Kat Barry

Vegan Chef and Business Development Specialist for the Chicago Diner

SS: What made you go vegan and why?

KB: I always joke that there were too many reasons to ignore but it’s really true. It’s honestly been a life-long journey for me. First, I grew up in a household where we were taught to be very socially aware. My mom had me volunteering at a recycling center in the late 80s before most people even knew what recycling was. My oldest brother became a vegetarian in the late 80s mainly for health reasons and his example really influenced me. I thought my big brothers were the coolest so, of course, I wanted to be like them. I mention this because I’m not vegan simply for the animals. My personal health and the massive environmental impact of factory farming are enormous parts of it. Thus, my childhood environmentalism contributed to my heightened awareness of the impact of my food choices as an adult.

I’ve always had a sensitivity towards animals and felt kindred with them. I did my 6th grade research paper on animal testing by cosmetics companies. I remember calling the phone numbers on the back of my lotion bottles to try to find out if they used animals in their research. I got really mad when I realized that animals were tortured so that I could look better.

Then, a couple years later I read the Jungle and that pretty much turned me off to mass produced meat for the rest of my life. I have to say though, as a teenager I went back and forth. I wanted to be a vegetarian but it was so awkward going over to a friend’s house and having to explain to their parents that you couldn’t (or wouldn’t) eat what they were serving. I guess I wasn’t strong enough then to stand up for what I knew what right. Also, it wasn’t like it is now. I’m not trying to make excuses for myself because I have friends my same age who have been vegan since high school, but there is such a broader understanding even now than there was in the early to mid 90s. I swear there were a couple years there that I lived off of baked potatoes and hot pretzels at the school lunch bar.
So I was pretty much a vegetarian off and on throughout my teens and 20s but I was totally addicted to cheese and chocolate milk. It grosses me out now to think about how much brie and skim milk I consumed for a while there. Throughout this same period, and my whole life really, I had horrible allergies, eczema, and digestive issues. Every year as kid I had to take Aveeno baths and use this gross tar stick on my skin to fight the dryness. A sinus infection and bronchitis were pretty much guaranteed annually. In college, my stomach problems got really bad I was finally diagnosed with IBS. None of the medications they prescribed me worked so I started doing my own researched and learned how hard dairy is to digest. That’s when I really started having to pay a lot more attention to my diet. No more greasy foods and no more milk. I did pretty well with all that until I moved to France. When I came back a year later, the food here did not taste the same so I started cooking a lot and eating only sea food if I ate meat at all.

Finally, in my late 20s, it all came to a head. I was working as the head of the sales team for the first green residential developments in Pittsburgh. I was teaching green building seminars and trying to tell people about how their daily choices had a huge impact on carbon footprint. I started to feel like such a hypocrite knowing that I was participating in one of the leading cause of global warming just because I couldn’t give up cheese.
Then, one of the projects I was involved with won a prestigious design award and we got invited to the design and development community event of the year. Before the party, the developers, sales team, and myself went out for appetizers where I proceeded to totally binge on spicy bean and cheese dip. Within minutes of arriving at the party I was locked in the bathroom with a major IBS flare up. It was all I could do to get home. My belly looked like a malnourished cholera baby it was so swollen. I called my aunt, with whom I often commiserated about our stomach issues. She and my brother had recently met the authors of Skinny Bitch at a Human Society event where he was honored for a story he did on animal rights activist. My aunt was moved by what they had to say, and started reading me excerpts from the book while I writhed in pain thinking of all the awesome networking opportunities I was missing out on.

My aunt and I were both tired of IBS and the book made it seem so obvious and easy. We decided then and there we were sick of being sick and would go vegan together. We lived across the country from each other but would call and share stories, struggles, and recipes. For about the first three weeks I would eat cheese on the weekends because I was still addicted. I felt so great all week then instantly crappy once I bit into a slice of pizza. That was it; I was done. I’ve been vegan ever since and that was six years ago.

Becoming vegan changed my life. I’ve only had about one eczema outbreak since, no respiratory illness whatsoever, and zero IBS. It was such a powerful and instant change, I knew right away that my purpose in life was to share my experience with others. People deserve to know that they don’t have to suffer from these minor health issues. No one has to suffer! Not us, not the animals, not the environment! It’s the most beautiful thing ever. I’m grateful every day that all of these pieces fell into place I discovered how to live a clean, healthy, and cruelty free life!

SS: Has it been difficult for you? If yes what was difficult and did it get easier?
KB: People ask me this all the time and I think what they mean is, am I satisfied by the food I eat? Don’t I miss the taste of animal products? But those things aren’t difficult for me because of how I feel physically and what I know about factory farming. Also, the food is amazing! However, like any less mainstream lifestyle choice, the social aspect of being vegan can be difficult. Anyone who’s ever been on a diet, tried to stop drinking, or quit smoking can relate. Everything is fine at home where you can follow your routine, but when you’re at a party and everyone else is loading up, you can doubt the total necessity of these “restrictions” you’ve place on yourself if you’re not totally committed to your convictions. It can be extremely alienating at times; especially when you live in an area where fellow vegans are few and far between.

Yes, it’s gotten a lot easier as time goes on. I am a spokesperson for the movement which gives me a ton of confidence when speaking about all aspects of veganism. It’s become more and more a part of who I am as a person so standing up for that has become second nature. As a vegan, you have to explain your lifestyle choices in almost every social situation and every time you meet someone new. It’s super exciting but it can be tough, especially when planning dinners out with non vegan friends and trying to order food at non vegan restaurants. It’s different in California, people get it. I live in the Michigan and as much as I love it, it’s still very meat and potatoes here. That’s why I’m thankful for social media and projects like Hello I’m Vegan. When I need vegan support I just watch one or two fellow vegans tell their story and I feel so much less alone. I’ve also made an effort to reach out to other vegans and vegetarians in my area. Little by little I am finding a community, which is invigorating. Having virtual support is awesome but, let’s face it, actual support is even better.

SS: What are some animal rights related things that you participate in?
KB: I’m a member of PETA, of course. I help with Humane Society fundraisers all the time, donate to ASPCA, participate in Chicago Vegan Mania, write for VeganConsultant.com, use my weekly column and social media to help promote the movement and bring awareness to the massive amounts of suffering brought upon all walks of life by this desire for the temporary pleasure of animal products.
SS: What are your favorite animal rights organizations?

PETA, Mercy for Animals, and ASPCA.
SS: What would you say to somebody who is considering going vegan?

KB: “Do it or I will tell you all about how chicken is processed!” JK!!
If someone is considering going vegan already I am obviously super positive and encouraging about it. I tell them they can do it and that I am there to help in any way that I can. I usually tell my story and how much easier it is to stay hot on a vegan diet. I try to encourage people about their own health because I think it’s hard enough to get people to care about themselves let alone animals they are completely detached from. Sometimes I do drop a line about puss or feces in their food; that seems to really encourage people. Lol.
Seriously though, going vegan was the best decision I’ve ever made and I make sure to tell as many people as possible every day of my life.

SS: Do you have any memories that stand out in your mind about someone saving an animal? Or relating to an animal in a unique way?

KB: My favorite memory about saving an animal is from the summer before my freshman year of high school. Two of my friends and I were hanging out at my house one afternoon and decided we needed go get some craft supplies from the local variety store about a mile away. We were walking through a field, and this little calico kitten came charging towards us. Despite her very dirty coat, scratched nose, and emaciated body, I could tell right away that she was special. Like I said before, I’ve always had something kindred with animals. They can tell I love them and they’re safe with me.
My friends wanted to carry on and leave her but I just couldn’t. It was obvious by her appearance that she needed help and a loving home. It took a day or two to convince my dad that we should keep her but we got her cleaned up and she ended up being the best family pet we ever had, living until just a couple years ago. I think about Celie Cat a lot when I see neglected animals. I just don’t understand how anyone could do that to something so precious. I wish I could rescue them all, especially kitties.
I guess that’s my favorite because I loved her so much and it’s such a great example of how many wonderful animals never feel that love. I have lots more though, most involving deer. Someday I’ll tell you why my friends in Michigan call me the deer whisperer. Haha.