Giving up meat isn't easy, and when many vegetarians finally get past their meat cravings, they stop there, content with a diet containing dairy and eggs. But a couple of Memphis sisters want to help people take it to the next level. With their recently formed group, Vegan Sisters of Memphis/Black Vegetarian Society of Tennessee (VSM), they hope to spread the word on the physical and mental benefits of giving up animal by-products, while giving the small local vegan community a united voice.
Through workshops, seminars, retreats, and one-on-one counseling, Bastet Ankh Re and Raminyah Netri Men-t will teach people how to become vegan (no meat, eggs, dairy, or animal by-products in food, clothing, or other products), how to stick with the diet, and how to avoid certain foods that can cause long-term health problems. On December 18th, they'll be at Wild Oats lecturing on "The Hazards of Sugar and Salt."
Re and Men-t formed the Vegan Sisters, now five members strong, in August after realizing how hard it is to live a vegan lifestyle in Memphis. There hasn't been a restaurant exclusively catering to vegetarians and vegans since One Love Soulful Vegetarian Cafe & Juice Bar closed earlier this year, and most other local restaurants offer very little to vegans.
"There's a chicken place on every corner here, unlike in New York where there's a health-food store on every corner," says Men-t, who moved to Memphis after spending her youth in Chicago and her college days in New York City. "You'll have a chicken store next to a shoe store next to another chicken store next to a gas station that serves chicken."
The sisters say it's this kind of atmosphere that makes it so hard for Southerners to kick the meat habit. They hope their group, open to anyone with an interest in living vegan, will soon offer members discounts at the few local vegan-friendly restaurants and health-food stores, as well as discounts to workshops and seminars. Re says a Web site is being constructed, along with a toll-free vegan helpline.
Their upcoming workshop at Wild Oats will encourage vegans to take their diet to another level. VSM isn't simply about helping people give up meat and dairy. They're promoting a diet of healthy foods and an active lifestyle. Salt and some sugars are still considered safe foods for maintaining a vegan diet, but they say they're unhealthy and should be consumed as little as possible. Their workshop will address the health risks caused by consumption of sugar and salt, how processing strips salt and sugar of nutrients, and what products to use as alternatives. At the end of the workshop, they'll be serving a vegan meal, sans the sugar and salt.
"You have a lot of vegans who only become vegans because of animal rights, but for us, it's about both animal rights and health," says Re. "We're telling people to stay away from the salts, the sugars, the microwave meals, and the enriched foods. When labels say 'enriched,' that means they're stripping everything and then adding vitamins to it."
As for the health benefits of a vegan diet, the American Dietetic Association says vegans and vegetarians are less likely to develop cardiovascular disease, a variety of cancers, hypertension, diabetes, and osteoporosis. But Re emphasizes that vegans must take vitamin supplements, especially B-12 and calcium.
The sisters realize going vegan can be a challenge and giving up salts and sugars is even more difficult. After all, they went through the same process themselves just a few years back. Men-t says she went completely vegan in 2001 after flip-flopping between being a vegetarian and an occasional meat eater for several years. She was overweight and wanted to fulfill her dreams of becoming a holistic health practitioner. As for Re, she made the change so her children would never have to. She now has one vegan child and another on the way.
Men-t also has a child she's raising vegan. Since the sisters have so much knowledge on maintaining a vegan diet during pregnancy, despite food cravings, they've started a program under the VSM banner called "Mother's Keepsake," which offers support to expectant mothers who want to go vegan or are already vegan and need help sticking with it through their pregnancies.
"We're not trying to turn anybody [into a vegan]. We just want to open some minds and provide some options," says Men-t. "You don't need that seven-ounce sirloin as the main dish. We want people to live healthier, longer lives." •
The Vegan Sisters of Memphis will discuss "The Hazards of Sugar and Salt" at Wild Oats Natural Marketplace (5022 Poplar Ave.) on December 18th at 2 p.m. Cost is $10 and includes a meal. For more information, e-mail the Vegan Sisters at firstname.lastname@example.org.