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IV: The Annual Ivy League Vegan Conference

IV: The Annual Ivy League Vegan Conference

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Being vegan is just a trend, right? A diet for weight loss is it’s main purpose, right? Wrong. So very wrong. The iV 2014 Conference, held at Princeton University February 7th-9th, presented the issue of veganism as so much more than a fad diet. I left the conference with a more complete understanding of the most contemporary issues and ideas surrounding veganism. With topics ranging from race and religious identity within the vegan world to fMRI research on dogs and their state of mind, the iV Conference event uniquely delved into a wide array of topics surrounding veganism beyond its effects on the human body.

The weekend was kick-started with a panel of CEOs and company representatives who gave the inside scoop on leading a plant-based product and sustainable company. Joining the panel were Arshad Bahl with his vegan, soy-free, gluten-free energy Amrita energy bars; Peter Kidd who works closely with the founder of HipCityVeg restaurant in Philadelphia; Joe Holder from Health Warrior, a company that produces 100-calorie chia seed bars; Michael Schwarz, creator of the Treeline Cheese brand, an artisanal vegan cheese product; and Joel Henry, the CEO of Fig Food. Panel discussions included a dialogue concerning issues that may help bridge the gap between the environmentally/humanely mindful products and their conventional foods competition. “How do you convince the consumer to buy a 100-calorie chia bar when it’s sitting next to a larger, denser Clif Bar?” was the question Holder from Health Warrior asked.

The CEOs also spoke of their struggles of building their start-ups after leaving their unfulfilling corporate jobs while also balancing their home-life and work-life. Joel Henry previously worked for Campbell’s and Kraft and openly commented that his work in both companies lent a hand in crippling diet and health in America. Now all of his resources have gone toward his Fig Food start-up, a “mission-based” company focusing on sustainable practices in their offices and factories.

Joel and the other panelists emphasized their marketing/pricing of their plant-based products is more than targeting wealthy consumers – their prices reflect the high-quality and thoughtfulness of their products. In response to a concern about the accessibility and pricing of Fig Food products, Joel encouraged: “If you can’t afford our product, go make your own food! We are here to produce a product that you aren’t able to make at home or don’t have the means to create. And there are other ways to maintain a plant-based diet without going broke.”

Hearing about the battle that these companies have to go through just to get stocked in a grocery store, even a co-op store, cast their perspectives in a different light for me. It is often equally or more expensive for companies to get their product on co-op shelves as it is to get them carried at larger retailers like Whole Foods. According to one panelist, Whole Foods demands a 48% margin on this panelist’s products just to be placed on the shelves. I knew that Whole Foods products usually cost more than those at a traditional grocery store, but here it hit me that the final price of the products on the shelves is a function of both the manufacturer’s cost and the retailer’s markup.

It is too often painted in food justice circles that health food companies are getting rich on unreasonably high markups on unnecessary luxury products. Instead, I would argue that these food items are not more expensive than they “should” be, but rather more conventional food items are artificially cheap in comparison due to near-slave labor conditions foisted upon desperate workers (lack of benefits, long hours, job instability, etc.) and poor ingredient sourcing for items on the shelves of more conventional grocery chains. These companies are making the argument that food should cost more than it has for much of the twentieth century because we should be investing higher percentages of our disposable incomes on nourishing our bodies (and supporting the people creating our nourishment) and less disposable income on less important products and services in our lives. I felt enlightened.

This session gave me an intimate look into the struggles that great products like the Health Warrior energy bars have to overcome just to get on store shelves and how these items are a part of a much larger and increasingly important dialogue about food in our country and around the world.

In the financial session, Jody Rasch, an SVP at Moody’s Corporation gave a light-hearted and encouraging talk covering the various ways that financial professionals can be part of the solution in bringing higher-quality vegan food and fashion to market. Rasch, whose specialty is microfinance and social investing, said that there was an impressive $3 billion bottom line in 2013 for these companies in this category. He went on to talk about ways that animal advocates and vegan investors have tried to use financial tools in the past to do their work.

Rasch mentioned a strategy known as shorting the stock (see definition and explanation number 1) for companies like McDonald’s. He also mentioned another widely-used strategy of buying stock to gain shareholder influence within the company to force change from the inside. Other thought-provoking comments included beginning a start-up in a developing country like India where it only takes a few hundred dollars to begin, and, therefore, it takes much less money to have the same impact than it would cost in the US or another mature market.

After Rasch finished his financially-related presentation, he gave the floor to David Benzaquen, the founder and CEO of PlantBased Solutions, a brand management and marketing agency specializing in plant-based foods. David spoke about different marketing tactics for vegan companies, such as using different labeling and packaging for products sold to children versus women versus men through a discussion on this remarkable baby carrot case study done by former Coca-Cola executive Jeff Dunn.

Breeze Harper, a University of California, Davis research fellow who specializes in critical whiteness studies, black feminism, race theory, and food politics, was the keynote speaker for the conference. Harper’s presence was captivating: she gave the audience the “gift of song” in her introduction and permeated the air with an unforgettably beautiful and powerful energy. In her talk, Harper discussed increasing accessibility of veganism across cultural divides by acknowledging culturally-relevant differences in approaching food and health.

Beyond inhumane practices toward animals, she emphasized that the human cost for both animal and plant products can be extraordinary. Poor labor practices within factory farms and damage community health from emission of toxic chemicals and subsequent local contamination of water supplies are just a few of Harper’s biggest concerns. Most importantly, Harper emphasized that the vegan community needs a wider variety of voices and perspectives at the table working on the issues of human, animal, and environmental well-being. The trappings of relying on limited perspectives and experiences are especially severe and can deafen the community to some of the most rarely heard disenfranchised voices.

Aside from the more general reasons to consider veganism, personal and familial hurdles can also act as obstacles in fully embodying the vegan lifestyle. Harper shared her own experience as a black woman losing weight due to her vegan lifestyle. The weight loss caused family distress because her family considers a more robust figure to be a sign of good health and something that should be encouraged for women, an opinion and perspective not often shared by her non-black friends and their families. However, Harper was not deterred because of her understanding and devotion to the vegan lifestyle. Understanding these small, but salient, cultural differences can better equip the vegan community with the tools to build productive dialogue in any community using language and rationale relevant to that community’s existing value system.

While I had not embraced the vegan lifestyle until recently, the Annual Ivy League Vegan Conference proved to be such a powerful and revealing experience that reinforced and expanded my beliefs of veganism. I had no idea there were companies with executive teams so passionate about creating financially sustainable businesses that also help people and the environment, and I certainly had no idea how broad an academic existed to evaluate these topics from so many important perspectives. While the motivation to explore veganism varies across individuals, I have come to see that it is all about open communication and inquiry into the world around us. We all just want to have an impact and make the world a better place.

“We are the ones we have been waiting for” – Hopi elders wisdom

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