BAR HARBOR — Mount Desert Island High School students Isabella Childs Michael and Stella Walke hope to encourage local eaters to think about the planet when choosing meals.
The students spent the summer as interns for local environmental group A Climate to Thrive (ACTT). Along with fellow intern Thomas Kortstage and internship coordinator Sam Murray, they created a page on the organization’s website that helps vegans and vegetarians check out available options at local eateries.
A Climate to Thrive has a goal of combating climate change by moving MDI toward energy independence by 2030. Food systems are a big part of that goal, Childs Michael and Walke said, as eating more plant-based meals can have a big environmental impact.
“It’s one of the main causes of climate change, but it’s super overlooked,” said Childs Michael.
Animal agriculture is the second leading contributor to greenhouse gas pollution and through the deforestation of rainforests, a leading cause of biodiversity loss. Animal waste at factory farms release methane into the atmosphere, and methane is 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a heat-trapping gas.
Walke, who lives on a local farm that raises animals, says she hopes the project will “educate people or spark that interest and try to get people to educate themselves.”
Childs Michael has been a vegan for two years, and said she had been thinking about the change for several years before that.
“I didn’t realize how huge animal product eating is so ingrained in society,” she said. “You think it’s going to be a small thing, but it’s a lot bigger… It changes how you talk to people.”
She said also had concerns about the treatment of animals on large, industrial farms. “They’re just so inhumane. I didn’t want to support that any more,” she said.
Over time she became more conscientious of healthy food choices and then adopted a vegetarian diet. After focusing on more grains, legumes, vegetables and animal by-products for a few months, Childs Michael decided to eliminate all foods connected to animals. Strict vegans choose not to eat dairy products, honey, eggs and foods with gelatin, such as Jello.
“There’s definitely transition stuff and a lot of it has to do with finding what you like to eat and getting used to it,” she said. “Hopefully the guide helps with that because I’ve noticed a lot of change in restaurants lately with the vegan options they’re getting and they’re really good.”
There are about 40 restaurants listed on the guide. Menu items marked with a ‘vt’ are vegetarian, which means they could contain dairy, honey or eggs. Those marked with ‘vg’ are vegan and are void of any animal and animal by-products.
Walke said many restaurant owners and staff were “excited about the fact that they had vegan options,” she said. “They were doing something and they felt super proud of that.”
The guide built on some work already done by Monica Johnson of Mount Desert, who for a time ran a Facebook page called Vegan MDI. When she saw a request from Walke and Childs Michael on Facebook for vegan and vegetarian options at local restaurants, Johnson contacted them and offered what she had gathered thus far. For her project, she had made a list of every single MDI restaurant, organized by town, and sent them messages on Facebook asking about specific dishes.
“I spent several hours doing it, so I’m glad somebody could use it,” she said.
Johnson also shared the Vegan MDI logo she had created. It now graces the ACTT webpage for the new guide.
Some restaurants have more options than others but the guide is not meant to favor or exclude any businesses, the interns said. The intention was to create a resource for people looking to make food choices with a smaller impact on the environment.
“We’re not necessarily trying to promote any business in particular,” said Murray. “We’re just trying to get the word out there that hey, these 30-40 businesses that we found … It’s spreading the awareness for the guests that visit because this is a national park, a lot of people are pretty conscious of what they eat, where they go, what they do … this will make a big impact in the long-term.”