While traveling in the U.K. in 2019, Emma Fuerst Frelinghuysen was surprised by all the Veganuary promotions, including this one in a British supermarket. Photo by Emma Fuerst Frelinghuysen

While in the United Kingdom on business in January 2019, Emma Fuerst Frelinghuysen was surprised by all the promotional displays in support of the Veganuary challenge.

“I was blown away by what a big deal Veganuary was,” said Frelinghuysen, chief executive officer of plant-based protein bar company R.E.D.D., headquartered in Brunswick. “Every grocery store had a special at the end cap for Veganuary. Every restaurant we went to had a special Veganuary menu.”

Back then – when traveling and eating in restaurants were normal activities – Frelinghuysen was working for major natural food brand Hain Celestial, and the U.K. trip was packed with grocery store tours, dinners and other food events.

“I was so inspired,” Frelinghuysen told me by phone from her home in New York, where she lives with her family. “I said I’d do a Veganuary the next year,” which she did in January 2020. Turns out, Frelinghuysen liked the challenge so much, she’s doing Veganuary again this year. She’s not alone. 

Before the start of the month, preliminary numbers were running “up over 100 percent” from comparable signups last year when a record 400,000 people took part, according to Wendy Matthews, U.S. director for Veganuary. That was a jump from the record 250,000 participants in 2019, the year Frelinghuysen was in the U.K. 

Veganuary is a crowdfunded nonprofit launched in 2014 to coordinate the annual challenge, where participants try to go 31 days eating full vegan. Annual participation continues to be biggest in Britain, but it’s slowly spreading to the U.S., along with many other countries including Mexico, Argentina, Germany and Sweden. 

Here in Maine, Christa Vo of Portland is also taking part in this year’s Veganuary challenge for the second time. “I have been trying to reduce the amount of animal products I eat for years,” Vo said, citing environmental, health and animal welfare concerns as reasons for her desire to change what she eats.

Last year, Vo continued doing the challenge until the pandemic hit. Then, with restaurants shuttered and basic groceries hard to get, Vo returned to her pre-challenge recipes. But she did keep one new thing she tried during Veganuary: produce delivery. “I signed up for a Misfits Market Box, which I have continued,” Vo said, calling the delivery service “tremendously helpful during COVID.”

This year, Vo hopes the challenge will help launch her into a more flexitarian style of eating, where animal products are minimized but not excluded and meals are constructed around plants. 

Seen here eating a vegan lunch at Baristas + Bites last January, Matt Place of Portland was one of 400,000 people worldwide who took part in the Veganuary challenge in 2020. Place said the challenge changed the way he eats. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

This is what happened for Matt Place of Portland, who took part in the 2020 challenge and said it shifted the overall way he eats. 

“Before Veganuary, I would say 99 percent of my meals included some sort of meat or dairy,” said Place. “Participating in Veganuary made me realize that that didn’t always have to be the case.” Now, he and his family are eating fewer animal products and more vegan meals, with bean burritos a particular favorite.

Facilitating this kind of lasting dietary change is one of the aims of the Veganuary event, which also seeks to increase the number of vegan options available in grocery stores and restaurants. People who register on the Veganuary website gain recipes, support teams and other resources. 

Deb Rodriguez Gaspardi of Freeport, who is participating in Veganuary for the first time, wants the challenge to help her switch to a whole foods, plant-based diet, which is the diet that’s been clinically linked to improved health.

“After I heard about the January challenge, I thought there’s no better way to start the new year off,” Gaspardi said. As a private chef who works in healthcare, Gaspardi is looking to eliminate highly processed foods along with added oils and salt. “I can’t turn a blind eye to how bad eating saturated fats are because there is scientific backing,” Gaspardi said. 

Even so, she anticipates that avoiding cheese and other cow’s milk products will be hard. “Dairy is my biggest challenge,” Gaspardi said. “But boy, when I don’t eat it, I don’t feel the inflammation in my knees.” 

Vo, a busy law student and mother of four, knew to stock up on vegan food “for late night cravings while studying” ahead of this month’s challenge.

“I have a few new recipes I found last January that my whole family enjoys as well,” Vo said, “which has meant I can reduce the amount of meat everyone in my house eats. Even a little bit of reduction at one meal a week makes a difference.”

This year, Vo is relying more on home cooking, while last year she ate a lot of prepared vegan meals, becoming a regular at Nura and Copper Branch in Portland, and stopping at Evolution Burger, Chipotle and Qdoba when away from home. 

Place, who is the territory manager for Athletic Brewing Company, also leaned heavily on local restaurants to get him through the challenge. He said his go-to spots included Nura, Monte’s Fine Foods, Three Dollar Dewey’s and Baristas + Bites, which closed its Old Port shop because of the pandemic and switched to selling vegan cookies and whoopie pies on GoldBelly and through Williams-Sonoma. 

“Most local restaurants in Portland have vegan options I find, so it really helps to live in such a great restaurant city,” Vo said. 

Gaspardi, the chef, intends to cook her own meals. “I told my husband, as of the first of year, I’m no longer buying dairy products or getting meat, so if you want it, you’ll have to get it,” she said. “He says, ‘Whatever makes you happy.’”

In addition to having a very smart husband, Gaspardi also had a plan for the month, and it centers on simple meals, such as overnight oats for breakfast and lots of beans, steamed vegetables and roasted root vegetables for lunch and dinner. 

“It’s time for me to focus on a healthier version of myself,” Gaspardi said. “I’m really trying to use food as my medicine.”

Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at [email protected]
Twitter: AveryYaleKamila

Comments are not available on this story.