Social media give a boost to Boise's growing vegan scene

click to enlarge KRISTEN POUND
  • Kristen Pound

In April of this year, the downtown Boise breakfast spot High Note Cafe announced on Facebook that it would ditch meat and dairy for good.

"If it works out, great; if it doesn't and costs me my livelihood, then so be it," High Note Owner Maria Bahruth wrote in the post. "I can no longer go forward knowing that I have supported great suffering and inexcusable practices by the meat/egg/dairy industry. I'm terrified, but I know I'm doing the right thing, and the right thing isn't always lucrative or safe."

The post exploded, garnering over 5,500 likes and more than 1,000 comments. For folks who are familiar with Boise's vegan community, that wasn't a surprise. That's because unlike the city's food scene writ large, the heart of Boise's vegan culture isn't on Eighth Street: It's online, and in particular, it's on social media.

If you pull up the Instagram app and search the hashtag #boisevegan, more than 1,000 posts pop up, and a big chunk of them come from three accounts: @kristen.pound, @thisishowyouvegan and @na_ma_ste_vegan. It's not an understatement to say that the three women behind them are helping steer Boise's version of veganism, or at least craft its public image, which has gotten a major boost in the last year with a vegan panel during Foodfort, a vegan-friendly Boise Ice Cream Festival event, Vegan Bite Nights at restaurants like Camel's Crossing and the now-defunct Epek, a new vegan meal delivery service called Tin Box Boise, a vegan option from Indulge Boise Food Tours, and vegan Tuesday Takeover events at the veghead-friendly sandwich shop Lemon Tree.

With over 3,500 followers on Instagram and a seven-year history as an outspoken vegan on social media, Kristen Pound of @kristen.pound could be considered the godmother of Boise's vegan scene. In addition to Instagram, she writes a blog called How to Vegan, hosts a podcast of the same name, and runs her own vegan YouTube channel, but the biggest jewel in her crown is on Facebook, where she runs a group called How to Vegan that has more than 75,000 members. Pound said membership dropped off a bit during the recent Facebook privacy scandals, but is now picking up again.

"It was growing at the height of it by 6,000-10,000 people a week," she said.

She described the collective as a "safe, kind, non-judgemental space" where people share recipes, stories, and tips for adapting to life without meat and dairy. She and her team of moderators screen the content, weeding out graphic videos of animal cruelty and anything too confrontational.

The group spans the globe, but a small share of its membership does come from Boise. A staunch Boise-based vegan since 2011, Pound said she has seen the local scene grow from "literally nothing" to a tight-knit community that holds growing sway over restaurant menus and event schedules.

Of the three influencers Boise Weekly spoke to, Pound was the only one who made her living through ad revenue generated on social media. She works seasonally for Treefort Music Fest, but looks at that as more of a fun side-gig than a necessity. (Though it was because of her that vegan band members attending this year's festival had plant-based snacks backstage.) She started advocating for the vegan lifestyle as a health coach, then switched to social media when she realized how many more people she could reach.

"I pretty much feel like I don't really have a choice. This is what I'm here to do. The animals need me, the planet needs me, people need me, so this is just what I'm going to do with my time," she said.

click to enlarge JENN WILLIAMS
  • Jenn Williams

While Pound's platforms attract a large share of people interested in veganism for ethical reasons, Jenn Williams of @thisishowyouvegan pulls in people looking to better their health. A bodybuilder turned health and fitness coach, Williams said that a big portion of her 4,200-plus Instagram followers and This is How You Vegan blog readers are meat-eaters curious about the vegan lifestyle and what it can do for them.

"I get a lot of men," she said. "Bodybuilders, athletes and ex-hunters."

Williams has only been vegan for a year and a half, but she has made a big splash in Boise over that short time, appearing alongside Pound at the 2019 Foodfort vegan panel, participating in Tuesday Takeovers at Lemon Tree where she puts vegan sandwiches on the menu, and even creating Vegan Bite Night, a plant-based, restaurant-hopping supper club that has thrown five events so far.

Asked if she felt social media had helped build Boise's vegan scene, she said, "100%."

"It's such an easy way to make connections," she said. "When I travel, instead of going to Google or Yelp [for restaurant recommendations] I hop on Instagram and search the hashtags."

Bethany Camp of @na_ma_ste vegan is doing her best to make travel part and parcel of her own version of vegan advocacy. Camp has been vegan for just over two years, but like Williams, she has quickly established a brand, joining in on Lemon Tree takeovers and Vegan Bite Nights. She started out as an experimental vegan baker posting sweet creations like vegan "cheese" cakes and brownies on her Instagram account and blog, Namaste Vegan, but her business has grown to include health coaching, in-home vegan meal prep, and stints as a traveling personal chef for yoga and wellness retreats.

"If I'm being completely honest, that would be my dream job," said Camp. "Just to travel and cook vegan meals for retreats. That would be amazing."

click to enlarge BETHANY CAMP
  • Bethany Camp

Some of those opportunities, like an upcoming yoga getaway to Barcelona, Spain, this September with The Shine Collective, started over chat on Instagram. There, Camp has more than 3,300 followers—some vegan, many just interested in health, travel and food.

The influence of people like Camp, Pound and Williams has gone well beyond the blogosphere, inspiring real-world shifts in Boise's food scene.

Their community certainly touched Boise Chef Brad Wegelin, who just opened Boise's second vegan restaurant, Toasted, in June. Wegelin himself isn't vegan, but he has plenty of friends who are.

"I moved to Boise in 2013, and from that time until today I've been constantly building relationships with people in the food scene, vegan and not, but it was the vegan ones who really made the biggest impact on me as far as their passion for what they eat," he said.

Toasted slings fruit- and veggie-topped artisan toasts from the ground-floor space attached to Guru Donuts, which also owns a share of the business. While Toasted's Instagram account, @toastedboise, is still young, Wegelin's personal feed, @twozeroate, has more than 1,400 followers—enough to make him a minor celebrity in Boise's virtual food sphere, and point to its interconnectedness.

Of course, the City of Trees isn't the only place where Instagram and other social media platforms are filling up with food evangelism that's driving eating habits. In Blackpool, England, Chef Paul White of the vegan restaurant Faringo's told The Guardian that the information circulating online kickstarted his city's vegan scene as well, both encouraging people to shift their diets and priming them with the information they needed to make changes.

"When people see documentaries like Cowspiracy, one is enough," White said. "The fact that social media is as big as it is now, it spreads things so much faster. I think that's why it's mushrooming right now. And it is mushrooming."

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