Putting the “Active” Back Into Activism: A Student’s Journey to Spread the Gospel of Healthy Eating (Originally posted at Philly Food for Thought)

By Takia McClendon

When you think about the movers and shakers of the food justice movement, who do you think of? Mariana Chilton of Drexel University? Or maybe Mark Winne, the author of Closing the Food Gap. Either way, when most people think of the food justice movement, they think of those who are working towards getting healthy foods in low-income neighborhoods and “food deserts”. This week, Philly Food for Thought had the pleasure of interviewing with a different type of advocate.Victor Galli, the co-founder of the Penn Vegetarian Society, got personal with Philly Food for Thought in a thought provoking interview full of dreams, passion and thoughts on topics ranging from environmentalism to healthy eating habits amongst low-income residents in West Philadelphia.

Diagnosed as clinically obese at the age of 10, Victor faced an uphill battled with food addiction. By adhering to a diet that “didn’t just include meat and cheese” but were instead made completely of “meat and cheese”, Victor shared his childhood stories of eating his favorite snacks and sneaking in the kitchen for food when his parents were asleep. Now, over a decade later, Victor has traded in his old ways for a plant based diet. When we asked Victor, “why veganism?”, he simply told us that while studying at the University of Pennsylvania, he realized that he could not “rationally justify eating meat”. As an environmentalist, Victor believes that less meat consumption can lead to many environmental benefits. Recent studies conducted by the Environmental Working Group echo Victor’s beliefs. According to the group, if everyone in the United States gave up eating meat and cheese one day a week, it would be the equivalent of taking 7.6 million cars off the road each year. Although he acknowledged health and environmentalism as reasons to go vegan, Victor made sure not to overlook the importance that animal ethics played in his decision.

We settled down at the Green Line Cafe, “West Philly’s neighborhood stop for coffee, culture, and conversation”. After opening in 2003, West Philadelphia is now home to 3 cafes, all within a 15 block radius to each other. Not only did they have great food, but the Green Line Cafe proved to be the perfect location for Victor and Philly Food for Thought to exchange ideas. Here’s more on what we discussed:

Philly Food for Thought: What do you think about food access in Philadelphia? Do you think that low-income residents in West Philadelphia can afford a plant-based diet? 
Victor: Around the University City area, there are plenty of vegetarian/vegan options available for residents and students. Baltimore Avenue is very vegetarian/friendly with about 15 shops in the area providing an option for vegetarians and vegans. When it comes to low-income residents, vegetarian/vegan diets can be affordable but the way people think about the lifestyle has to be taught in a language that every group can identify with.

PFFT: What inspired you to create the Penn Vegetarian Society?
Victor: Prior to becoming a full fledged vegan, I was vegetarian. In 2009, I realized that I could no longer justify eating animals. I was inspired to be vegan because of ethics. Shortly after I made the decision to go vegan, some friends and I decided to form the group to raise the level of discourse on plant based diets and principles of nonviolence at Penn.

PFFT: What are the most common misconceptions of about vegan/vegetarians?
Victor: Most people think that we are areall radical, animal activists.

PFFT: What has been the response to the Penn Vegetarian Society on campus?
Victor: At first, being labeled as vegan on-campus was laughed upon. University of Pennsylvania has always had a large vegetarian population but many students were not as accepting of a vegan lifestyle. Our first meeting did not have a giant turnout but as a well-respected campus activist, I was able to use my reputation to build support of the group and tolerance of veganism on-campus.

PFFT: Where do you see the Penn Vegetarian Society in 5 years? What do you expect your role to be?
Victor: In five years, I would like to see the organization involved in conferences, hosting lectures, collaborating with other student groups, and forming peer education groups. I plan to pursue a PhD in Biochemistry so unless I continue my studies at the University of Pennsylvania, I am unsure of my future role in the organization. As a senior, I have been preparing my successors to take over the organization so that it may continue to thrive on-campus and in the surrounding community.

PFFT: What advice would you give to students at other universities who may be interested in starting vegetarian societies?
Victor: You can give people advice but if they can’t eat anything or have food readily accessible then they won’t hear you. Work with food vendors on and around campus to make sure students have access to vegan options.

For updates on the Penn Vegetarian Society and Victor Galli, check out the Penn Vegetarian Society website at pennveg.org.

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