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Going vegan in Alaska isn't as hard as you might think

Yes, there are vegans in Alaska, and no, they are not starving.

In a state where hunting and fishing are practically qualifiers for being a "true Alaskan," many residents are choosing not to eat or use animal products. No eggs, no dairy, no honey, no salmon.

It might seem extremely difficult in a place not known for an abundance of produce, but those who do live a vegan lifestyle say it's not nearly as challenging as you might think.

And while no hard statistics spell out how many vegans live here, it's a group that appears to be growing.

Delisa Renideo thinks so. Renideo organizes the Alaska Vegan Society, which was started as the Alaska Vegetarian Society. It wasn't until 2005 that they renamed the society -- it was always vegan, she said, but people didn't understand what the term meant. (Vegetarians don't eat meat, while vegans don't use any animal products at all.)

She estimates that Alaska probably has thousands of vegans. She said that for the last two years, more than 100 have attended the society's annual "Veg Fest."

And businesses in the Anchorage area have grown to meet the needs of those following the diet. Restaurants around the city are catering to more vegetarian and vegan tastes. Natural sections at local grocery stores are packed with plant-based products.

"You have options all over town," said Trisha Campobello, owner of Middle Way Cafe, known for its vegan-friendly menu options. "Six years ago gluten-free, vegan, people didn't know what it was -- or didn't want to deal with it."

But things are changing, as people embrace the lifestyle for ethical or health reasons. And while some challenges exist, most of the vegans think the positives definitely outweigh the negatives.

"The more of us there are, the more these things change," Renideo said.

AlisaMarie Hanks: Vegan mom

AlisaMarie Hanks' last meat meal, 6 1/2 years ago, was at McDonald's. Since then, she and her husband, Steve, and her children Levi, 7, and Matthan, 4, have transitioned to being full-time vegans.

Hanks, 25, first took up vegetarianism about six months after the birth of her first child. Worried about what she would feed him, she concluded vegetarianism was the best option.

Documentaries like "Food, Inc." and "Forks Over Knives" cemented the idea that she should go full vegan for both health and ethical reasons.

Hanks says she had grown up on junk food and had a serious addiction to McDonald's fries. She feels her vegan diet has helped her lose weight and manage depression.

Hanks remained a vegan through her second pregnancy and was able to breastfeed both of her children as a vegan without any challenges. She and her sons also have celiac disease and forgo gluten as well.

While veganism has been good for her family, Hanks said, the biggest challenge is budgeting: They often spend more than $1,200 a month feeding their family of four, making groceries their largest bill after rent. But Hanks said food is the one thing they splurge on. It's been a hard transition; the family moved back to Alaska in the fall from California, where produce prices were much more reasonable.

But maintaining a vegan lifestyle is worth it for Hanks. She said that while some pushback came from family and friends when they first transitioned, most people have been understanding about the diet. And she's especially proud of her children's passion for the lifestyle. She said she'll understand if they want to try meat one day, but she doesn't think that will happen anytime soon.

"They've never even asked," she said.

Delisa Renideo: The teacher

Delisa Renideo has been a vegan for the last 26 years. Of those, she's spent 25 years in Alaska.

Ask Renideo, 65, about the challenges of being a vegan in Alaska and she's hesitant to list any. Not because she doesn't want to, but because she doesn't think they exist.

Renideo went from being a vegetarian to being vegan in 1990 after reading a book called "Diet For a Small Planet" that emphasizes eating less meat in order to deal with world hunger. She was also concerned about animal welfare, and found that after she'd become vegan, her health improved.

"(It's) one of the happiest decisions I've ever made," she said.

Renideo's passion for all things vegan goes beyond her own situation. She's a life coach and teaches several classes a week that focus on "plant-based" lifestyles.

In her classes she emphasizes that being a vegan doesn't have to be hard. For example, instead of serving a meat main course, cooks can serve an additional side to make a full meal.

"You don't have to make recipes weird and complicated and don't have to spend all your life in the kitchen," she said.

On the flip side, Renideo acknowledges that a lot of "junk food" vegans are out there.

"Doritos and Diet Coke are vegan, if you you think about it," she said.

With more people seeking out vegan diets and the marketplace adjusting to meet their demands, it can be easy.

"It's not hard to do, just to get over the hump -- most people need someone to walk them through it," she said.

Katie Henry: Produce on parade

Three years ago, Palmer resident Katie Henry would have been the first to admit that salmon was her "favorite food ever," but after several years of living a vegan lifestyle, things have changed.

Henry went vegan in support of her husband, Todd. He has rheumatoid arthritis and she wanted to find a way he could reduce his medication needs. After doing some research on the inflammatory effects of red meat and dairy, they decided to eliminate those food groups from their diet.

They already didn't eat much meat or dairy, and so they figured making the leap to vegan wouldn't be a big deal.

Henry figured if her bologna-loving husband would consider such an option, there was no reason she couldn't either. Three years later, her husband feels better and Henry has grown to love the vegan lifestyle. She documents her favorite recipes on her blog, Produce on Parade. A vegan cookbook, "Pure & Beautiful Vegan Cooking," was published in April.

Henry said one of the most challenging aspects of going vegan has been planning -- flying, for example, is a challenge. And finding vegan-friendly restaurants can be a challenge. But she's figured out how to work menus at most places, even if some popular restaurants can still be a struggle.

"I've never gone to a restaurant and never been able to eat," she said. "Sometimes it is, at the worst, fries and a salad."

Henry said the couple's grocery bills have been slashed dramatically by going vegan. They sign up for a $50 Full Circle Farm box each week for the vegetables, and then supplement it with staples from Fred Meyer about once a month.

"It's as expensive as you want to make it," she said.

Jon and Trisha Campobello: Feeding the people

When Jon Campobello's parents decided to start Middle Way Cafe in 1994, they wanted to serve the food they liked to eat. That was primarily healthy food rooted in foreign cuisines, which often happened to be vegan or vegetarian.

Two decades later, Campobello and his wife, Trisha, still serve a diverse menu of breakfast and lunch items at the Spenard cafe. It's not all vegan, but it has one of most expansive vegetarian and vegan menus in Anchorage.

Campobello said vegan culture has always been around in Anchorage but that in recent years it's become easier to be a vegan.

Trisha Campobello said that 20 years ago many of the vegans in Anchorage were "leftover hippie culture," but that's shifted toward people acknowledging the health benefits of the diet.

"It was fringe, but now everyone gets what you put in your mouth keeps you healthy or not healthy," she said.

The Campobellos have noticed increased demand for vegan dishes that's been reflected in their food. Vegan cupcakes went from being served only on the weekends to daily. A series of grain-free "bowls" have been tailored to fit vegan lifestyles. They said they constantly try to include more vegan breakfast specials. People keep asking for them.

"What we do is so much more mainstream now," Jon Campobello said.

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