Disclaimer: This is my personal experience as a vegan Peace Corps volunteer in Ukraine. The availability of certain types of food varies widely by season and regions around the world. Other Peace Corps volunteers may not have the same experience with a plant-based diet as I do. Thanks for reading!
Veganism was my number one concern about joining the Peace Corps. A million questions flooded my mind every day as I prepared to come to Ukraine. What will I eat? Will I offend my host family? How will I explain my dietary restrictions with minimal language skills? What if meat is the only option? What if locals don’t like me because my diet is so complicated? Will I be able to integrate without eating salo?
все буде добре
The answer is this: все буде добре. Everything will be fine. More than anything, locals are interested in how I sustain myself without animal products and are eager for me to share recipes or cook with them as a cultural experience. The people in my village have been so kind and accommodating of my allergies, and want to make sure I have food.
Ukraine is a country where food availability depends heavily on the season. In winter, most of the vegetables that are available are root vegetables: carrots, potatoes, onions, you get the gist. Some meals are doable, but not necessarily nutritious because of the amount of starch in them. There have been times when I have only had potatoes to eat for a meal, and this is completely fine and normal in my cultural context. However, many families plan ahead for this by freezing fruits and vegetables they grow in the summer so that the family can enjoy them during the winter months, too.
trying Ukrainian food
First and foremost, Ukrainian food is delicious. Borscht (beet or tomato-based soup with cabbage, carrots, onion, and potatoes), vareniki (stuffed dumplings), holubsi (stuffed cabbage rolls), malentsi (similar to pancakes or crepes), and so many other great dishes are easily made vegan. My host mothers during training and now at site have made some of the best food I’ve ever eaten in such different ways than they would normally. They have been so patient with me, and so creative. I have loved learning about their culture through their food and getting to try these recipes with them!
My main piece of advice for vegans interested in joining the Peace Corps is to be honest about yourself to your host family. The strongest reactions I have gotten are surprise and people thinking it’s weird that I don’t eat meat. Most people are curious about this part of me, and just want to learn more. Also, stick to it. If you insist for months that you can’t eat meat, and you change your mind, there may be no going back. The minute someone in any culture sees you eating meat and it doesn’t kill you, it’s reasonable to think it’s okay to keep giving it to you.
There may be ways to explain veganism in your cultural context. For example, in Ukraine it is common to follow a plant-based diet for religious reasons. If you say you are fasting, they will likely know what kind of food you eat. Peace Corps service is about relying on locals and integrating into your community, in order to become part of your host country’s culture. As long as you are respectful about your inability to eat meat and show your thankfulness for the hospitality you will undoubtedly receive, you will connect with the people in your community. Cмачного!
Edit: Click here to read more about my Peace Corps experience!