Merced’s vegan population finding its place in a community that depends on farming

Living in a region steeped in the dairy industry may sound like an unnatural fit for a tight-knit group of Merced County vegans, but for them, it is just the right thing to do.

A couple of dozen of those vegans could be seen out in downtown Merced recently at one of their monthly meetings to welcome newcomers and sample what restaurants had to offer people who don’t eat animal products.

The regular gatherings of the Vegan Project Merced have been organized for about four years by Merced native Erika Fowler. The 46-year-old has been vegan since 2012 and says she’s even converted her mother.

Merced’s vegan community is growing, she said, and people come to veganism in different ways. She noted some groups are more militant.

“We are more like a friendly group where people can eat food and have a beer,” she said. “There’s room for everyone.”

She hosts potlucks at her home for area vegans or anyone interested in learning more about veganism. She and her husband felt ostracized when they made the change so the potlucks are meant to make others feel welcome.

Going vegan wasn’t all that difficult, according to 21-year-old Argenis Higareda of Planada. The Merced College student said most restaurants have something that can be “veganized.”

It’s family and friends that are the biggest hurdle.

“Last week, I went to my cousin’s for a party,” he said. “My cousin was like, ‘I forgot you’re vegan. We got ice. You can eat ice.’ “

Higareda said he’s new to the lifestyle but his story was similar to many of the downtown diners. He watched a documentary that unveiled what happens to animals on factory farms.

There’s “Death on a Factory Farm,” “Forks over Knives” and “Earthlings,” to name a few.

The group said their feelings on farming can put them in a precarious position in the central San Joaquin Valley. Farming is big in Merced County, where milk is the largest commodity and chickens are No. 3.

Then there’s the fact that factory farming affects the environment. Along with the gaseous emissions that come from the animals themselves, large pieces of land are used to grow food for the animals, altering the way carbon is recycled in the atmosphere, according to scientists.

Eating an al pastor taco made with tofu in place of meat was Diana Castaneda, who works at a Turlock gas station. She said her decision to swear off of animal products was an ethical one, but it comes with health benefits.

In her year as a vegan she’s been able to bring down her high blood pressure and high cholesterol, no longer having to take pills, she said. One might think she misses some part of eating meat, but that’s not the case.

“I could never ever in my life put a dead animal in my body,” the 38-year-old said.

Vegans often use tofu or tempeh, both of which are soy products, in place of meat. The Merced diners said learning to love fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes is a better way to approach veganism than only trying to swap soy products in for meat.

Veganism appears to be growing nationwide, if only slightly. There are about 2 million vegetarians, which is defined as someone who doesn’t eat meat, in the U.S., according to a Harris poll from 2014. The poll also showed that vegetarianism was more common among children than adults.

To learn more about the regular meeting, “like” the Vegan Project Merced Facebook page.