By Linda Linonis
If the adage “you are what you eat” is true, Vegetarians of the Greater Youngstown Area won’t have an identity crisis.
Many are “avid organic gardeners” who know how they grow their food, said Chris Flak, coordinator of the group with her partner, Sean O’Toole.
“Personal health, environment, animal rights, religious beliefs and aesthetic considerations are among reasons for choosing a vegetarian lifestyle,” Flak said.
She explained the group was founded in October 1989 by Bill and Marianne Whitehouse. Living a healthy life and lowering cholesterol were the couple’s reasons for following a vegetarian diet. Flak said about 10 people attended the first event.
The Whitehouses were coordinators until Flak took over the job last year. Bill Whitehouse was a naturalist at Mill Creek MetroParks for more than 30 years; his wife is an artist and seamstress. They continue to participate in the group.
Flak said she became involved in 1993, choosing the vegetarian way of life to offset some health concerns.
“The group started as a support group,” Flak said of the like-minded people who gathered together. “These were people who decided on a vegetarian lifestyle,” she said, adding they helped one another with information and recipes.
Flak said members shopped at the former Good Food Co-op on Pyatt Street, where vegetarian and organic foods were available. There were few vegetarian cookbooks available, she added. Members help one another and newcomers, exchange recipes and share reputable online resources, Flak said.
Flak described the organization as “loose-knit.” “There’s a core group of 15 people,” she said, noting gatherings usually attract 15 to as many as 60 people.
Vegetarians of the Greater Youngstown Area meets at 4 p.m. the first Sunday of the month. In June and July, outdoor gatherings take place. From August through May, meetings are at First Unitarian Universalist Church, 1105 Elm St. The site of the July meeting will be posted on the group’s Facebook page. For information, email Flak at firstname.lastname@example.org.
At meetings, members share foods they’ve prepared. “We ask that all foods are labeled with ingredients so people know what they’re eating,” Flak said. “Basically, it’s no meat or meat products” in the recipes, she said.
Flak said new members receive a “starter kit” with facts and tips from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and Vegetarian Times magazine. The information touches on how a vegetarian diet improves health, food groups, how to transition to being vegetarian and meal planning.
Flak said there are different categories of vegetarians, and the Youngstown group welcomes all. The “starter kit” mentions vegetarians who do not eat meat, fish and poultry while lacto-ovo vegetarians include dairy products and eggs. Vegans eat no meat, fish, poultry, eggs or dairy. “There’s another trend, flexatarians, who practice being vegetarian but not all the time,” she said.
Flak said she believes a vegetarian lifestyle leads to “more energy and being healthy.” “That’s the personal health choice,” she said. “You get more fiber.”
As for the environment, “it relates to the care and feeding of animals,” Flak said.
For those who promote animal rights, creatures such as cows and sheep are seen as no different from companion animals.
Some religious beliefs note that certain animals should not be eaten, and aesthetic considerations refer to the aversion to the taste and appearance of meat.
Flak suggested “Vegan Cookbook for Carnivores” by Roberto Martin, personal chef for comedian and talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres, and her spouse, actress Portia deRossi, and “The Kind Diet” by actress Alicia Silverstone.
Flak said those thinking about becoming vegetarians might follow the Mediterranean diet, which promotes high consumption of olive oil, legumes, unrefined cereals, fruits, and vegetables; moderate consumption of fish, cheese and yogurt; and low consumption of meat and meat products. “You can get protein from beans, nuts and grains, and a significant number of vegetables have protein,” she said.
“It might be time to make a change,” Flak said. But she acknowledged “the convenience [of fast foods] is hard to change.”
She said the cultural diversity available in America has led to international restaurants and ethnic grocery stores that often offer vegetarian foods.