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Being Vegan in Virginia - 6 Tips to Southern Success
Veganism in Virginia has come a long way over the past 20 years. I started eating vegan over 11 years ago, and back then, Hanover County didn't have a lot to offer in terms of vegan fare. You don't need fancy vegan specialty products to be a vegan, which is something I will go more into later, but access to those products has become much easier. When I was 16, the Food Lion, which was our only grocery store, didn't carry soy milk, and it certainly didn't carry soy, rice, almond, and coconut milk as many do today. The only place to buy tofu was a "natural foods store" of which Richmond had 2: Ellwood Thompson's and Good Food Grocery.
Finding restaurants that cater to vegans or grocery stores that carry specialty vegan products on their shelves is much less challenging now days in Virginia. The challenges to being vegan, and staying vegan, actually lie in other arenas. I've got over 11 years of veganism under my belt, and the next bit is my best advice to folks in Virginia who want to eat vegan.
First off, be polite. This is the South after all. While your decision to be vegan is certainly very important to you, you will always get a better reception if you are polite and non-imposing—use your 'pleases.' This is relevant whether you are going out to eat at a restaurant, or going to an event at a friend or family member's house. I wish we lived in a world where everyone was vegan and animals didn't have to suffer, but in the meantime it doesn't do animals any good to have a snobby or entitled attitude. My experience shows that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. Friendliness and an openness to explain yourself is more likely to convert folks. And even if they don't chose to be vegan, at least they are more likely to be your friend or think of you in a positive light.
Secondly, check menus before you go to a restaurant, if necessary, call ahead to ask if they would be so kind as to accommodate you. With dinners or events at people's houses, I often just offer to bring dishes. That way I'm not imposing on the host, by asking for them to cater their menu to me. If I bring an appetizer, entrée, and dessert, I'm helping the host and giving everyone attending an opportunity to see how delicious vegan food is.
Third, once you have used your 'pleases' do the right, Southern thing, and follow up with your 'thank yous.' If you want to leave people with a good impression of vegans, thank them for anything they did out of their way to cater to your diet. Complimenting a vegan dish might encourage a restaurant to keep it on their menu, or a host to make it for another event even if they aren't expecting vegans. Being gracious goes a long way to giving yourself, and other vegans, a good reputation.
Fourth, don't forget that fruits, vegetables, and grains are all vegan. I know, I know, with so many amazing vegan versions of different dishes available at the stores and restaurants, cooking with whole foods is easy to forget about. But to keep veganism affordable and healthy, it really helps to limit the amounts of processed and soy/chemically foods.
My fifth piece of advice is that if you initially take the time to do a little shopping around and price comparison, you can definitely eat vegan on a budget. I had a roommate who argued it was classist for me to promote eating vegan. However, we were both eating off of the same 200 dollar a month budget. I went to the grocery store and did my research, and put together a zine on Eating Vegan On the Cheap. Check that out for more specifics on the cost aspect of veganism.
My sixth and final piece of advice on being vegan in Virginia is to travel with snacks. There are definitely plenty of places where you can eat out vegan (if you can afford it), and more and more grocery stores carry soymilk and hummus and other awesome vegan things. But you will inevitably end up in an unfamiliar neighborhood or small town where there just aren't good, healthy, vegan options. Be prepared - you won't always be able to count on other people or places to feed you, and it is important that you are fed! I usually carry a combination of vegan snack/energy bars, dried fruit, crackers and peanut butter, and fruit. Other common, easily packed snack include hummus, cut up veggies, canned food you don't mind eating cold, chips, cookies, and tupperware with leftovers.
Virginia is a great place, and a great place to be a vegan. Having a positive attitude about your veganism, and following this advice can make your experience with veganism more affordable, pleasureable, and fulfilling for you and for the people around you.