Meet the Politician Fighting for the Rights of California Vegans

Paul Koretz at an event in October, 2017. Photo: Earl Gibson III/Getty Images

Public cafeteria spaces aren’t always the most friendly places for vegetarians and vegans to eat, sometimes offering minimal menu space to meat-free items. That’s why earlier this month, Los Angeles councilmember Paul Koretz introduced a bill that, if passed, would require entertainment and travel venues around town to put at least one vegan dish on their menus. Koretz, a longtime councilmember with a long pro-environmental record, argues everybody will benefit if places with a “captive dining audience” — airport terminals, zoos, sports arenas, movies theaters — offer non-meat options. His real hope, though, is that more veg-friendly options will be a win for the environment, too.

“According to the United Nations, a global shift toward vegan eating is necessary to combat the worst effects of climate change,” he writes in the motion, which three other councilmembers already support. “Even the ‘lowest impact’ beef, such as that from grass-fed cows, is still responsible for six times more greenhouse-gas emissions and 36 times more land use than raising legumes.”

Conservative media are decidedly not fans of the idea, and last week, even L.A. Times columnist and taco historian Gustavo Arellano grumbled: “Of all the dumb laws proposed in the United States this year — bearing in mind that Donald Trump is our president and the Republicans controlled Congress all year — few are dumber than what Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Koretz wants to push on Angelenos.”

Koretz predicts the motion will pass regardless, and if the city council votes yes, not complying could be against L.A. law as soon as February. Grub Street talked to Koretz about the measure — and why he thinks other cities should consider legislating vegan food onto menus, too.

Let’s talk about the environmental angle of this bill — why do you think more vegetarian options will help the Earth?
There’s a new study by the University of Oxford that says eating vegan is the lifestyle choice with the single greatest impact on the environment, and that if more people adopted a plant-based diet, it could cut greenhouse-gas emissions from food sources by around 70 percent. For industrial meat production, we’re cutting down the rainforest to create farmland to grow the greens that feed the cattle that create the methane gas that causes much of our trouble.

Do you think your average constituent is aware of this?
My guess is a reasonable percentage of vegans and vegetarians and reducetarians are aware, but not the average person. It’s part of the education that has to be done around climate change. Even though it’s painfully obvious it’s the disaster we all thought it would be, there’s been a lot of successful marketing in the last 20 years to convince people it’s just something that was made up.

Some people also try to argue vegetables aren’t healthier. But those are in a really, really distinct minority. I mean, Donald Trump might believe it, but virtually nobody else would. I’m sure he would oppose this.

So does your measure partly serve an educational role as well?
The most basic reason we did this is to allow people who are vegan and vegetarian to function like everybody else. We looked at LAX first, and realized we have a world-class vegan restaurant there, Real Food Daily, but only at one terminal. I thought why isn’t there one at every terminal? Otherwise, people who are vegan have to look around and say, “I’m going to have to wait hours before I can eat a meal.” So we said why not require restaurants to have one vegan entrée. We started to look at all the other places where vegans are a captive audience and said, “Well, why shouldn’t they be able to eat at entertainment venues and sports stadiums and movie theaters?”

But we also believe this will be a great marketing tool, and every restaurant that participates will actually do more business. In the last few years alone, the number of people who eat a plant-based diet has increased by 600 percent. So this is catching on dramatically. Restaurants have to be able to accommodate them.

Your motion would apply to LAX, train stations, theaters, and you’ve also said L.A.’s Meals on Wheels program. Why did you stop there? Is that legally as far as you can go?
We tried to include all the venues where people who eat vegan don’t have an option. The dividing line is where people are a captive audience — entertainment arenas where people are trapped. So if you’re a vegan and you have a party of four with you, you can find a vegan restaurant pretty easily in Los Angeles. But if you’re in the airport, you have to be in the right terminal. Otherwise you’re just out of luck.

Right now, the motion doesn’t say what would qualify as “vegan.” Like, would a tiny pack of pistachios count? That’d be a pretty easy way to satisfy your legal obligation.
Technically restaurants could do that, but the intention is to have a protein-rich entrée. So, an actual choice of a meal for people instead of just a snack.

Meaning you want them to serve more warm food?
No, it could include anything from lentils and beans to peas and tofu, seeds, protein-rich vegetables like broccoli, spinach, asparagus, artichokes, Brussels sprouts. Dodger Stadium has a veggie dog now, and vegan burgers are getting better all the time. The Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat taste pretty close to a hamburger. Especially if you put condiments on them. If you add one vegan hot dog or hamburger to the menu, you’re done, you’ve satisfied the requirement.

How would the measure be enforced? With fines?
Through the L.A. County Health Department. But to be honest, I think this will largely be self-enforcing. It’s like 25, 30 years ago when we banned smoking in restaurants — I was on the city of West Hollywood’s council back then, and we did it jointly with L.A. and several other cities, and almost no enforcement was necessary. Customers would complain that their neighbors were smoking, and restaurants would make them put it out.

You personally identify as a “reducetarian,” correct?
Most people can’t just switch to being vegan. It’s a gradual process, and there’s a movement that addresses that called reducetarianism, which is to not beat yourself up because you’re not vegan, but to eat less and less meat until you can become vegan. My wife is vegan, my daughter is vegan, and I still eat fish and occasionally chicken, but I am trying to eliminate all of those.

What has the public response been like so far? I’m going to assume your office has gotten barraged with a fair number of complaints.
The complaints are pretty minimal. I would say many are them were generated by right-wing radio, which opposes even the concept of being vegan. I’ve had people call and ask me, “Shouldn’t we have meat on every vegan restaurant menu?” That’s pretty funny, but it’s just ridiculous. For the most part I’ve been having people who are vegan or vegetarian thank me on the street. The response I’ve gotten is that folks will be happy to feel included.

The soda industry has spent millions to stop local sugary-beverage tax efforts. Are you preparing for a pushback by the meat and dairy industries if this gets serious traction?
We think that’s already kind of happened. All of the op-eds, editorials, and other responses sort of happened the same day. It seemed very coordinated, and we’re sure the meat industry is leading the charge. But restaurants and food vendors change their menus all the time, and we’re asking for one vegan dish. We’ve opened up a conversation. That scares some of the folks in the industry, and I know we will get pushback.

Meet the CA Politician Fighting for the Rights of Vegans