Very Veggie Movement: A Year In Review

By Dilber Shatursun

Meat alternatives are better than ever thanks to refined technologies. Photo/Vegefarm USA


It’s been approximately a year since the launch of the Very Veggie Movement, or VVM. What began as a wake-up call through the emergence of COVID-19 has now turned into a dietary revolution…

How It Started

With COVID-19’s first known ties to a wet market (where animals are butchered and sold as food), Tzu Chi’s founder, Dhar-ma Master Cheng Yen, amplified the case for vegetarianism. Never before had the picture looked so clear to her: humanity had gotten itself into this mess in great part because it couldn’t – and wouldn’t – stop eating meat. Though it would be too late to stop the current pandemic, by eating vegetarian or vegan, we could make a real ef-fort to stop the next one. Impossible? Perhaps, but the ramifications we’ve faced already are worth considering.

Painful Consequences

In the past year alone, more Americans have died as a result of COVID-19 than from World War I, World War II and the Viet-nam War combined. They are family members, friends, neighbors, and more who can never be replaced. This loss is then compounded by the pandemic’s economic punches, which the World Bank esti-mates have pushed at least 88 million people into extreme poverty. This means that the global poor have become poorer, living on just $1.90 a day.

Such numbers translate to opportunity costs and trade-offs that are difficult to measure. Poverty, whether extreme or not, forc-es individuals and households to face and make tough choices every day. These include those that can impact their physical and mental health, as well as learning outcomes for the next generation. Now, knowing all of this, if there was a simple, discreet action you could take in your daily life to prevent this from happening ever again would you take it?

Thousands of people have told us, sure they can.

How It’s Going

Since March, 7,650 people across the United States made firm commitments via VVM to give vegetarianism or veganism a fair shot. After submitting their email addresses at veryveggiemovement.org, each person sets a personal goal of how many vegetarian meals they hope to commit to per day. Then, over the next month, the individual receives information and advice on common challenges for new and longtime vegetarians, video recipes, stories from peers, and more straight to their inbox. But, VVM isn’t stopping there.

Expanding Through Collaboration

Business owners across the country, too, have committed to making vegetarian-friendly foods more accessible than ever. To date, VVM has rallied 44 Very Veggie Partners to join the Movement. These restaurants and retailers offer discounts on their vegetarian fare or goods while gaining exposure to new customers through the VVM network. For so many of these entrepreneurs, whose busi-nesses have all been impacted by the pandemic, passion is perhaps their biggest driving force. Bodhi Kosher Vegetarian Restaurant in New York City is run by Kent Zhang. From his combined experience in restaurants and catering companies in China and the U.S., he’s accumulated over 200 vegetarian recipes. “There are many people who misunderstand that vegetarian dishes are in-different and boring,” Kent explained; “if you think about Chinese food, the southern cuisine is sweet, the north-ern ones are salty, the east is spicy, and the west is sour.” Like VVM, Kent hopes to change people’s minds about vegetarian eating.

Volunteer Wang describes the items in each box for the monthly distribution. Photo by Tom Chen.

At the same time, Eric Chu, owner of food distributor Vege-farm USA in San Jose, California, explains that such misconceptions aren’t exactly baseless. “Vegetarian food was not that tasty ten years ago,” he said; “most vegetarian foods were made from beans, but beans have a beany taste.” Eric credits increased demand and advances in food technology in Taiwan, where he sources most of his products. Some include black pepper ‘steak,’ ‘pork’ belly, and even ‘chicken’ nuggets.

Volunteer Wang describes the items in each box for the monthly distribution. Photo by Tom Chen.

All Vegetarian Inc. founder Tony Chu also imports many of his products from Taiwan. But, he points out that “if you want to get into the market here in the U.S., you have to satisfy the tastes here.” One example is his sliced vegan ham. In Taiwan, the ‘ham’ would be sold whole, as opposed to the U.S., where cold cuts are specifically sold for sandwich making. Tony’s keen understanding of his customers’ needs, no matter how discreet, are crucial to the success and recep-tion of vegetarian and vegan food products.

Volunteer Wang describes the items in each box for the monthly distribution. Photo by Tom Chen.
Angel Chen, a San Gabriel Valley local, came to Tzu Chi USA’s National Headquarters on July 9th to help with the packing. Photo by Tom Chen.

Nevertheless, the pan-demic has dealt many blows to the restaurant industry. Cin-dy Lee, the owner of Queen House in Mountain View, California, told us that when the pandemic began, “many Tzu Chi volunteers called and asked about my situation, and then they ordered a lot of take-away. I was really touched.”

While Queen House isn’t fully vegetarian yet, Cindy’s found a lot of encouragement by becoming a VVM Partner: “I have always hoped that one day I can turn my restaurant into a vegetarian restaurant… I feel I am working hard for my wish to come true.”

Connecting with Ethical Eating Day

Finally, VVM teamed up with Ethical Eating Day, which takes place every year on January 11th. It is a global day of awareness of our diet’s impact on the environment, animals, and public health. To honor this occasion, VVM invited people to share why they think eat-ing ethically is important in 2021. Some virtual responses included…

The heart of any religion should be kindness. We have to include kindness toward animals by moving to plant based diets. Also, a huge part of the damage we are doing to the environment is due to the use of animals in agriculture.

For our planet and all that is interconnected. To be true to my values of compassion and sustainability. To walk the talk. For the goats. The pigs. The cows. The web of life.

To actively participate in healing power to Mother Earth and my own body.

Furthering this virtual community building, VVM also launched a series of video recipes created by teens from Tzu Chi’s youth groups, or Tzu Shao, in California. The young cooks worked virtually with film-makers from Tzu Chi USA’s Media Production Center to learn how to shoot and edit their videos. In an “Iron Chef” like twist, they were chal-lenged to incorporate a single ingredient in all of their recipes, Jing Si Black Tea. The real focus though: to show how vegetarian foods could be easy and fun to make!

After their release online, many of the contributors shared their experience in participating. One student, Selina Juang, a senior at Cupertino High School said that “through video making, I was able to contribute to the [Very Veggie] Movement by using my own voice and creativity… I hope these videos will inspire people from a variety of backgrounds to consume more vegetarian meals.”

Indeed, with now more than 945K meatless meals pledged toward VVM, more Very Veggie Partners, and new digital ambassadors, the fu-ture of vegetarianism – and our planet – looks brighter than ever.

Want to join the Very Veggie Movement, too? Visit veryveggiemovement.org to learn how and try recipes featuring Jing Si Black Tea on pages 40-41.

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