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How Meredith Marin turned Aruba into the Caribbean’s most vegan-friendly island

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Born into a family of butchers, Meredith Marin was vegetarian for a while. But when she went to Aruba, her life — and the island’s culture — changed forever.

A knock on the door changed everything for Meredith Marin. Her friend Eric had been to a subway station in New York City, where a deaf man was walking on the train track. People were trying to pull him up before the train arrived. Eric went over, grabbed him and tried pulling him back. But as he was holding the man, the train came in, pushed him off his arms, and threw him across the platform.

Eric took him to the hospital and learned that he was a Bangladeshi immigrant working on the trains trying to send money back to his family. He eventually passed away, and Marin’s friend was seeking help to fundraise for the man’s family. They went door-to-door trying to collect money, but Marin only ended up with $30 by the end of the night.

She was distraught. How could such suffering go on and nobody do anything about it? Somewhere in her 18-year-old brain, she connected the man’s suffering to what she did three times every day. She wasn’t going to contribute to unnecessary suffering anymore.

And that’s how Marin went vegetarian overnight.

It’s a chilling story she tells me from her home in Florida. The epiphanic nature of her transition is easily the most unusual I’ve heard. Today, she’s vegan, and so are her husband and daughter. From being an overweight vegetarian (takeouts, pizza and beer, “like every other college student”) in her late teens and being advised to eat meat again by doctors, to going plant-based and turning Aruba into one of the most vegan-friendly islands in the Caribbean: she’s been on one hell of a journey.

Read our interview with Bon Appétit’s Jamaican vegan host, Chrissy Tracey.

meredith marin
Photo: Ken Grille

When she received the medical advice to reincorporate meat into her diet, Marin didn’t know any different. She resorted to eating fish and turkey for a year. But that didn’t change anything. “That year was when I met my husband,” she recalls. Travelling in Aruba with her grandparents, she met him in a restaurant he was working at. “He greeted us at the door. We went on a couple of dates. And we just fell in love.”

Aruba being part of the Dutch kingdom, she soon moved with her husband, a teacher, to the Netherlands for his job. It was there that she really found her way with food again.

“Living in New York City, I never saw a farm, food growing or animals grazing in the grass,” she tells me. Hailing from a family of butchers, she instead grew up seeing dead animals. The Netherlands was different. “I was riding on my bike and seeing the cows that were going to be killed.”

Living with a vegetarian meant she could easily transition back to a meat-free diet and when she moved back to New York with her husband, they became plant-based (with the occasional exception arising from inaccessibility). In 2016, they relocated to Aruba, right after their daughter was born and it was then that they realised their lifestyle was going to be tough if they didn’t take a stand.

“We’re raising our daughter vegan, and that’s when we became vocal vegans,” recalls Marin. “That’s when we committed 100% to the lifestyle, because when you tell someone something, you have to follow through. We were vegan and activists now.”

 

Three months later, she saw an Instagram post from a travelling influencer. It was a photograph of a vegan dish at a restaurant Marin had been to. In fact, by that time, she’d been to many, eating out at around 30 eateries every month, and paying a lot of money for variations of pasta and grilled vegetables. It was getting on her nerves.

“I was like: ‘How did she do that? They don’t have anything vegan on their menu,’” she says of the influencer’s post. After a text exchange, she found out that the Instagrammer had simply called the restaurant ahead of time and arranged a plant-based meal. “After that, every time I’d go to a restaurant, I’d call in advance, talk to the chef, and it completely changed things for me.”

That’s not an understatement. Doing so, she began developing relationships with chefs and restaurant owners. “They’d ask me what I wanted to eat and I’d have to basically tell them how to cook it and where to get it from, because they just didn’t know,” she says. Soon, she started being known as “the vegan person in Aruba”.

As a result of her growing network in the hospitality trade, Marin ended up being invited to a meeting at the Aruba Gastronomical Association to talk about vegan food. “Here’s what I’ve experienced as a customer at all of your restaurants,” she told the 25-odd-strong room full of restaurant owners in what was a brutally honest presentation. Photographs of what she’d been served, the things they did incorrectly, the reasons menus were mislabelled.

At the end, the restaurateurs were lined up, waiting to hand her their business cards. One of them, the owner of Cuba’s Cookin’, said: “Why don’t you come to my restaurant, sit down with me, look at the menu and give me some feedback?”

Marin, a social worker, was apprehensive at first. She wasn’t a chef, she told him. She was just trying to tell them how they can do better, not do it herself. “It looks like you’re the only one in this room who knows what to do, so either you do it or we don’t know what to do,” he replied. And so she said yes.

caribbean vegan food
Photo: Ken Grille

“That was a real turning point for me in this whole entrepreneurship journey,” she notes. “Saying yes to something I wasn’t completely ready for, something I could have easily said no to. That would have changed the whole trajectory of where I’m at right now. And where Aruba is at now. Where the industry is at now, frankly.”

After providing the Cuban restaurant’s owner some feedback, she soon found herself in the supermarket, buying ingredients to teach its chefs how to cook vegan food. It was mainly whole foods; plant-based alternatives weren’t a thing in Aruba yet.

So she trained the chefs, who ended up creating an entire vegan menu for the eatery, becoming one of the first in Aruba to do so. Other businesses were catching on, calling on Marin’s help. And that gave birth to her consulting business, Vegan Aruba.

 

The vegan entrepreneur points out that her work requires context in order to not be misunderstood: “It can easily come out as if I’m some sort of coloniser walking into an island — a white woman coming in from New York and being like: ‘I want to change this place to fit my needs.’ I was really conscious of that.”

She studied philosophy in college and completed a masters in social work, and that underscored the core of her mission. “I never set out to change the island,” she says. “I  wanted to support the community and help them meet their agenda. Serve their needs and not come in to serve mine.”

She highlights the positive reception to veganism in Aruba. It was more a case of unawareness than derision. “Aruba is extremely tourism-oriented, so they rely on tourism and the hospitality industry,” she explains. “Any sort of innovation in the hospitality trade is regarded as a privilege for them.”

vegan hospitality
Photo: Ken Grille

Within around two years, the island went from being on the fringes of veganism to seeing an explosion of plant-based food across menus. In 2019, HappyCow reported that Aruba had the most vegan-friendly restaurants per capita in the Caribbean. “It has around 400 restaurants, and I was able to see maybe a quarter of those to have vegan options,” says Marin.

And there’s way more to it than just vegan menus. “I trained the staff, not just the kitchen. Everyone knows what veganism is and understands what kind of questions to ask,” she explains. The island has witnessed a culture shift. “When a restaurant opens in Aruba now, they know they have to open with vegan options.”

She says the hospitality industry’s large purchasing power is important, and it’s what helped Marin take her activism to a macro level. The other thing, she tells me, is that it influences dining and tourism culture: “The accessibility part of my mission is to make sure there are vegan options, but then the acceptability part is that it’s cool to be vegan.”

The business consultant adds that hospitality can play a big role in normalising things. It’s why she promotes putting vegan options on the menu rather than just offering to alter an existing non-vegan dish.

“And even though it’s contrary to what a lot of people think, I really like separate vegan menus,” she tells me. “If you put it on the menu, then anyone could want to eat it, right? But a separate vegan menu shows guests that you can have a full meal made out of plants.” And that way, she adds, a decade or few from now, “it will be really easy to just eliminate the traditional menu”.

The 34-year-old came to Florida with her family during the pandemic, and decided to settle there for the time being. She’s currently running Vegan Hospitality, a consultancy service training vegan entrepreneurs and hospitality workers around the world. So far, she’s helped over 55 people in almost 20 countries. She also offers life coaching for vegans.

But she doesn’t plan on staying there for too long. Her husband was previously interviewing for jobs in international schools in the likes of Costa Rica, Thailand and Cambodia. Once the pandemic has subsided, he’ll start interviewing again. “I definitely see us in other countries,” says Marin. “I see myself continuing to grow the vegan hospitality business and coaching for vegans.”

She’s been asked to come to different countries and train their hospitality industry to accommodate plant-based lifestyles. “I could have been some travelling vegan celebrity veganising countries and had a reality show about it. That would have been cool, but that to me isn’t sustainable,” she expresses. “But it’s not going to create a vegan world the same way as if I train local people to make changes in their own communities.”

Anay Mridul
Anay is the managing editor of The Vegan Review. A journalism graduate from City, University of London, he was a barista for three years, and never shuts up about coffee. He's passionate about coffee, plant-based milk, cooking, eating, veganism, writing about all that, profiling people, and the Oxford Comma. Originally from India, he went vegan in 2020, after attempting (and failing) Veganuary. He believes being environmentally conscious is a basic responsibility, and veganism is the best thing you can do to battle climate change. He gets lost at Whole Foods sometimes.

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