If you could be anyone for one day, who would you be? Paris Hilton? Donald Trump? A world leader?
What about a vegetarian?
Let's face it. We live in a fast-food nation where greasy cheeseburgers and oily fried chicken dominate the American diet. And while we know those things are bad for us, making a change seems like too much work, especially if it involves giving up meat all together. But what if it was just for one day?
On March 20th, people across the country will trade burgers for textured vegetable protein patties during the Great American Meatout -- a spinoff of the Great American Smokeout. Vegetarianism isn't just about rabbit food anymore, and health-food stores in all 50 states and several other countries will be hosting special meat-free festivals and cookouts featuring the numerous faux-meat products on the market.
At the Midtown Food Co-op, employees will be outside (weather permitting) grilling up everything from barbecue soy riblets and faux-chicken patties to tofu dogs and veggie kabobs. For a donation of five bucks (if you've got it), you can eat all you want from a smorgasbord of meat-free grub. And they'll have all the fixin's like potato salad and coleslaw to make the meal complete.
"We chose to grill out because Memphis is such a barbecue city, and people assume that if you're a vegetarian, you can't eat barbecue. They think all you can eat is bread and carrots, but vegetarians can actually have a barbecue that's pretty much the same as any other," says Ariel Roads, event coordinator for the co-op.
Co-op members also will be handing out pamphlets with instructions on how to order a free vegetarian starter kit -- a booklet filled with recipes and tips on how to make the change without losing essential nutrients, such as protein and iron. You can even sign a pledge form promising to give up flesh for a day, a week, a month, or even a lifetime.
The Farm Animals Reform Movement (FARM), a national organization that advocates a plant-based diet and the humane treatment of farm animals, started Meatout back in 1985, a time the group classifies as "the dietary dark ages." Back in the those days, there was no such thing as Tofurkey (tofu turkey) or Fakin' Bacon (tempeh strips). When a vegetarian needed protein, they were pretty much reduced to soy burgers, plain tofu, or beans. But things have changed.
"As far as meat substitutes go, it's almost endless these days," says Roads. "There's fake chicken, fake ground beef, fake sausage, tempeh. Those are just a few of the products we carry in our store. Some people have made the transition but are still baffled by the products. I think the Meatout barbecue can help them with that."
According to Dawn Moncrief, the national coordinator for Meatout, about 1.4 million Americans die each year from diseases related to their diets. She says cutting back on meat can reduce heart disease, cancer, and any disease associated with saturated fats. A meat-free diet also reduces cholesterol.
FARM champions a meatless diet for two reasons: health benefits and animal welfare.
On Meatout day, they encourage health-food stores and organizations to promote better health by eliminating meat, and on October 2nd (World Farm Animals Day), they ask groups to focus more on the inhumane treatment of animals on factory farms. While Meatout is considered a festive event, World Farm Animals Day is a somber look into animal abuse.
"People have this image of farms where the farmer has all this land and his animals roam free on it. He forms relationships with them and goes out and feeds them. Well, that's not really the reality anymore because factory farms have taken over," says Moncrief. "Factory farms are concrete buildings where animals are kept in cages, and a lot of times they can't move or turn around. And they never get to see the sun."
According to Meatout's statistics, about 30 million Americans have "explored" a meatless diet, meaning they've at least pledged to abstain from meat for one day during a past Meatout event. Meatout promotes a vegan diet (no eggs, dairy, or animal by-products), but according to Moncrief, any reduction in meat intake is a step in the right direction. The group encourages the single meat-free day as a way for people to sample the vegetarian lifestyle.
"It helps when people can try it out for a day and not have to be gung-ho about it," says Roads. "You don't have to throw everything away in your kitchen and start over. You can just see what's it's like and maybe start doing it once a week."