The Veg Effect
A New Documentary Series Examines Unconventional Lovers of Vegetarian FoodPhotos courtesy of the filmmaker Food Features
“Every aspect of my life has been revolutionized through plant-based living,” Dead Prez rapper Khnum Ibomu, a.k.a. STIC, says in the new documentary series The Veg Effect.
Just call it the Chef’s Table of the vegetarian world. The beautifully filmed series, directed by Alison Klayman (director of the award-winning documentary feature Ai WeiWei: Never Sorry), hones its cinematographic laser beam on five unusual stories based on eating less meat: Ibomu and his wife, a beer brewer, two tap dancers, a stuntwoman, and of all things, two butchers. Cooking healthy foods at home, the subjects of the series have brought diverse vegetarian — or, at times, simply less-meatcentric — styles into their lives.
MorningStar Farms, the company that sponsored the series, makes vegetarian foods filled with plant protein: veggie burgers, vegetarian sausage, and the like. In my opinion, their products are very tasty—and I say this as a “mostly vegetarian” (more on that later) who has eaten quite a few unfortunate veggie burgers in her life.
But they perceived an issue in reaching those who regularly and readily eat meat. “We felt those people didn’t see [plant-based food] as a space for them,” says company Director of Brand and Innovation Marketing Todd Smith. “We wanted to find a way to show them that it is.”
So they steered away from some more traditional, and intense, “Meat is murder” arguments in favor of a flexible and inclusive approach to eating a more plant-based diet—and made a documentary series, featuring five stories illustrating how reducing meat consumption can be beneficial on personal-health, environmental, and of course animal rights fronts.
“I work with people where they’re at. And I get it,” says nutritionist Afya Ibomu, of guiding her clients toward healthier diets, in the series.
“This isn’t some scare-you-into-a-rage film about the food industry,” the film’s website says, “or about regretting yesterday. This is a documentary series about how we can change the world by answering one simple question: What are we going to eat today?”
The stories are diverse, from formerly hard-partying Ibomu in Atlanta to butchers Trey Nichols and James Holtslag in San Diego. Stic was brought into vegetarianism by his wife Afya and found the new diet radically improved his health, even helping him recover fully from a case of gout. His belief in the benefits of a vegetarian diet is strong; he states in the film that the black urban community “loses more lives to burgers than to bullets.” Nichols and Holtslag, understandably, support some degree of meat consumption but speak of the environmental benefits of eating less meat—and urge those who purchase it to be aware of its origins and quality. They also close their shop for Meatless Mondays.
It’s exactly this kind of flexibility of approach that series director Klayman was looking for. “The labels have become more complicated” in regard to defining diets, she says (Freegan, anyone?), “and people are invited to connect without labels.” Klayman grew up in a kosher home—and, she said, ate her mother’s beef brisket on a recent visit home. She eats fish more regularly and meat only occasionally. “We make choices based on people,” she says (and indeed the topic of a person who doesn’t usually eat meat doing so as a guest in someone’s home is discussed in the series). “It’s social, as well as intellectual, religious, etc. It’s super intimate.” She summed things up well during a Q&A after a screening for the series: “The question ‘Are you a vegetarian?’ is a lot to talk about!”
Dave Thibodeau, who heads up Ska Brewery in Durango, Colorado, eats no meat and boasts in the film about his surprise win of a local chili contest with vegetarian chili. “There are a lot of farmers and cowboys in Durango—but it’s also a pretty conscious community, including them,” he says. Meanwhile, stunt woman Danielle Burgio thought she needed animal protein to keep up her strength as an athlete—and then found she could consume far less and still excel.
After the screening, Baredu Ahmed, also featured, the Assistant Director of and teacher at the American Embassy of Dance, in Washington, D.C., talked about her meat-eating Ethiopian roots—and how her parents are gradually changing their diets. “My mom is being more mindful,” she said “She’s aware of the cultural climate. Her friends are eating less meat.” But her parents do eat meat sometimes, and she will eat it when sharing meals at their home, just as they eat her vegetarian dishes.
As for me: I will generally eat meat if it is plated and served by hosts who don’t know my eating habits, though I don’t buy it, order it, or cook it for myself. I might also eat it if it’s leftovers and will likely otherwise be trashed—I see no virtue in having meat get thrown away. These choices and the ways to make them are, absolutely, a lot to talk about. The Veg Effect is one great way of beginning those conversations.
Pamela Rafalow Grossman’s articles and essays have appeared in the Village Voice, Time.com, Ms. and Salon.com, among other outlets. She is slowly but steadily overcoming her fear of the kitchen.