Editor’s note: This is the final in a seven-part series about what it is like to be a vegetarian in Maine today.

In 2013, before Mary-Anne LaMarre turned 50, she decided to give herself the gift of better eating. But first she had to figure out what that was.

So she read, searched online and watched a number of films, including “Forks Over Knives,” “Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead” and “Vegucated.”

“The more I researched, the more indicators led me to the conclusion that a plant-based diet was medically the best option,” said LaMarre, who lives in Oakland. She decided to go vegan.

These days LaMarre’s story is a familiar one – lots of Mainers have discovered the links between a meat-based diet and chronic disease and adopted a vegetarian diet as a result. However, what happened next is what makes her story stand out.

“I was sleeping better. Everything was better,” LaMarre said, “and my adult children took notice.”

Within three months, her four daughters and four granddaughters had all gone vegan, too. Her husband, adult son and other relatives continue to eat meat, just not in LaMarre’s house.

Together the three generations of LaMarre women began exploring and experimenting with vegan food and cooking, holding regular vegan potluck dinners at LaMarre’s house.

“Doing it together made it easier since it was something we did as a family,” she said. “It was quite fun.”

Soon LaMarre began hosting huge, spill-into-the-backyard potlucks with other local vegans.

“What we learned is there’s a significant vegan population in the central Maine area,” LaMarre said.

What’s causing all these people in central Maine to adopt vegan diets? Maybe this:

According to recent social science research, our behaviors influence not only our friends, but our friends’ friends.

In 2008, researchers at Harvard University documented how cigarette smoking – or more specifically the act of quitting – spreads through social networks. The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that we have the most influence on our spouses and close friends, but we also influence – and are influenced by – the actions of people we’ve never even met.

Could vegetarianism spread in a similar fashion?

LEARNED AT SCHOOL

At Tony Schwieterman’s house in Sebago, the act of quitting meat started when the school friends of his oldest daughter went vegetarian. Next his daughter Anja, 15, went vegetarian, too.

Because the Waynflete sophomore often was left eating cereal or pasta for dinner, Schwieterman, 47, and his wife talked to Anja and offered to help her figure out how to eat more well-rounded vegetarian meals.

To get ideas about what to cook and eat, they watched films such as “The Engine 2 Kitchen Rescue” and “Forks Over Knives.” That’s when his wife, Leigh, 40, asked Schwieterman: “Would you want to give it a try?”

So Leigh went vegan, Schwieterman went mostly vegan and soon their daughter Josie, 12, went vegetarian, too. Their son Mac, 7, eats meat at school and vegetarian meals at home.

Schwieterman said being longtime members of a community supported agriculture (CSA) farm helped make the switch to vegetable-centric cooking smoother.

“It has been very easy because we’re all on the same page,” Schwieterman said. “We do a monthly menu for dinners, and the kids put in what they’d like to have, and we put in what we’d like to have. We also fix vegetarian and vegan meals – the kids eat the cheese, but my wife and I don’t.”

Schwieterman, whose cholesterol dropped 90 points in three weeks after he stopped eating meat, said he has no plans to go back.

FROM THE MOUTHS OF BABES

Like Schwieterman, Sarah Speare of Falmouth also went vegetarian because of her child.

It was 1996 and Speare and her son Emmett Brennan, then 5, had visited a local farm before stopping to buy groceries at the Hannaford in Portland. When Speare, now 58, stopped in the meat department and added a package of chicken to the shopping cart, she said she could suddenly see “his little mind working.” And then Speare said he asked, “with tears welling in his eyes and with complete horror in his face, ‘We eat chickens?’ ”

“I told him the truth,” Speare said, “but I couldn’t explain it when he asked why.”

They both became vegetarians on the spot.

Speare said her son wanted to stop eating eggs and drinking milk as well, but she felt that was too drastic. Then in 2010 they both decided to go vegan.

Speare’s older son and husband eat vegetarian at her table, while still eating meat outside the home. They lean vegetarian, Speare said.

In each one of these cases, the ominvores in the family eat less meat than they used to because they’re no longer eating it at home (or at Mom’s house).

These stories show how our actions can affect those around us, particularly our family. But what influence do our actions have on the rest of our community?

In 2011, scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute published a study that shed light on the public opinion tipping point. According to their research, once 10 percent of the people in a given population hold the same “unshakable belief,” the idea rapidly becomes the opinion of the majority.

If this were to hold true for vegetarianism in Maine, it means that if the day ever came when 10 percent of Mainers unshakably believed in the health benefits or ethical fitness of a vegetarian diet, then more than half of Mainers would soon go vegetarian too.

But don’t get out your tofu party hats yet. According to a recent survey by the Vegetarian Resource Group, only 5 percent of Americans, and presumably Mainers, are vegetarian.

Still if more Mainers listen to their family members, this number has the potential to grow.

“Emmett was my teacher,” Speare said. “And he helped me to align more with my values. A child’s innocence and truth can do that.”

Avery Yale Kamila is a freelance food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at:

[email protected]

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila


Comments are not available on this story.