Newsday Cover Story
Bhavani Jaroff of Old Westbury is out to save the world, one vegetarian meal at a time
Most people have to think a bit when asked to name their favorite book. But Bhavani Jaroff’s response is instantaneous: “Diet for a Small Planet,” Frances Moore Lappé’s groundbreaking work that led to a new consciousness about food.
Jaroff read it when she was 16 and says it set the course for her life’s work. “It was brilliant,” says Jaroff, 54, a natural foods chef, educator and consultant in Old Westbury, who has spent nearly 40 years advocating the book’s principles.
“Lappé was so ahead of her time. People were blaming world hunger on lack of resources, but she realized that food shortages were caused by our wasteful agricultural production system.”
The book’s influence on Jaroff has led her on a mission to influence others in the same way, teaching the positive effects of being a vegetarian and growing your own food. For decades, she has practiced what she preaches in the business she founded, iEat Green (ieatgreen.com).
“Lappé argued that if we moved toward a plant-based diet, it would not only be healthier, it would also be enough to feed everyone,” Jaroff says.
MEAT PRODUCTION COSTS
She cites studies from the federal Environmental Protection Agency that reveal it takes from 10 to 16 pounds of grain to produce one pound of meat, and that 38 percent of all the grain grown in the United States goes to feeding livestock. She also points to a United Nations report that calls raising livestock one of the greatest contributors to climate change, air and water pollution, and land degradation.
“I know most people won’t give up meat entirely,” Jaroff says, “but reducing their consumption of it will help. Also, if they support farmers who grow fruits and vegetables without using synthetic fertilizers or pesticides and purchase meat only from farmers who raise animals without hormones or antibiotics, it will be healthier for their bodies, more humane for animals, and better for the environment.”
Jaroff put her philosophy into practice when she was a student at Alfred University in upstate New York. “The cafeteria’s non-meat menu was awful,” she recalls. “Their idea of a vegetarian meal plan was frozen, overcooked broccoli au gratin, every day. They had no concept of other vegetarian sources of protein, like tofu and beans.”
So, as part of a work-study program she founded at the college, Jaroff and a friend began cooking a wide selection of appetizing vegetarian meals to add to the cafeteria program (see box for one of her favorite recipes). When people heard about the new veggie options, the program’s enrollment boomed from 50 people to 125 in less than a year.
Jaroff’s ability to create vegetarian feasts for large groups came in handy after her children — Saisha, now 31, Harper, 23, and Elana, 21 — went to the Waldorf School in Garden City during their elementary years.
TEACHING THE CHILDREN
Jaroff, who has a master’s in education, was hired by the school in 1998 to revamp its cafeteria program. She added vegetarian options, including a salad bar that was so popular, she says, it caused parents to marvel, “How are you getting my kid to eat salad?” She also taught the students about the connections between food, health and culture. School officials confirm that many of her initiatives are still in place.
When her children, two of whom are still dedicated vegetarians, entered The Wheatley School in 2003, Jaroff brought some students from the alternative “School Within a School” program to her home kitchen one night a week to learn about vegetarian cooking and what she calls “food politics” — the connection between what we eat and our impact on the world.
One of her students was Brian Mayrsohn, a friend of her son Harper’s. “She opened my eyes to eating healthy,” says Mayrsohn, 23, who is working toward a master’s in nutrition at Columbia University. “She guided me in the right direction and is a great source of information.”
Jaroff continues to bring her passion for teaching and food to students of all ages. For the past two years, a Girl Scout troop from Roslyn has come to her home in Old Westbury to learn to garden and cook. This summer, the scouts plan to take their harvest to a homeless shelter.
“She’s also taught the girls about our food system — not only where food comes from, but also the benefits of local, organic food,” says troop leader Jana Sheinker. The students always enjoy a homemade vegetarian snack on their visits, including Brussels sprouts and garlic they grow themselves. “Lots of kids say ‘eww’ at the word ‘healthy,’ ” says Sheinker’s daughter Michelle, 11. “But at Bhavani’s, the food is healthy and it tastes great.”
Sheinker adds, “The girls have even learned about the dangers of genetically modified foods. Those are things most fifth-graders don’t know.”
Jaroff is also having an impact on adults. East Meadow resident Lynn Levy, 61, has taken many of Jaroff’s cooking classes, including a series at the Viking Cooking School in Garden City. “She makes vegetarian cooking accessible,” Levy says. “She gave me a love of experimenting with vegetables, and also for using foods I’d never heard of, like quinoa and tempeh.”
One of Jaroff’s talents, Levy adds, is showing how to substitute healthy foods for not-sohealthy ones. “My husband loves Russian dressing, and Bhavani made a recipe using tofu instead of mayonnaise. It’s delicious.”
Both Levy and her husband lost more than 20 pounds after adopting a mostly vegetarian diet. “People have a stereotype of vegetarian food being bland, but Bhavani proves that’s not true,” Levy says. “She showed me that health food isn’t just carrots and cottage cheese.”
In addition to teaching classes, Jaroff works as a personal chef. “We ate red meat nearly every night, but Bhavani changed the way we eat,” says Marie Kaiser, 43, of Brookville. “Because of her, my family now loves fish, and they’re not afraid to try new foods. Our weight and cholesterol are down, and we have more energy. My kids don’t even want to eat McDonald’s anymore.”
Jaroff shares her enthusiasm and knowledge in a weekly Internet radio show (progressiveradionetwork .com/eating-green) that features health-minded guests, including natural chefs, nutritionists, farmers and food policy experts. She’s also the co-founder of Slow Food Huntington, the local chapter of an international nonprofit organization that seeks to promote food systems that are healthy, environmentally sound, and good for the economic wellbeing of the population.
“For me, food ties together all the issues and problems of the world,” Jaroff says.
“Through food, we take into consideration local economic issues, health problems, pollution and world hunger. Food is a universal, spiritual connection that brings people together.”