Written by Melody Cao
Edited by Adriana DiBenedetto
Story shared by Heartland NY, a partner of the Very Veggie Movement: “We work hard from the beginning for delicious and safe vegetarian food.”
In 2016, Rita Chu had been under a great deal of pressure from work. That’s when she began practicing Buddhism and became a vegetarian under the guidance of her mother. It was not long before Rita began to feel the benefits of this lifestyle shift both physically and mentally, saying, “It is easier for me to control my body weight, and my long-term digestive issues have also healed, but the most important thing is that vegetarianism is environmentally friendly, and it also uplifted my spirit.”
Rita joined Heartland NY five years ago. “Not only has vegetarian food become popular,” she said, “but also, everyone is paying more and more attention to the quality and safety of ingredients. Currently, Heartland sells products mostly from Taiwan’s Leezen products and has an extraordinary insistence on quality.” With the continuous support of the Heartland team in New York, the store has earned many returning customers. When the pandemic struck the nation in 2020, Heartland market closed for a month and a half. But after the reopening, business grew steadily.
“The pandemic makes everyone feel that they need to change their diet as well as their lifestyle,” mused Rita. “Taiwan did good in controlling COVID and Taiwanese products are also trustworthy. Heartland and Leezen are working hard from the source to provide customers with safe and delicious vegetarian food.”
Picture a small biscuit — one with a hard outside but a softer center. This was a wheat germ biscuit once sold by Leezen. “This biscuit was called the ‘village girl,’” explained Rita. “It’s such an ugly biscuit. But when they went on the market, they were sold out in half a day. After that, every order was huge.” This was a remarkable business experience that sparked a great relationship between Leezen and Heartland.
Purifying One’s Diet
It was five years ago that Rita began learning more about Buddhism and vegetarianism to help manage her stress. “At that time, there was too much pressure at work, and I kept working as if I was selling my life to my boss. I always felt that I was missing something in my life.” Rita’s mother, who had been practicing Buddhism and was also a vegetarian, offered Rita her guidance. The gradual changes brought positive transformations both physically and mentally: “It is much easier for me to control my body weight. I had been suffering from constipation since my high school days, and it has bothered me until my thirties, but after becoming a vegetarian, it’s completely cured. In addition, meat dishes always have a greasy and fishy smell when cooked at home. Now I only cook vegetarian food and my home feels very clean.” What makes Rita even happier with her decision is that eating vegetarian foods can help safeguard the environment. “My Master teaches us to uphold kindness and protect all beings, protect water, soil, the earth.”
It’s not easy to change one’s eating habits, however. In Rita’s words, it felt like closing a door. “At first, like all the beginners, I always felt hungry. But I was very fortunate because I had many vegetarian friends supporting each other. And five years ago, I joined Heartland NY, which also helped me get plenty of choices for vegetarian ingredients. A vegetarian diet has become a lot easier.” Because of the gradual increase in vegetarianism, there are many more people sharing their veggie-focused recipes on the internet as well. Rita said that she highly recommends two vegetarian bloggers, in particular. “Xuejiao Zhuang, who hosts the cooking show ‘Jiao Jiao Good Tastes’, often shares cooking tips on how to handle vegetables and fruits, such as how to cut cabbage, or how to deal with dry mushrooms. Another one is called ‘Veggie Dear’ and it is hosted by a young vegetarian couple. The show is very appealing to the young people and the recipes are simple and tasty.” After she became a vegetarian, Rita was also more open to trying new foods from other cultures. After going vegetarian, she found a new love for Indian and Tibetan cuisine, for example.
Compassion From the Source
At Heartland NY, most of the products sold are from Leezen, and many products have stories behind them. “Like our germ biscuits,” said Rita. “It is a product of Leezen’s cooperation with the manufacturer. Huaying Zeng, the owner of Fuyishan, was on the verge of closing down his factory due to the economic crisis. Leezen found him in 2002 and began to cooperate with them to develop all-natural germ biscuits. It was very difficult to make biscuits without adding any chemical ingredients. The biscuit came out to be ugly. But the biscuits were sold out in half a day, and then there were more orders.” Rita said that the biscuits sold well partly due to customers’ love for pure and natural vegetarian foods, and partly from everyone’s desire to support others. They hope that through their support, manufacturers can see that there is a future for producing natural foods. Fuyishan did not disappoint. They improved the formula and made the all-natural germ biscuits more and more delicious.
Many people deeply appreciate the concept of pure and natural vegetarian foods, but they’re often not as attractive as those with many chemical ingredients and they also tend to be more expensive. “For example, our rice noodles are not as white as those on the market. But the rice itself is not white, and without bleach, it should look yellowish,” Rita said. “And our rice noodles will break when cooked. Because it is 100% pure rice with the owner’s hand-made method. No corn starch is added. My husband has a bad stomach. But eating the rice noodles made by Leezen, he feels good, because pure rice is easier to digest.”
Many products that are readily available in supermarkets include various additives, and customers have become accustomed to them. Rita believes it’s important to tell the stories behind Heartland and Leezen’s products, and revitalize how we as a society view the foods that end up on our tables. “We will let them look at the ingredients and explain to them why our products are more expensive than those on the market. For example, our camellia tea oil is more expensive, but eating good oil is very important for vegetarians. With the decline of Taiwan’s camellia tree industry, most of the oil-making factories rely on imports, and the quality is difficult to control. The owner of a camellia oil manufacturer who cooperated with us took 30 years to rebuild a local camellia tea tree field and produce this high-quality oil,” Rita told us.
In addition to snacks and assorted ingredients, the products at Heartland market in NY also includes products like Chingyuan Tea and Pomelo Soap.
Rita said that when you’re a vegetarian, you want to find a group of friends to eat together with and support each other. This is also why she believes that in order to truly promote vegetarianism, producers, distributors, and customers must all be united in kindness, sincerity, and support for one another.
Joining Hands to Promote Vegetarianism
When the pandemic hit the United States and Heartland NY market closed for over a month, Rita was worried that the market would face tremendous hardships: “Because our products have no additives and preservatives, our products might turn bad in one and a half months. We were very nervous at the time,” recalled Rita. “But when we reopened, business was very good. It was simply overwhelming.” Many customers who love the all-natural products at Heartland market had been patiently waiting for the reopening. During the pandemic, customers were even more eager to buy foods they knew were safe and reliable.
Heartland NY has begun offering online ordering as well. Customers who can’t go to the market can use a Google Form to buy their favorite items. “We are also working hard to promote the market on social media. We also have our own Facebook and will also send emails to customers on a regular basis,” Rita explained of their current efforts. “The other way is wholesale. We are trying to cooperate with supermarkets, hoping to bring delicious and safe vegetarian food to the communities and to more customers.”
Heartland NY graciously joined Tzu Chi’s Very Veggie Movement after being introduced by Heartland California. Although operating independently, the two Heartland markets exchange information and support each other. “We are grateful for this opportunity to join Tzu Chi’s Very Veggie Movement,” Rita said. “After all, we vegetarians are a minority in the world; we must unite and support each other.” Rita is full of confidence for the future of vegetarianism. She believes that people will pay more attention to the quality of their food, and that vegetarian products with safe and natural ingredients have a bright future.
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