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Black-Owned Restaurants Go Vegan in South L.A.

L.A. Watts Times, News Report, Rosetta Riley Posted: Aug 23, 2008

More African Americans are going vegan in South Los Angeles, and the restaurant industry is responding with alternative options on their menus. Rosetta Riley is an editorial intern with the L.A. Watts Times. This article is part of a New America Media project sponsored by the Ford Foundation to increase the online presence of ethnic media.

Some black-owned vegetarian and vegan restaurants in Los Angeles are making healthful eating taste good, including the Vegan Village Caf on Pico Boulevard, Stuff I Eat in Inglewood and Rahels on Fairfax Avenue. Pictured (above left, l to r): Chef Richard B. Gryer, who whips up vegetarian cuisine at Vegan Village Caf, and Jewel Thais-Williams, owner and founder of Vegan Village Caf and Village Health Clinic. Also pictured (center): a sample plate at Vegan Village features Gryers sweet potatoes, barbecue tofu chunks, potato salad, kale garnish, faux fried shrimp, faux fried, corn, and barbecue chicken, and the cafs famed chlorophyll lemon ginger drink. Also pictured (above right): Rahel Woldmedhin, owner of the Ethiopian vegan restaurant Rahel, holds out a dish of Ethiopian platters. Unlike other Ethiopian restaurants that serve vegetarian platters, Rahel specializes in all meatless foods.

LOS ANGELES -- Expect to hear a lot about health care as the 2008 presidential campaign heats up, with comparisons between Republican John McCains and Democrat Barack Obamas respective plans to make insurance more affordable and providers more efficient.

Then theres another sort of health care, a more basic notion thats getting attention in Los Angeles these days thanks in part to black celebrities such as singer Erykah Badu, actress Angela Bassett, hip-hop artist Common, and basketball legend John Salley who are opting for vegetarian cuisine.

All of these stars have decided to go on alternative diets, and the trend is reaching everyday people in the black community. To accommodate those whove transitioned to vegetarianism, more black-owned vegetarian and vegan restaurants are sprouting up.

Theres good reason -- the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health reports that 30 percent of adults in the South Los Angeles area are obese, compared to 19.1 percent for the overall population in the metropolitan area. Blacks and Latinos are predominantly affected: 28.7 percent of Latinos and 27.7 percent of blacks are obese, compared to 16.6 percent of whites.

Perhaps the cause of such startling statistics is the lack of healthful food options in South Los Angeles.

On July 30, the Los Angeles City Council unanimously approved an Interim Control Ordinance (ICO) -- sponsored by 9th District representative Jan Perry -- that is designed to tackle the disproportion in food options currently available in South Los Angeles. The goal of the ICO is to prevent new fast food establishments from opening in the South Los Angeles, Southeast Los Angeles, West Adams, Baldwin Hills and Leimert Park areas. The ICO also is designed to attract restaurants to the city that will serve healthier food.

However, some black-owned restaurants already have found solutions to the fast-food epidemic: eliminating meat products -- not just fattening platters --from the menu.

For restaurants such as the Vegan Village Caf and VegiSoul, the goal is to capture the essence of black soul food, but with a healthier approach. Jewel Thais-Williams, a long-time vegan, community health activist and owner of the Vegan Village Caf, opened the restaurants doors nearly 40 years ago. Thais-Williams says there are numerous health reasons more blacks are considering veganism.

There is no cholesterol in plant-based foods and people are more likely to maintain a healthy weight, she said. Aside from vanity reasons such as skin appearance and weight loss, those who seek to improve their overall health may witness other long-term results.

Research shows that vegetarian diets tend to result in lower rates of heart disease, high blood pressure, type II diabetes and some forms of cancer. Vegetarians also tend to have lower body mass indexes and cholesterol levels, according to the American Dietetic Association.

But before you scrape your plate of fried chicken and barbecue ribs in the trash, there are some things to consider when switching to a vegetarian diet. For starters, embracing a vegetarian lifestyle varies from person to person.

Most vegetarians avoid all red meat, fish and poultry, but vegetarian styles differ in the three main categories: Vegans, or strict vegetarians who avoid eating all animal products; Lactovegetarians, who eat milk, cheese and yogurt, but avoid eggs and foods containing eggs; and Lacto-ovo vegetarians who eat milk, cheese, yogurt and eggs.

A common misconception about vegetarian eating is that its a problem getting adequate amounts of protein. Yet soy products can provide the high-quality protein needed for growth and tissue maintenance, according to the American Dietetic Association.

Despite the numerous health benefits, and ethical questions of animal cruelty, for some African Americans, changing their diets may be a bit challenging. Thais-Williams says there are now more options for vegans and vegetarians than ever, especially with hundreds of meat substitute dishes on the market. She advises prospective vegans to be patient with the process and remember it is a process. She also says a starting point could begin with avoiding red meat, then chicken and fish, and eventually avoiding eggs and all diary products.

For more information, tips and facts, regarding veganism and vegetarianism, visit: www.blackvegetarians.org, www.peta.org, www.thevegetarianchannel.com, www.americanvegan.org

Photos by India Allen

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