“The restaurants,” my boyfriend replied, when I asked what he missed most about living in Philadelphia, “hands down.” Having bounced around the U.S. quite a bit since college due to various job opportunities, between the two of us, we have lived in New York City, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Chicago, and most recently: Waterloo, Iowa. The vegan restaurants, events, communities, and general understanding of what a vegan lifestyle entails were booming in our previous cities. One would be hard-pressed not to find a vegan or vegetarian restaurant to try on a Friday night. The story is not the same here in Waterloo. “I agree,” I told him, “the restaurants, hands down.”
When living in a smaller town, it’s easy to feel challenged and even discouraged as a vegan. In fact, I know a handful of people who have tried their hand at veganism, but found it too difficult because of where they lived.
Veganism to me is a way of life. It is a reflection of my values and beliefs. Relocating has not come without its challenges as a vegan, but ultimately I find it exciting: you never know who might be watching, and who might be inspired to make some changes of their own.
So, instead of dwelling on the absence of veganism in Waterloo, I decided to view it as a motivating challenge. Rather than feeling negative and disheartened, how can I feel creative and inspired?
Here are some ideas that helped me not only succeed, but thrive living as a vegan in a small town.
It may not look it – but you actually have access to lots of vegan goods
At first glance, the grocery store down the street may not carry the vegan margarine, cruelty-free dish soap, or laundry detergent that you’d like to buy. But that doesn’t mean you have to settle for other products. With a little bit of digging, I can almost guarantee that you can find every product you need.
These days Hyvee grocery store carries Beyond Meat, Tofutti, and Field Roast. Target offers a variety of cruelty-free foods and household items. Heck, even Walmart now carries vegan foods, including the new vegan mayonnaise star, Just Mayo. While I don’t personally enjoy frequenting large chain operations like these, it is good to know that in a pinch, you can find vegan-friendly products practically anywhere.
When all else fails, there is always the internet. The internet can come in handy both for finding vegan recipes for just about everything your heart desires, and for ordering almost anything you can imagine, from food staples to household products, vitamins, and clothing items. Sometimes is not only the most ethical route – it’s the most affordable.
Get comfortable and creative in the kitchen
Before I lived in Waterloo, I’d cook most of my week’s meals, and have a couple lunches and dinners out. However, when there are fewer vegan options dining out, you need to increase the amount of home-cooking you do. When I take the time to find new recipes, and plan my meals for the week, I find I have more of a desire to dine in. Not only does my wallet thank me for this, but my body does too.
Don’t be shy when you are out
Not all social gatherings must revolve around food (it’s perfectly OK getting together simply over coffee). But when you do find yourself at a restaurant that is not particularly veg-friendly, why not take the opportunity to [politely] inquire regarding ways in which they can accommodate you?
It took me a long time to get past the feeling that I was strange, or that I was inconveniencing others by requesting a vegan dish. But then I realized that the only person I was inconveniencing was myself.
If you inquire about vegan options, the owners will know that they are in demand, and may even consider adding further vegan options to their menu. It’s a win-win situation: they receive your frequent business, and there are cruelty-free options for all.
Also, many restaurants will be happy to ‘veganize’ items on their menu, like pizza without cheese or replacing egg noodles with rice. Remember, if you never speak up about your dietary choices, some folks may never learn about veganism, and progress will never be made.
Support and frequent the places that offer vegan options
When you do find a restaurant, coffee shop, or grocery store that offers clearly labeled vegan options, don’t only purchase those products – be sure to inform the owners how happy you are that they carry them.
There is a coffee shop in our neighborhood that typically carries one vegan bakery item each day. The first time I went in, I must have been visibly excited to purchase one, because now whenever I go in the owner points out their vegan item to me with a smile.
Spread the vegan love
A wise person once told me, “If it tastes good, people will eat it.” When you have an opportunity to bring a dish to a social get-together like a local community fundraiser or even a dinner party, cook up your tastiest vegan treat, and share it with pride. If people enjoy it, they will ask you for the recipe. When they find out it’s vegan, they’ll probably be shocked. But if they enjoy it enough, they will add it to their repertoire, and compassionate cooking will make its way into more kitchens. This could both help shatter myths around vegan food and help increase the demand for vegan food in your town.
And it doesn’t have to stop with food. Someone tell you that you smell great or your hair looks awesome? Let them know about the vegan products you use and how they can find them at a few stores in your town. Someone compliments you on your shoes? Mention that they are actually faux leather, and recommend the local shop which carries them, and they too could see an increase in demand.
Model your message with joy
Veganism does not equal perfection. As much as you try, it is probable you won’t always get everything the way you want it, especially faced with the challenges of being vegan in a small town. In low moments, remember it’s imperative you be your joyous self. Yes, happiness and joy are contagious, and fun to be around. Know what’s not fun to be around? A grumpy vegan reminiscing about the good old days in Philadelphia, or New York, or Chicago.
By focusing on the negative, I do a huge disservice to potential new friends, my boyfriend, and myself. By focusing on the positive, and all of the vegan options that do exist, I can be happy every day. After all, someone in the store, or a dinner guest, is much more inclined to ask me about the beef-less crumbles or dairy-free sour cream that I buy if I have a smile on my face.
Is it more difficult to be vegan in a small town? Definitely. Is it impossible? Absolutely not. Being vegan means living according to my values, and modeling my message every single day. Doing that joyfully? Well, that makes the message that much more powerful.
Cover image: TVW.
Guest post by Marlee Turim
My name is Marlee and I am currently pursuing a Masters of Education in Humane Education from Valparaiso University. I became vegan after 12 years of vegetarianism, and love being a part of this peaceful and powerful movement. I enjoy vegan cooking and baking, hiking, biking, traveling, and spending time with family. I currently live in Iowa with my boyfriend and our hilarious cat, Miles.