Vegetarians in Paradise proudly presents its 24 Carrot Award to The Vegetarian Resource Group (VRG), an impressive internet resource for vegetarians and vegans throughout the world. The dynamic team behind the scenes is composed of Debra Wasserman, cookbook author, mother, and active staff member, and Charles Stahler, publisher, father, and active staff member. They just happen to be married to each other.
Together with a dedicated staff and volunteers, they have published several books, create six issues of the Vegetarian Journal each year, produce informational pamphlets on different aspects of vegetarianism, appear at major vegetarian and vegan events, maintain their web site, and keep in touch with their many readers who call on them with questions.
What follows are the questions asked by Vegetarians in Paradise (VIP) and the answers by Debra (D) and Charles (C).
VIP: What was the spark that ignited the Vegetarian Resource Group's beginnings?
D: Before moving to Baltimore, we were active in The Vegetarian Society of D.C. We wanted to be involved in vegetarian outreach in Baltimore. We had a list of local vegetarian groups in this area. When we went to one address, there was a vacant building. The other groups were nonexistent. We moved here in September, 1982, and started the group in October. We quickly had a feature article in The Baltimore Sun concerning our first Thanksgiving potluck. We had a follow-up event for New Year's that also received a prominent article in The Baltimore Sun,not so much for being vegetarian, but because it was nonsmoking!!! (which was unusual in those days.) The group was pioneering in many ways.
C: A mention in Changing Times Magazinein 1984 moved us to a national focus in addition to a local focus. We received 800 orders for our early Vegetarianism for the Working Personbook. This also launched us to produce more books.
VIP: Did VRG begin as an internet presence?
D: Bobbie Pasternak was doing "internet" type outreach for us in 1993. Brad Scott began working on computer outreach shortly thereafter. Brad said this was before there were web pages and browsers, so not sure if it was called the internet. Bobbie did work on Compuserve early on, and the world wide web (as it was known) soon after was common (1995). Brad Scott set up VRG information on Envirolink in 1995, and www.vrg.org went live in January 1997.
VIP: How has the internet influenced VRG?
C: We are now reaching 100,000+ people a month through the website. Over 1-1/2 million pages a month are accessed. This amount of information direct would be impossible for us with print media. However, it does mean shifting resources, since the web really isn't free, as numerous internet companies are finding out as they go under with a lackluster stock performance and less investment.
VIP: Since your organization is non-profit, are there any staff members who are paid a salary or are they all volunteers?
D: We were all volunteers from 1982 to 1990. As with all organizations, volunteers come and go, with a few core people staying active. Active people's lives would change, and they would have to drop projects which meant overwhelming work for the core volunteers. We found that to maintain all our projects and expand, we needed to have a combination of staff and volunteers. VRG is able to function with a few core staff members and volunteers plus hundreds of other volunteers. When we obtain additional funding, we have in mind additional staff members we need. The volunteers include volunteer editors, clerical people who come into the office, and long distance volunteers who do work ranging from outreach to research to technical assistance.
C: All staff members are Jacks and Jills of all trades and switch around and help others as needed. Everybody is involved in outreach. Roughly defined, staff positions include Membership Manager, Catalog Manager, Research Manager/Web Person, Part-time Editor, Co-directors involved in all aspects of the non-profit, and Administrative Person who assists others as needed. This administrative person shifts back and forth between part-time and full time.
D: Sue Havala consults about 10 -20 hours per week from North Carolina. Nancy Berkoff consults about ten hours per week from California. Though not paid, Brad Scott and Reed Mangels, Ph.D.,R.D. are like staff members. Reed volunteers about twenty hours a week from New England and Brad volunteers an average of ten hours a week on computer issues.
C: We also use freelance writers/artists. There are many, many, many other volunteers. Dina Aronson, R.D., and Terri Carlo, R.D. do booths for us in New England. Jim Dunn in Florida spoke to 25 home economics classes after having a booth at a state home economics conference. Lisa Martin in Chicago coordinated a booth at the National Restaurant Association attended by 100,000 individuals related to the restaurant industry.
VIP: Which accomplishments are you most proud of?
D: I think we are proudest of accomplishments when a goal is successful because people bring their various skills together and work as a team. When this happens, great results happen. But it is hard to make the circumstances work.
C: We stopped the rodeo in Baltimore around 1983. Our dietitians were involved in formation of The American Dietetetic Association Vegetarian Practice Group. Suzanne Havala, our consulting R.D., wrote the American Dietetic Association Position Papers on Vegetarianism twice. She also created a vegetarian meal plan for the national Meals on Wheels. We wrote a booklet for Wegman's Supermarkets and a brochure for King's Supermarkets and sent information to other supermarkets for their use.
D: When I was a volunteer on the Consumer Advisory Board of Giant Supermarkets, per my suggestions, they added plant-based sources of calcium to one of their brochures.
C: We had considerable exposure in the media. Debra appeared on Good Morning America, Discovery Channel, and CNN. Sue appeared on Good Morning America and the Susan Powter Show. Reed wrote a chapter on Nutrition Management of the Vegetarian Child for the Pediatric Manual of Clinical Dietetics. There were articles in New York Times, Parade Magazine, Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post. There was a feature article on vegetarianism in National Education Association magazine read by 2 million educators.
D: We're proud of our poll looking at the number of vegetarians who don't eat meat, fish, or fowl rather than self-defined vegetarians, our presentations at the Annual Meetings of The American Dietetic Association, and our information on fast food and food ingredients.
D: We have provided assistance to food companies like taste testing of products like the Harvest Burger before they were popular in stores.
C: Our publishing record has been rewarding. We sold over 80,000 copies of Simply Vegan, using the word "vegan" when others wouldn't in the past. For a small publisher, 10,000 books is generally a best seller. We distributed over 80,000 copies of Meatless Meals for the Working Person. We're gratified by the influence of No Cholesterol Passover Recipes and the Lowfat Jewish Vegetarian Cookbook.
D: Our dietitians have been invited to speak to so many professional groups. For example, Reed this year spoke on vegetarianism to the New York State Nutrition Council. This meeting targets professionals from multiple disciplines working with adolescents. Reed was also invited to speak by the New Jersey Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Child Nutrition Programs. This is the state agency that oversees all of their school meal programs. They wanted to incorporate a presentation on vegetarian diets, primarily on how school food service personnel can work to better adapt to the needs of vegetarians. Reed, by the way, is author of the USDA Bibliography on Vegetarianism.
C: We're especially proud of our foodservice work by Chef Nancy Berkoff, R.D. She is one of the few registered dietitians, who also has a professional cooking background. She does presentations, edits our Foodservice Update newsletter, and wrote our book Vegan in Volume, that includes information for foodservices, parties, weddings, bar mitzvahs, and restaurants.
D: We should not forget to mention all of our kids' materials, like over 100,000 I Love Animals and Broccoli coloring books given out and publishing our newsletter and then Vegetarian Journal on time since 1982. There is much, much more, but also many disappointments on how much more could be accomplished and how much more work there is for a just world.
VIP: How many book titles do you publish each year and what kinds of books do you feature?
C: One to three books per year. We present practical and/or scientific information. We try to fill a need. We're not just a publisher, but we are in partnership with our authors. We did Vegetarianism for the Working Person since most books for vegetarians at that time had great recipes, but were too complicated. From our outreach work, we knew people wanted quick and easy recipes. The trend in cookbooks soon followed what we knew.
D: We did No Cholesterol Passover Recipes because people wanted to know how not to eat eggs and more eggs on Passover. We did Simply Vegan because people needed easily understandable vegan nutrition information and quick and easy recipes. We did Vegan in Volume because people needed vegan recipes and information for institutions, parties, restaurants, etc.
C: We published Vegan and Vegetarian FAQ because people have so many questions beyond the basics covered in most of the books today. I'm a pregnant vegan, what do I eat? Pre-gelatinized wheat starch is from an animal, right? Where can I find vegan donuts? Is calcium lactate vegan? Is it true that eating soy can suppress the thryroid? Do vegetarian women have different needs than vegetarian males? Where can I find non-leather shoes? etc., etc.
D: Our natural foods restaurant guide is done in partnership with our members who send us information about restaurants in their area or while traveling. Though we wouldn't sell that many, we did Leprechaun Cake, a vegan recipe story book for kids, because one of our illustrators wanted to do the book. We felt information for kids is important. Vonnie Crist both wrote the story and illustrated the book.
VIP: How much time do you spend each week on VRG activities?
C: From 1982 to 1990 we were working or in school in addition to doing VRG work. We each probably spent 20-40 hours per week on activities. It got to a point where we were spending more and more hours and left our jobs. During a one year period we were working seven days a week from about 7 in the morning til 11 at night because several people didn't come through with their commitments. This was totally not healthy. We pared it down to each about 60 hours a week.
D: With a child, we are now working directly about 80 hours per week between us. However, almost all of the time we are thinking about the group or make connections. At the playground we may meet somebody interested in vegetarianism, a possible printer, or somebody who has a local organization in town. Having a child also gives a different perspective for the type of work groups need to be doing, since often vegan/vegetarian outreach doesn't take into account needs of families or living in the real world.
VIP: We have seen the VRG table at the Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim. How many of these events do you travel to throughout the year?
D: VRG is constantly doing outreach tables but most are done by volunteers in the area. Major conferences VRG did last year were American Dietetic Association, National Restaurant Association, Centers for Disease Control Conference, Book Expo America, Natural Products Expo East, and Natural Products Expo West. Regional conferences are those such as Massachusetts Dietetic Association, New York Dietetic Association, and Earth Day events. Local Maryland outreach includes Johns Hopkins University Fair, Towson Fair, etc.
VIP: Is VRG your full-time occupation?
VIP: Can you give us a little background on your education?
C: I have a business undergraduate degree, a paralegal degree, and half a Masters of Social Work. The group got in the way of finishing school.
D: I have a BS degree in Political Science and an MA degree from Georgetown University in Government (International Relations).
VIP: Did you grow up in vegetarian homes? What encouraged you to move to vegetarianism? To veganism?
C: I grew up in a kosher home, snacking on salami instead of cookies. My parents dried kosher salamis to send to soldiers overseas. So it was easy to have a dietary regimen for ethical beliefs. I was having a discussion with my roommate and said I didn't believe in killing. The roommate said, "You Eat Animals, Don't You?" I became vegan in 1977 when I met other vegans. My last non-vegan food was probably a Hershey bar.
D: I became vegan while attending graduate school and studying international relations. At the time I kept calling myself a pacifist. One day a non-vegetarian classmate challenged me by saying "isn't eating meat violent?" At the time I had recently met other vegetarians (including Charles) and instantly knew I had to become vegan. While I was growing up, my non-vegetarian parents belonged to a natural foods buying club. We ate very little meat compared to other households and were use to a wide range of natural foods. As a child, I never liked fish because I saw my grandmother cut up live fish on our backyard picnic table.
VIP: Do your families accept and support your vegetarianism?
C: My father, mother, one brother, and one sister became vegetarian. I have three cousins in the same position from our great grandfather who I didn't know growing up, but we all became vegetarian for similar reasons.
D: My mother at first had problems with my becoming vegan (what no dairy?) but was OK with vegetarianism. My parents now are very supportive of our lifestyle, and my mother makes terrific vegan meals. Since our 3-year-old son is a healthy vegan child, they now tell everyone that you can raise children on a veggie diet with no problems.
VIP: Together you're quite a dynamic duo. How did you meet? How long have you been married? Tell us about your children.
C: Debra was going to Graduate school full time and working part time and really wanted to go to the beach for a break. So she accompanied her roommate, a coworker of mine, myself, and a Vegetarian Society of D.C. board member in a van for a three-and-half-hour ride to New York City to pick up a vegetarian activist at Penn Station, to go to a vegetarian potluck in Greenwich Village, then another several hours' ride to the American Vegan Society headquarters, to Philadelphia, and then finally to the beach.
D: Many years later, we took off a few hours from the VRG office, got married accompanied by two vegetarian friends, and then went back to work.
C: Three year old Sam is vegan, but tells everyone while eating tofu that he is eating chicken or fish. He is totally strong willed, but is advanced intellectually, socially, and in physical ability, as most vegan children we meet are. He is a great outreach person for veganism, and after pretending to be shy and assessing the situation, is able to talk easily with both adults and children. His will can take control of a whole room of people
D: He'll make his own decisions concerning vegetarianism and other beliefs. He can be comfortable in a nursing home and make people smile or have fun playing with a five or ten year old. He puts up with a lot being dragged to all kinds of veggie outreach throughout the USA and Canada. Like his parents he loves both cities and nature. But he needs less sleep than us!!
VIP: What leisure time and family activities do you enjoy?
C: Most of what we do is combined with the group. For example, at Book Expo America, the largest U.S. book show, 3-year-old Sam got his picture in the daily program for 20,000 attendees, for handing out Vegetarian Journal. It wasn't planned. He did it on his own.
D: When we were sponsoring a dinner meeting for 100 dietitians, Sam on his own went up to the mike and said he was Sam Stahler and was a vegetarian. Guess he sees us talk and thinks he should do the same.
C: We believe family is important, so much of our free time is visiting relatives. We would like more time for running, walking, camping, swimming, basketball, and doing volunteer work.
D: I would also like time for art projects. My mother is an artist. I have those skills, but no time to work on developing them. Before VRG started, we hiked five weeks for 350 miles on the Appalachian Trail and maybe will do this with Sam.
C: I volunteered on a hotline. Debra did volunteer tutoring of immigrant students.
D: We participated in a program for handicapped people. For example we rode bikes and canoed with blind people, played basketball with disabled individuals, etc. The reason VRG was successful was that we are good generalists who can do lots of tasks at one time at a moderate level. It would be nice to have time to focus to really develop a skill or project.
VIP: Do you share your home with any companion animals
C: We are not home enough to care for companion animals, but Sam keeps asking. He helps feed and give water to the dog next door, who often, unfortunately, is without water. Another neighbor takes the dog for walks.
VIP: Debra, how many cookbooks have you published and is a new cookbook always a work in progress?
D: I've written/co-written these cookbooks: Meatless Meals for Working People, Simply Vegan, Conveniently Vegan, The Lowfat Jewish Vegetarian Cookbook, and No Cholesterol Passover. I edited recipes for Vegan Handbook, Vegetarian Journal's Guide to Natural Foods Restaurants in the US and Canada, Vegan in Volume, and Vegan Meals for 1 or 2. I always have a cookbook or two on the burner. Things have been a bit slower recently raising a child!
VIP: Charles, since VRG is a team effort, how are tasks divided up?
C: Everybody does many different tasks, though different individuals focus in different areas. I have no artistic talent so I leave that to others.
VIP: What types of new ventures are you contemplating for VRG in the next few years?
D: Many. Keep tuned to our website and Vegetarian Journal.
VIP: We may have overlooked some important aspects of VRG or your personal philosophies. Are there any things you would like to add?
D: Life is short and you should do your best while living with a caring attitude. Be supportive of others and not so critical. Remember, there is often more than one right answer!
The Vegetarian Resource Group website can be found at http://www.vrg.org.