The vegetarian candidate
Does it matter what a person eats when running for U.S. President?
By LAURIE MANSFIELD
Register Staff Writer
Consider the irony of presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich's first official stop at the Iowa State Fair: The Dairy Barn.
Here was the nondairy eating Ohio congressman checking out Gene Rathjen's six cows and listening to the 52-year-old farmer talk about the importance of helping small dairies.
Of the nine Democratic candidates for president, Kucinich is the only vegan (pronounced VEE-gun). He doesn't eat meat, poultry or dairy products.
"I didn't think a person like that would even want to come in here," said a bewildered Rathjen, who has 40 cows on his Brij-Ayr Farm in Wilton.
Which left Rathjen wondering - should it matter what a presidential candidate eats?
Would vegetarians think less of Sen. Bob Graham of Florida because he owns an Angus farm?
"As a Southerner, he's a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy," said Dave "Mudcat" Saunders, one of Graham's consultants.
Then there's Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who is Jewish and eats kosher, requiring that his meat and dairy be kept separate.
After mulling it over, Rathjen decided it doesn't matter.
"If he's going to help agriculture - all agriculture - out, it wouldn't be a problem," he said.
Still, a candidate politicking in the land of potlucks and ice cream socials, where the word "vegan" can summon images of radical animal rights activists, seems awkward to meat-and-potato-loving Iowans.
The problem is "a comfort level more than a job performance estimate," said John Hall, an Ankeny cattle farmer who is on the Iowa Cattlemen's Association board of directors. "It probably makes some difference to me."
Although Hall said a candidate's decision not to eat meat ultimately wouldn't be all that important, "it would always be in the back of my mind."
Like the other Democratic candidates, Kucinich is making the rounds to Iowa family farms, hoping he can persuade meat and dairy farmers that he's on their side, even though he doesn't use their products.
"Farmers want someone who is going to stand up for them," Kucinich said last week. "My willingness to do that means more to farmers than what my food choices happen to be because inevitably, farmers are concerned that their families are able to survive."
But simply saying that a candidate is pro-family farm doesn't always convince farmers in this veteran caucus state.
"He's running for president," Hall said. "Have you ever heard of anyone who's not pro-family farm while he's in Iowa?"
For the record, Kucinich typically does eat food from Iowa farms when campaigning here, much of it purchased at New City Market, a natural food store in Des Moines, because he prefers organic produce.
Many of the vegetables come from the Shimer farm in New Virginia. The blueberries are grown in Bock Berry Farm near Lone Tree.
He ties his love of organic produce to his campaign platform through a souvenir: His Iowa staff passes out packets of organically grown seed corn from Seed Savers in Decorah printed with "Planting Seeds of Hope" on the front and his politics on the back.
The staff also grows corn in front of his Iowa campaign headquarters on Ingersoll Avenue.
As for his food politics, he credits his vegan origins not to animal rights activism but to love.
Change of diet
Kucinich, 56, began eating vegan eight years ago while dating then-girlfriend Yelena Boxer, whom he now calls a close friend.
"As part of the courting process, I decided to switch my diet," said Kucinich, who used to eat eggs and steak for breakfast when he was mayor of Cleveland.
He kept up with the vegan diet and stopped eating sugar, processed foods and caffeine because it made him feel healthy, he said. Another bonus: not eating dairy eliminated some health problems he thought might have been tied to a dairy sensitivity.
"What my diet does for me is to have exceptional health, remarkable amounts of energy and clarity," he said.
Because of their busy schedules, most candidates have their meals prepared or scheduled in advance, and Kucinich is no different.
Stephanie Weisenbach, a vegetarian who used to select produce for New City Market and Kucinich's central Iowa field coordinator, rounds up organic produce and makes meals for Kucinich, often having them ready to go in a cooler in his car.
On Thursday, after Kucinich sampled a bean burrito and ear of fresh-picked, butterless Iowa corn at the State Fair, Weisenbach had a to-go meal waiting in the car - Iowa-grown green beans, corn and zucchini over quinoa (KEEN-wa), a grain-like food that is eaten like rice.
After revealing the menu, Weisenbach frets over the word quinoa. Image is everything in politics, and she worries that quinoa will sound too weird to mainstream Iowa.
Could we say whole grains instead of quinoa, she asks?
Kosher deep-fried Twinkie
Lieberman's staff is equally as cautious when talking about being kosher and what specifically their candidate will and will not eat.
The question is passed around the office until Jano Cabrera, a Lieberman spokesman, decides to steer the conversation onto safer ground: Did we see Lieberman eat a deep-fried Twinkie at the State Fair?
Yep, he's kosher, but "it doesn't mean that man won't eat a deep-fried Twinkie," Cabrera said. In fact, Kevin McCarthy, who directs Lieberman's Iowa office, checked out the Twinkie stand ahead of time to ensure the snack cakes would be fried in oil that was in accordance to kosher dietary laws. When the fair booth operator held up a bottle of soy oil, the Twinkie was approved.
As one might expect, Kucinich has, as he said, been "breaking beans" with vegetarian groups along the campaign trail.
Last week he bellied up to a plate of tofu noodles at A Dong, one of his favorite Des Moines restaurants, alongside about 30 members of the Vegetarian Community of Iowa, which vice president Ben Shaberman described as a nonmilitant group that meets monthly to socialize and eat out.
It's exciting to see a vegetarian running for president, said Shaberman, a Kucinich volunteer who grew up in Cleveland, Ohio.
"A lot of us feel that vegetarianism is a compassionate-type lifestyle and Dennis is a compassionate candidate," he said. "His vision is hopeful and nonviolent. For the most part, that's consistent with the way many vegetarians live."
Voters probably won't be put off by a vegan candidate, he said, pointing out that voters in blue-collar Cleveland have sent Kucinich to Congress four times.
"They've seen past it," he said.
After Kucinich spoke about his vision for a more peaceful country and was on his way out the door to a house party where fruit was planned as the hors d'oeuvre of the evening, at least one person at Kucinich's table was thinking more about what Kucinich said than what he ate.
Vegetarian Scott Clair of West Des Moines was considering lending his support to Kucinich rather than Howard Dean, whom he had been favoring.
The switch was not because of Kucinich's vegetarian lifestyle but because of his peace-based platform.
"He is a much better fit for me," Clair said.
LACTO-OVO VEGETARIAN: Does not eat meat, fish or poultry. Eats dairy and egg products.
OVO VEGETARIAN: Does not eat meat, fish, poultry or dairy products. Eats egg products.
LACTO VEGETARIAN: Does not eat meat, fish, fowl or eggs. Eats dairy products.
VEGAN: Does not eat animal products, including meat, fish, seafood, eggs and dairy.
Source: The Vegetarian Resource Group