Long Island Vegetarian Eatery (LIR photo by Fran Berkman)

When Jennifer Greene moved to Long Island from Vancouver, British Columbia, 17 years ago, she recalled getting puzzled looks from grocery store employees when she asked if they carried soy milk.

Greene, a resident of Bellport, follows a vegan diet—meaning she does not eat meat, poultry, fish or animal products such as eggs and dairy. She is the director of Vegan Long Island, a group with more than 560 members. During her time living on Long Island, she has noticed it has become a much better place for a vegan to live.

“Now you can see in mainstream stores everywhere multiple brands of soymilk,” Greene said. “The difference between when I moved to Long Island and now is remarkable and wonderful.”

Less meat on Long Island?

A poll conducted by Harris Interactive, a market research firm, on behalf of the Vegetarian Resource Group (VRG) shows the percentage of Americans who say they never eat meat, fish or poultry—better known as vegetarians—has increased from 1 percent to 5 percent between 1997 and 2011.

“That’s really amazing, amazing growth if you consider all the advertising there is for meat and dairy,” said Charles Stahler, co-director of the VRG.

While nobody is counting the exact number of vegetarians on Long Island, those with their fingers on the pulse of the vegan/vegetarian community say they have reason to believe Long Island is following the national growth trend.

Greene has counted an average of seven new members per week to the Vegan Long Island group on since the beginning of 2012.

“It just amazes me that I’m not doing any advertising, but people are continually finding my Meetup group and joining,” she said.

Eric Finneran, co-owner of the Long Island Vegetarian Eatery (LIVE) in Seaford, said he also believes more Long Islanders are abstaining from meat. This belief was one of the reasons he decided to open his restaurant.

“If there is no market for something, you can’t sell it,” Finneran said.

"Sweet and sour chicken," "killer tofu sticks" and a "Philly cheese steak hero" from the Long Island Vegetarian Eatery (LIR photo by Fran Berkman)

“Sweet and sour chicken,” “killer tofu sticks” and a “Philly cheese steak hero” from the Long Island Vegetarian Eatery (LIR photo by Fran Berkman)

LIVE opened in December 2011, and according to Finneran, sales have increased each month since. He also said much of the business comes from non-vegans/vegetarians who don’t initially understand that the “meat” menu items are made from flavored soy and seitan, forms of wheat protein.

“I’d say about 10 times a day people will come in here and be like, ‘So wait, the veggie burger is the only vegetarian thing on here?’”  Finneran said. “It’s everyday, like 10 times a day we have to go through the exact same conversation.”

While LIVE is a newcomer to the vegetarian scene, 3 Brothers Pizza Cafe in Rockville Centre has been serving vegetarian and vegan Italian food, including fake meat dishes, since 2009. Vegan Chef Jay Astafovic, son of 3 Brothers owner Andy, decided to become a vegan in 2007. He started the vegan menu because he wanted to have something he could eat while he was working at the restaurant. Ever since, word has spread about the menu, and now Astafovic says vegan menu sales make up about 50 percent of the business.

“It’s all by word of mouth, we don’t really advertise,” he said of the growth.

Reasons fueling change

Personal health is one of the most popular reasons why people say they switch to a vegetarian diet. Several documentary films, such as the 2011 release “Forks Over Knives,” make the claim that switching to a “whole foods, plant-based diet” can help combat life-threatening conditions such as heart disease, cancer and Type 2 diabetes.

Tom Gatto, a registered dietitian from Old Westbury who is a nutrition counselor at the Personal Training Institute, said the research does show that vegetarians are less at risk for many harmful conditions; however, he believes it is more complex than it appears.

“If someone goes on a vegetarian diet, they’re going to change a lot more than to just stop eating meat,” Gatto said. “They’re most likely going to change all of their grains to whole grains, so they’ll get more fiber that way; they’re going to eat a lot more fruits and vegetables; they’re going to stop having sugar and soda, most of them. If they are health conscious they’re probably going to exercise and not smoke.”

Gatto said he believes vegetarians are more likely to live healthier in general, which makes it hard to tell if it is their diet alone that reduces their risk level for serious health conditions.

Environmental preservation is another increasingly popular concern cited by vegetarians/vegans. In November 2011, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization released a report entitled “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” stating the livestock sector is responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions—a larger percentage than transportation.

According to “Forks Over Knives,” 20 percent of the Amazon Rainforest, an area the size of California, has been destroyed since the 1970s. The film says 80 percent of the cleared land is now occupied by livestock, and the world’s cattle alone eat enough grain to feed 8.7 billion people, nearly 2 billion more than the population on Earth.

Often environmentalists and vegetarians are stereotyped as “hippies,” leftists and even socialists. Seth Tibbott, the founder and president of Turtle Island Foods and creator of Tofurky, framed the issue in terms a staunch capitalist would understand.

“It’s not so efficient running 16 pounds of grains through an animal to make one pound of meat,” Tibbott said.

The U.N. report has sparked controversy and come under scrutiny from the agriculture industry.

“Livestock aren’t destroying the planet, they are feeding the planet,” reads a post by Troy Hadrick on his blog for the group Advocates for Agriculture. “They are turning raw, human-indigestible products and turning them into an incredibly nutrient-dense consumable protein source. That’s the real story that needs to be told and celebrated. Every time I think about this incredible process it makes me proud to be part of it.”

Advocates for Agriculture’s goal, according to its website, is “Promoting ag one story at a time.”

It’s not just vegetarians

Tofurky is a popular vegan/vegetarian turkey substitute made from flavored wheat protein and tofu. In the years before Tofurky, Seth Tibbott, the founder and president of Turtle Island Foods, was making roughly $300 per month. From 1982 until 1990, to keep his living expenses low, Tibbott lived in an 11-by-16 tree house built around three trees in Hasum, WA. He rented the trees for $25 a month.

Turtle Island, which Tibbott says has a “crazy growth rate” of 46 percent per year, has sold nearly 3 million Tofurky roasts since the product was introduced in 1995. The company has not always been a success.

Tibbott said aside from those who follow a strict vegetarian or vegan diet, the number of people who are making an effort to eat less meat is also increasing. He called this group “flexitarians” or “meat-reducers.”

“That’s what’s really growing and fueling a lot of growth in these meat alternatives such as Tofurky,” Tibbott said.

According to the VRG poll data, nearly 50 percent of the country eats at least one completely vegetarian meal per week.

“Of course half the people are saying they don’t eat vegetarian meals, so this makes it very complicated I guess for supermarkets and food companies because they need to gear it towards both audiences,” said Charles Stahler, the VRG’s co-director

While it may be complicated for some, for Jennifer Greene, there is no doubt that becoming a vegan has made a positive impact on her life. And as one of the leaders of the Long Island vegan/vegetarian community, Greene does all she can to convince others to eat less meat.

“I encourage people, even if they think they’re never going to go vegan or vegetarian, that every step in the direction of a plant-based diet is a positive step for their health, for the planet and for the animals,” Greene said.