Your Village: What’s it like being a vegan in Iowa City?

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Photo by Helaina Thompson

Tell me more about how to be vegan in Iowa City/Coralville – Sangini, Iowa City, via Facebook

Let’s start with some basics. People sometimes confuse being vegetarian with being vegan. Vegetarians don’t eat meat, vegans avoid all animal products. Even honey.

“I believe animals exist for their purposes,” said Cadry Nelson of Cadry’s Kitchen: A Vegan Adventure. “Even bees. They make honey for themselves, not for us.”

Nelson is an Iowa native who grew up in Des Moines and now lives in Iowa City, so she understands the challenges of going vegan in the state that leads the nation in pork exports and has “the butter cow” as its unofficial mascot. On her site, Nelson offers advice and helpful information in posts such as “13 Vegan-Friendly Businesses in Iowa City.”

“Iowa City keeps improving all the time,” Nelson said.

University of Iowa undergraduate Alona Montgomery told Little Village she’s found it much easier being a vegan since moving to Iowa City. Before coming to UI, Montgomery lived in Cedar Falls for two years, while she attended the University of Northern Iowa.

“I tried to go vegan at UNI last year, but there weren’t a lot of grocery stores that I could get to, since I didn’t have a car,” Montgomery said. “And when I could get to the store, the produce often wasn’t good or it was very limited.”

Montgomery said in Iowa City it’s easy to find fresh produce at John’s Grocery, New Pioneer Food Co-op and Bread Garden Market, all of which are within easy walking distance for her.

Cedar Falls also didn’t have many options for a vegan looking to dine out, Montgomery found. Iowa City has one fully vegan restaurant — Trumpet Blossom Cafe — but many other places offer vegan options, including places you might not expect. For example, Zombie Burger — whose name suggests the most aggressive meat-eating possible — has vegan burgers on its menu.

“Those burgers are tremendously good,” Nelson said.

And just because a restaurant doesn’t have vegan items on the menu doesn’t mean you’re out of luck in Iowa City and Coralville, according to Nelson.

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“Just ask,” she said. “A lot of times chefs will make something if you just tell them you’re vegan. It’s so great when chefs take it as a fun challenge to do something off-menu and give you something really creative.”

People making the transition to veganism need to make sure they not only eat well, but also that they eat enough, Nelson said.

Cashew cream-filled polenta rounds stacked with butternut squash, and a serving of collard greens, prepared by Cadry Nelson. — photo by Helaina Thompson

“Sometimes people will think: ‘I’m going to be vegan, I’m going to eat just salad,’” she said. “Well, you’re going to be hungry and you’re not going to get all your nutrients. But as long as you’re making sure to eat a variety and get enough calories, you’ll do fine.”

“I find for myself, I feel fuller when I have something protein-dense in a meal. I feel more satisfied if I have legumes or tofu or seitan or tempeh,” Nelson added. “So, I make sure to do that.”

More than anything, Montgomery said that it was the people she’s met in Iowa City that’s made it easier to be a vegan.

“When I came here, I made more friends who are vegan and so we could talk about challenges, what they went through,” she said. “If you do go vegan, try to do it with a friend. It makes it so much easier.”

“Because it is a big change.”

It’s a change that goes well beyond deciding what to eat, and one that involves a lot of alterations to a former-omnivore’s lifestyle.

Some are obvious: no leather shoes, no wool sweaters. Vegans shop for plant-based clothing.

“The way that people look at food labels, you do that with clothing labels and labels on shoes,” Nelson said. “It is a lot easier [to shop for clothes] in the summer, because there’s a lot more cotton. But it is totally doable even in cold weather.”

Other challenges are harder. Animal-derived products are used in everything from playing cards to tires. Michelin doesn’t use any animal products in its tires, but even if you’re riding on vegan-friendly rubber, all the steel in your car was coated was substances derived from animal fat. Same for the car’s rubber tubing and gaskets.

“At some point, you have to accept all you can do is your best,” Nelson said. “Perfection isn’t the thing. If someone stops going vegan because they’re worried about tires, they are missing the forest for the trees.”

Montgomery has a similar attitude.

“I just want to do my best to not ruin the Earth,” she said.

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