Living in New York City, I know that many people think that outreach is a lot easier here — or in places like San Francisco or Portland. And there is definitely some truth to the observation that, in parts of this big city that I call home, there is a heightened awareness of veganism and animal rights (though it’s definitely not true everywhere, and we won’t even get into the high percentage of fur-wearers, most of whom — I swear — congregate on my block just to piss me off). Still, I get it. When it comes to the availability of vegan food, and the consciousness of those awakened, at least somewhat, to animal issues, I have it easy (relatively speaking). Many people like to point that out to me, and then make some remark about how it’s much harder in, say, the Midwest.
If you listen to our podcast (which hopefully you do, otherwise you have 100 past episodes to catch up on), then you know that Mariann and I travel pretty much non-stop. The Midwest is frequently where we land, and we have found that — despite what some may say — vegans are everywhere, as is vegan food. And animal rights activists are everywhere, as is activism focused on ending animal cruelty and raising awareness about compassionate alternatives. Sure, maybe it’s not as concentrated in the Big Apple, but then again, what is? One of my favorite vegan restaurants, FÜD, is in Kansas City, MO. One of my favorite events of 2011 was the Mad City Vegan Fest in Madison, WI (check it out in our VegFest Mash-Up video). And one of my favorite animal rights organizations, Mercy for Animals, was indeed founded in Ohio (we visited them in Chicago last year).
More and more, the great changemaking in our movement is happening in the heartland. Compassionate Action for Animals, a volunteer-run animal advocacy organization based in Minnesota, is no exception. They are changing the world and starting with their community, engaging in grassroots activism like feed-ins, restaurant outreach, and community-wide vegan cooking classes.
Today and tomorrow, we will be focusing on a Q&A with Compassionate Action for Animals’ co-founder and Executive Director, Unny Nambudiripad. Today, Unny will give us the skinny on feed-ins — free events held in public where free samples of vegan food, along with animal rights literature, are distributed.
My reason for focusing on this form of activism today is because, well, ’tis the season. Food activism like this — specifically, feed-ins — is a terrific form of outreach around the holidays. People are shopping, so you’ve got well-populated areas, and they are usually making far more eye contact than normal, because they are eager and excited. Not to mention, they’re hungry, and they want free food. Why not use this season of self-reflection and giving to enlighten people to the deliciousness of compassion?
For those of you who are intrigued, Unny has some incredible tips and insights for how to implement a successful feed-in. And be sure to check back in with us tomorrow, when we’ll talk to Unny about restaurant outreach and organizing cooking classes — both of which also pack a punch this time of year.
Our Hen House: Tell us about Compassionate Action for Animals. What is your mission?
Unny Nambudiripad: First, thank you for asking! I appreciate the excellent work that Our Hen House does. You have been doing a great job to empower activists with the resources and tips they need to be more effective.
OHH: Why, thank you. We’re huge fans of Compassionate Action for Animals, so I guess we’re even.
UN: My name is Unny Nambudiripad, and I’m a co-founder and Executive Director of Compassionate Action for Animals. We’re based in the Twin Cities, Minnesota, and we host (mostly) local events and projects to advocate for animals. Since 1998, we’ve been advocating for animals using a nonviolent approach. We believe that by treating everybody with respect, including fellow activists and people in animal industries, we can maximize our change.
We do our work by conducting outreach and education, and also by building community. Our outreach work is focused on bringing in new people who are generally unaware but potentially interested in our perspective. We target young adults; we’ve handed out leaflets, tabled at events and colleges, and conducted many food giveaways. Educational efforts are aimed at getting interested people to the next level: giving them resources on vegan-friendly restaurants, vegan nutrition, cooking tips, and raising the ethical question. Finally, we do community-building, work to keep people engaged, have fun, keep the momentum going, and build social networks so that people support each other in their changes.
OHH: That’s very cool! Now, I know that Compassionate Action for Animals has done its share of food activism in Twin Cities. What have you done in the realm of feed-ins and food giveaways?
UN: We’ve been doing feed-ins for several years, mostly at college campuses, but also at city parks and events. Our feed-ins have been very successful. We have found free vegan products that companies want to promote, and the people who eat the samples are happy to get free food and are open to talking to us about moving towards a plant-based diet. Volunteers also have a great time.
OHH: Sure — what’s not to love about free food?! So what happens during a feed-in?
UN: During our feed-ins, we hand out Vegan Outreach‘s excellent literature about factory farming and veganism. We don’t require that people read the literature to take the food, and we understand that a certain percentage of the people who take our samples just want the free food. But, the positive atmosphere that we provide is very conducive to folks taking the literature and talking to us. Activists are sometimes accused of being negative and not having solutions, and doing feed-ins provides a great counter-example.
OHH: Can you tell me a bit about your biggest annual feed-in, which takes place at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities?
UN: We do this one in conjunction with our Veg Week event, and at the feed-in we sign people up to take the Pledge to Be Veg. In the atmosphere of the feed-in, it’s easy to sign people up. Veg Week events have included a speaker, more free vegan food samples, dine-outs, potlucks, and a tour to a local farm animal sanctuary. In short, the feed-in is a great way to bring people into our fold and engage with them further.
OHH: Did you find your food giveaways were difficult to organize? And do you have any tips for someone else who might be interested in organizing a food giveaway?
UN: When we first did food giveaways, we asked restaurants and groceries to donate food samples. We later found it more effective to go straight to the producers of the food products. The logistics of food giveaways includes refrigeration, food preparation, cooking, food permits, volunteers, and lots of hauling. There’s nothing too technical about it besides creating check-lists and following them. VegFund has great resources on how to do food giveaways, and they offer funding. I recommend starting out small, and working towards bigger giveaways. Other tips include:
- Have a lot of volunteers. This work is labor-intensive.
- Relatedly, this event is so much fun for volunteers, so it’s easy to recruit! You can be sure they will have a great time.
- Don’t announce the event publicly. You want to reach people who aren’t looking for you, not the ones who are narrowly focused on getting free food.
- Ask for food donations at least three months in advance, and be prepared to follow-up with companies.
The level of difficulty of organizing a food giveaway is proportionate to its size. That is, small giveaways are easy, but large ones can be more challenging.
OHH: What has been the reaction of the passersby?
UN: People are enthusiastic about free food! I’ve done all kinds of events – protests, leafletings, speaking events, potlucks, etc., and food giveaways are certainly the events where we get the most positive feedback.
Here’s some more helpful information on how to organize a feed-in. Special thanks to Unny and Compassionate Action for Animals. Don’t forget to check back tomorrow for information from Unny on restaurant outreach and organizing cooking classes!