Easy being green
Bay Area vegetarians spread the word about life without meat
by Matt Villano

August 5, 2005

It's a brilliant and fogless Saturday afternoon in Pacifica, and while motorists head toward the beach along Highway 1, Chris James is hard at work in his chicken costume.

Pacing the shoulder of the highway outside a KFC restaurant, James squawks and flaps his elbows. He is joined by three other demonstrators who carry signs that read, "KFC Tortures Chickens" and "Scalded Alive." Save for the occasional middle finger, most motorists happily comply.

For James, vice president of a growing grassroots organization called Bay Area Vegetarians, based in Montara, it's just another day in his yellow-feather suit.

Across the Bay Area, James and other group members hit the streets in an effort to raise awareness about the way KFC raises and kills the chickens it fries. The strategy is one of the most direct ways the organization spreads the word about animal rights and life without meat.

"We just want people to think before they make choices that essentially support cruelty to animals," says James, who has been a vegan, a strict vegetarian who neither eats nor wears animal products, since 1990. He drives a car with vanity license plates that read: "B A VEG."

"For us, changing your diet is only the beginning."

Bay Area Vegetarians, James says, is about much more than a lifestyle choice. The nonprofit organization attempts to advocate animal rights through a trifecta of activism, education and outreach.

In addition to the monthly protests, the group sponsors lectures and films. Members host monthly vegetarian dinners and potluck parties. They write letters to legislators, distribute leaflets and brochures and books about vegetarian living at major regional festivals such as San Francisco's Gay Pride celebration in June.

Since the organization's start in 2001, these tactics have worked wonders. At a time when experts say that membership in just about all vegetarian groups is growing, Bay Area Vegetarians is enjoying a truly meteoric rise.

No other regional vegetarian organization in the country is bigger, and last month the group's membership stood at 2,200 -- the highest it's ever been. To put that into national perspective, recent membership tallies at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) reported nearly 850,000, an increase of 100,000 over last year alone. PETA, an international animal rights group based in Norfolk, Va., estimates there are 12 million vegetarians in the United States.

"No matter where you look, vegetarianism certainly is on the rise," says Bruce Friedrich, PETA's director of vegan campaigns. "Bay Area Vegetarians is among the most active of the groups nationwide."

To call Bay Area Vegetarians a grassroots organization is both a pun and an understatement. The group does not charge membership dues, and is loosely organized by region, with informal chapters in the North Bay, East Bay, Peninsula, South Bay and San Francisco. Each of these regional outposts hosts its own events, and in any given month, one outpost might have 12 or 15 events.

Some months, particularly in the spring and fall, there can be as many as 20 events within a 10-mile radius.

In Oakland, Hayward resident and vegetarian Bob Gotch hosts a monthly dinner at the New World vegetarian restaurant downtown. In Sausalito, Valerie Kiku leads anti-fur protests outside the local Benetton on Princess Street.

Kiku, a vegan who also owns Mill Valley Cycle Works bike shop in Mill Valley, says that while other organizations try too hard to centralize their efforts, Bay Area Vegetarians is successful at creating a community because it revolves around local events that keep people involved.

"It's nice because even though there might be two or three events around the bay on any given day, the events bring everybody in the whole Bay Area together," she says. "If it wasn't for this organization, we'd all be doing our own things, and there wouldn't be such a community of like-minded vegetarian people."

On the Peninsula, vegetarian Candace Bowers praises the organization for its legislative advocacy efforts. Every month, Bowers, who lives in Menlo Park, hosts letter-writing gatherings at which Bay Area Vegetarians members sign advocacy letters that they mail to legislators. Every time organization members participate, they receive points toward prizes at the end of the year.

Some of the items up for grabs: hemp T-shirts, vegetarian cookbooks, or gift certificates for vegetarian meals.

While Bowers describes the letter-writing get-togethers as "social activism events," she also says they help the group convey its message to lawmakers.

She said members have written as many as 500 letters at a party. While no local legislators have directly credited Bay Area Vegetarians with enlightening their positions on specific bills, Bowers likes to think the documents wield at least some influence.

"You can be 'too busy' to sit down and write your local representative about an animal rights issue that concerns you, but you always find the motivation when someone sponsors a letter-writing party at a local cafe," she says. "To me, the members of this organization are the true heroes of animal rights."

Advocacy isn't the only way Bay Area Vegetarians attempts to spread the word. Through the organization's Web site, www.bayareaveg.org, the group offers a variety of resources including "The Ultimate Guide to Vegetarian Living in the SF Bay Area," a directory of vegetarian-friendly stores and restaurants around the bay. The group publishes a hardbound version of this directory, too, and every Thanksgiving, Bay Area Vegetarians distributes vegan- friendly recipe booklets designed to facilitate a meatless feast.

For those who aren't ready to embrace vegetarianism full-bore, the organization also offers what it calls a "Veg Mentor Program," an effort that teams would-be vegetarians with veteran vegans for a smooth and personalized transition into the lifestyle. In an approach that slightly resembles the "sponsor" strategy behind groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, mentors are trained to offer experiential knowledge without proselytizing, an incremental process designed to ease folks into vegetarianism and veganism at their own pace.

"We want to raise awareness, but we want to make sure we do it at a pace that's comfortable for everyone," says Tammy Lee, the organization's president and James' wife. "At the end of the day, making people comfortable with vegetarianism is the first step toward getting them to change the way they live their lives."

Going veggie

For more information about Bay Area Vegetarians' events, programs and membership, visit www.bayareaveg.org or write to Bay Area Vegetarians, P.O. Box 371215, Montara, CA 94037-1215.

Kaylee Wall, 2, and mom Tami Wall, above, enjoy dessert at the Bay Area Vegetarians' monthly dinner at the Bay Leaf Cafe in Palo Alto. Photo by Liz Mangelsdorf


Chris James (left) and his wife, Tammy Lee, who is president of Bay Area Vegetarians, are active in promoting the vegetarian lifestyle. Photo by Liz Mangelsdorf