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Desperately seeking vegans

The search for foods free of meat and dairy leads two women to form a small, yet determined group.

Published June 29, 2007

Brenda Sonneborn, 31, co-founder of New Tampa Vegans, cuts lasagna in her kitchen. She went from being vegetarian to vegan two years ago.
[Melissa Lyttle | Times]
[Melissa Lyttle | Times]
Organically grown vegetables fill the shelves of the produce section at Abby's Health & Nutrition in Carrollwood, which offers a large selection for the vegan shopper.

NEW TAMPA - After moving to Richmond Place from New York with her husband two years ago, Joan Zacharias felt like she was the only one. Everywhere she looked: Meat, meat, meat.

"You look around and see all the chain restaurants and rib shacks, " she said. "What are we supposed to do?"

Being vegan in the suburbs, Zacharias, 49, found, is no easy feat. While she could easily come across organic produce stands and vegan restaurants in New York, Tampa suburbanites very much love their Lee Roy Selmon's restaurants, their Chick-fil-A drive-throughs and their Hooters wings. She became accustomed to the looks of confusion, even horror, from her new meat-eating friends and neighbors when she described a diet void of meat, dairy, eggs or anything else involving animals.

So Zacharias was relieved to meet Brenda Sonneborn, another New Tampa vegan, on an online vegan message board.

Sonneborn, 31, went from vegetarian to vegan two years ago and began to feel that same kind of alienation from her omnivorous surroundings (including a meat-eating husband).

"When I first went vegan, I thought, 'Oh my gosh, am I the only person in the world who is vegan?' " Sonneborn said.

Last summer, Zacharias and Sonneborn decided to create New Tampa Vegans, a group that promotes veganism through occasional meetings, tastings and cooking classes.

When they advertised their first event, an open mike night to raise money for an animal rights campaign, they expected a small gathering. About 40 to 50 people showed up.

"We were shocked at the response, " Zacharias said.

As it turns out, more suburban couples and families are interested in, or at least curious about, veganism than they thought. At least a dozen or so show up regularly to meetings. They want to see how someone can make pizza without cheese, or cake without eggs, or hamburgers without hamburger. They want to know just how hard it might be to live a vegan lifestyle.

It's hard, Zacharias says. Especially in areas like New Tampa, where shopping options are limited. It's not as simple as visiting the organic food sections, which are usually tiny and scarce, in chain supermarkets.

They often drive 20 or 30 minutes to South Tampa's Wild Oats or Nature's Harvest if they want to find teriyaki-flavored wheat gluten or chocolate hemp milk. At most chain restaurants, vegans are lucky if they can find something on the menu they can eat. And that's only after asking a dozen questions about the ingredients in the dish. It's easier just to cook every night, Sonneborn said.

That can be tough, especially for mothers who want to run a vegan household. One of the New Tampa Vegans members, Gayle Nelson-Folkersen, is raising 10-year-old quintuplets on a vegan diet, which has been hard in more ways than one.

Now going through a divorce and contentious custody battle with a nonvegan husband, Nelson-Folkersen must defend her vegan ways - and those she sets for her children - in court.

So why do it? Why go through all the trouble?

For some vegans, it's about lowering cholesterol or eliminating other health risks by cutting out animal-based foods. For a vast majority, though, going vegan is an ethical decision. Some call it "cruelty-free eating, " a nod to what they believe is the atrocious treatment of animals on factory farms.

At New Tampa Vegans meetings, Sonneborn and Zacharias often put out pamphlets and brochures with color photos of overstuffed pigs packed in pens where they cannot move and sickly looking chickens. The photos are not gruesome, but they're not pleasant to see.

It was enough to persuade Marina Bocciarelli, who lives in Pebble Creek and owns a pet-sitting business. As an animal lover, she hated what she saw in the Vegan Outreach brochures at one of the cooking classes. For someone who recently quit smoking and was trying to change her eating habits, the switch to veganism seemed like a good idea.

"I thought it was probably a logical next step for me, " said Bocciarelli.

Sonneborn feels like more people are getting it. On her online vegan message boards she sees more and more people, regular suburbanites like herself, making the switch to vegan eating.

But in her everyday life, as she drives past fast-food restaurants and ice cream shops and other reminders of her omnivorous surroundings, she will always feel a little bit like an outsider.

She will always get the quizzical looks when she stands in the grocery aisles looking at labels or asks if a restaurant's pasta is fresh (with eggs) or dried (without).

"It's kind of like the stigma is always there, " she said. "We're kind of judged before we're given a chance."

For more information about the New Tampa Vegans, go to

Emily Nipps can be reached at (813) 269-5313 or

[Last modified June 29, 2007, 06:32:17]

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