Courtesy Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine
Elizabeth Kucinich, left, said that when she saw there were staffers who wanted vegan options on Capitol Hill, she wanted to help.
Erin Dominguez, a scheduler for Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, D-Texas, became a vegan a year and a half ago for health reasons, after both of her parents died from colon cancer.
The transition, Dominguez said, was tough, especially in a high-stress workplace and with friends and colleagues who didn’t follow or understand her new lifestyle.
So when she heard about the Vegetarian Caucus at the beginning of March — which at the time was just an informal staff association made up of 10 vegetarian and vegan House staffers who wanted to see more plant-based options in Capitol cafeterias — Dominguez jumped at the opportunity to join.
“You feel really alone,” Dominguez said about making the switch to veganism. “So it just feels good to know that there’s all these [vegetarians and vegans] right here on the Hill, and it feels good that there’s a support group that I didn’t even know existed.”
That was when the 10-member staff organization went public with its quest for better and more diverse vegetarian and vegan options in the eateries scattered throughout the Capitol complex. In the aftermath, 20 staffers, including Dominguez, reached out and joined the caucus’s efforts.
That interest turned into a standing-room-only kickoff luncheon on Monday; 200 staffers gathered for a vegan lunch and to learn about ways to live a healthy and sustainable plant-based lifestyle and get information about the caucus itself.
At the luncheon, 54 staffers signed up to join the organization, bringing the group’s membership to 84 in just eight weeks.
“We’re absolutely thrilled about the positive response so far, though also not particularly surprised,” said Madeline Rose, a legislative correspondent in Rep. Michael M. Honda’s office and one of the group’s founding members. “Nearly 5 percent of Americans identify as vegetarian and another 5 percent follow a ‘vegetarian-inclined diet.’ With those numbers, we still have a lot of vegetarians to find!”
Founding Vegetarian Caucus member Adam Sarvana, communications director for Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., said the group is excited about the amount of interest it has received.
“At first we just kind of felt like we’d like to see some better options in the cafeteria,” Sarvana said. “But then people started coming to us saying, ‘We’re glad you are finally doing something for us.’”
Sarvana added that the luncheon — co-hosted by the Vegetarian Caucus and the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine — was the group’s way of not only seeking new members but also helping teach others about the benefits of their dietary lifestyles.
“We’re not doing anything political,” Sarvana said. “We’re just trying to provide some information. We’re not asking what party you belong to; we don’t care. This is just about eating healthy.”
Monday’s kickoff lunch was conceptualized when Elizabeth Kucinich, the wife of former Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich, saw the Roll Call article and learned of the group’s mission.
The Kuciniches — both of whom live vegan lifestyles — were active in pushing for better vegan and vegetarian options in Hill cafeterias during the Ohio Democrat’s 16 years in the House. Elizabeth Kucinich said that when she saw there was a cohort of staffers with a similar goal, she wanted to help.
“[I hope the event] piques their interest and gives the Vegetarian Caucus more members,” Elizabeth Kucinich said before Monday’s lunch. “I’d hope that the caucus and I and others can work together to really show how vibrant this community is.”
Other luncheon attendees said they were excited to see how many fellow vegetarians and vegans are on the Hill.
Kenneth DeGraff, a policy adviser to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has been a vegetarian for more than 15 years; he called the luncheon eye-opening.
“I’ve been on the Hill seven years now. I did not know there were that many vegetarians on the Hill,” DeGraff said. “It would be great to be able to use those numbers to demonstrate a need for better options in the cafeterias.”
As for what’s next, Rose said they hope to gather everyone’s ideas and figure out concrete goals for the organization.
“We’re excited to meet all of the new folks, tap into their passions and knowledge, and collectively chart the course ahead,” Rose said.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.