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There are so many things you can do to make vegan food seem more palatable and accessible

Meera Iyer

Food scientist

I became vegan around freshman year of high school, so around 1999 or 2000. The options that were there for vegan were slim to nil, and I grew up vegetarian so it wasn’t the most stark change. When I took the PSAT in tenth grade, they have a list of all the majors you can choose, and what do you know at age 14 or 15? But when I saw food science, I didn’t know that existed. I did become fixed at that point, like, “I’m really excited about vegan food, I’m really excited about cooking, and I like science.” Almost everyone in my family is in some sort of scientific profession, so you sort of fall into things, like, “This is what I know and this is what I’ve been around.” I ended up going to UCLA for undergrad for biochem, and then I was like, “I’ll go to graduate school or food science.” I am so thankful for that because looking back, going to a giant public school was probably the most real-life experience you can get as a 17-year-old. In real life, no one’s going to hold your hand. If you’re struggling with something, you have to tell someone, “I don’t get this material.”

I went to Cornell for graduate school — they have a really long-standing food science program. The blunt realization with graduate school that you don’t realize until you go through it, is that you get out and you have this PhD, but then getting your first job is immensely difficult because nothing you did in school translates to anything anywhere. That was almost peak recession time; I finished graduate school in 2011. When I finished undergrad it was 2007, the economy in the U.S. was great, my peer were getting great jobs. And then a year later, it was like, “Thank god I’m in school because I don’t think there’s jobs out there for a young person fresh out of school.” And by 2011, it was hard, between this is my first job and no one’s hiring.


The first place I worked at was a small vegan company. I came in for a couple of months and did some freelance work on a nondairy cheese because they were trying not to use Daiya on a frozen meal that they were making. That was a good first step.

Before that, I had interviewed at a tomato processing company in Fresno, and at the time, they were like, “Can you start right now,” which is what companies tend to do, and I was like, “I can’t because I’m working on this project.” Luckily for me, they held that job and said, “Ok, you can start in a couple of months, that’s fine.” I did luck out at that first major company I worked at. They were a pretty stable company. It’s called a co-packer or a co-manufacturer. They don’t have their own brand. So, for all of the commodities that they work on, they’re pitching it to, say, an actual salsa company or pasta sauce company and then we process it, it gets their label, we sell it to them, they sell it. You don’t always have the most creative freedom in a co-packing company, but you learn a lot really quickly. That was in Fresno. I didn’t want to stay in Fresno very long, but I ended up staying there for almost three years.

Actually, I completely forgot that the very, very first job that I had out of grad school was for another start-up that’s still around. I was only there for about a month because they picked up and relocated. Or your position’s gone, like, “We just needed a smoke and mirrors scientist for when the investors come in,” so you never know with those types of things. It makes me reflect back on my Fresno job much more fondly. I wasn’t worried that I was going to come in and they’d be like, “Hey, you’re getting laid off today.” Thank god I don’t have dependents! These jobs are best suited to young people who are in a spot where, “It’s ok if this goes away. I’m going to do this for the length of time that it makes sense to do this and then move on.”

My parents were older when they had me, so I always thought, “They’re going to need my help someday.” I don’t want to be in a spot where I’m like, “Let me just chill through my youth,” which with Indian parents, life is never like that! It’s the time-pressure of, “You’re going to end up back in L.A. someday, so you gotta live and do stuff while they’re independent and living their life.” I stayed in Fresno as long as I could. We had a good batch of coworkers, a lot of us were fresh out of school, a lot of 20 and 30-something-year-olds. It was a smallish town, it wasn’t that hard to make friends. I look back fondly on it. But that was the first time I realized that sometimes you have to leave before you’re ready to leave.

At that point, I wanted to move to the bay. I was in my late 20s, and I was like, “I think I should try different things and see what works.” That was my first time making pastries for a coffee shop, working in a restaurant, and I was like, “Do I want to do more of a culinary route or do I want to stay in food science?” Being in the culinary route is stressful in a very different way — it’s not as stable, for sure. But I tried it. I was like, “What if I go work in a restaurant and I want to be a chef in a restaurant?” You won’t know if you don’t do it.

I also worked for two vegan food companies while I was there, both were start-ups. Both were very short bursts. One was doing a vegan cheese and one was doing vegan, synthetic egg whites. Both of those were this interesting lens into, what are all these new companies out there? And they’re getting venture capital funding in the millions to do this type of work. But they were still eye-opening experiences because now you have a lot of money being funneled into vegan food.

After that second start-up, I was burnt out for sure, maybe I don’t want to work in food anymore. Let me take a break from this. I went to India for quite a while because I had gotten laid off so I had unemployment for six months, which I had never had before in my life. When I came back, a close friend of one of my good friends asked if I could talk at a career day at the high school that she worked at. I went and told the kids about food science, and she was like, “The kids were so excited.” I brought in cool products, Oreos, and I was like, “Food scientists go into work and they come up with formulas for all the products you see in the store and do shelf life testing and consumer panels…” She was like, “Can you sign up to be a substitute teacher for me on the days that I’m not here?” I got my foot in the door substitute teaching, and I was like, “I really like this.” Somehow, the district my friend worked for took so long with my paperwork that I never actually got to sub for the friend that called me for career day, which I feel bad about, but in the end I stuck with an elementary school. The surprise of everyday being like, “Oh my god, what’s it going to be like today?” That year was so eye-opening for me because I didn’t have a lot of expectations there. Sometimes you walk in and you’re like, “I don’t know what’s going to happen… oh, that was actually fun, that wasn’t stressful.” Or, “It is 2:00 and I get to go home and not take anything home with me and I don’t have to come to work tomorrow because I’m the sub!”


By that point, my dad was starting to get sick and I was living in Oakland at the time, so I was coming down [to L.A.] a lot. It’s not that far; it really helped having a flexible job with substitute teaching where it was like, “I’m going to do this as many days of the month as I can,” but if I had a full-time office job… no full-time job that I was ever in would have been like, “Sure, go…” And building rapport with your boss where they know you well enough that, “Hey, I have to go help a family member out,” that takes time, too. I remember at my Fresno job, my mom had broken her foot and my boss was like, “Don’t worry about it, just go.” A lot of food science jobs don’t let you work from home especially not ten years ago, a lot of it was on-site. So I was lucky my boss was nice to me. I can do a lot of these tasks from home, I just can’t be there today. I think the pandemic helped people understand that a bit better.

I was subbing that year, and it was the beginning of 2018 and I was coming home once a month or so. You can tell when someone is getting sicker or they’re just not doing as good, they need more help with things. I was doing the back and forth and then in the beginning of 2018, my mom was like, “Can you come home this year?” It was only January and if you’re struggling now, 11 months is a long time, a lot can happen. Around that time, my dad had gotten diagnosed with Parkinson’s, so he had lost a lot of weight and having a lot of problems. There was a temp job I was interviewing for when my mom called, and I didn’t get it so I put in my notice where I lived and I was like, “I’m coming home next month.” Looking back, now when I see friends of mine who are in similar spots, they’re quick to be like, “Hey, I’m going through this thing,” and I think for me, I wasn’t the best at telling a lot of people. I was like, “I’m just trying to not break down and pack up my stuff and get out of here.” A lot of my friends were like, “But what about your mental health? You’re going to move in with them?” When we were kids, Long Beach was an affordable place to live and now it’s not. And it wasn’t six years ago, either. People were like, “Why don’t you just be your parents’ neighbor?” For $2,400 a month! I can’t live next door and come check on them each day and then go back and live my life. Also, you miss stuff if you’re not there. There’s always going to be something where they’re like, “Something happened and we didn’t tell you.”

I worked for about a year at a tofu company here [in L.A.]. My mom was convinced that they made it hard for me because I would have qualified for FMLA if I made it to the one-year point, but they made it too difficult for me to stay there. It was very much a boys’ club. I wish it had worked; it wasn’t far from home and it was still working with vegan food. FMLA, I think it gives you up to three months of unpaid leave a year. But there’s also the point where you need that time; the money part is of lesser concern when someone’s sick. There was a day my mom had surgery and I no-called no-showed to work because I couldn’t get a day off. I was a few months into working there and my coworker was like, “Neither of our bosses are here, I’m going to cover for you and if someone does show up, I’m going to say that you had to run a work errand.” I’m like, “You’re a lifesaver! I’m at home, if something does come up, I can run there, but my dad needs help, my mom’s in the hospital…” Not that I would want to be someone’s manager but I would feel very sensitive to those things if someone was like, “I’m having a family issue right now.” That’s way more important than this job. I left that job a few months shy of the pandemic hitting. When the pandemic hit, it was like, “Thank god I’m already here.” Talk about an isolating time and peoples’ conditions worsening… that much isolation for anyone is really, really hard. So then coming out of the pandemic, I was doing freelance projects again.

That last year of my dad’s life, he needed a lot more help. He had a lot more physical symptoms, he was starting to fall, a lot of near misses. The thing with caregiving as the years go by is that usually 1) the person needs more help, and 2) you’re a lot more tired. The first year, I was like, “I can give up my social life, my hobbies, sure.” Then across the whole pandemic, it was like, “I can’t spend this much time in the house.” It was really hard. I started going to a caregiver resource group… I think I started a virtual one in 2021 and then an on-site one in 2022. But almost all of them will tell you it is ok to get help, hire part-time help, even just to leave the house for a few hours or to do something else for a few hours. Generationally and culturally, my mom was like, “Well, this is just what people do.” Yes and no. We’re both here, but you’ve got to do things for yourself.

A lot of caregiving stuff ends up being feminized labor, a lot of it falls on women. I’m not saying 100% of the time, but by and large the frequency with which women bear the brunt of that… and on top of that you get paid less at your job, you get scrutinized more for things, it’s not the fairest environment. And that was the most interesting part when I would go to these caregiver resource groups because it would be mostly women taking care of their spouses. That was the most common demographic. I would always get, “But sweetie, what about your life?” because there were no other young people coming. Oh, yeah! What about my life? What about my friends? Someone twice your age looks at you like, “You can’t be at home all the time.” But even my mom shouldn’t be at home all the time, either. We all have other components of our lives that we have to address. Both of my grandmothers spent basically their whole lives taking care of kids and I think generationally, that was what women did. I can live a more well-rounded life. I don’t need to be this rock that takes care of everyone. It’s ok to have other stuff. My mom hadn’t been retired for that long before she started having to do caregiving things. It’s hard, but it was like, “This is the new thing to envelop myself in.”

That last year was difficult. By the time we got part-time help, it was very late in the game. My dad had had a fall where he had to go to the ER for stitches. I kept telling my mom, “We need more help,” and she was like, “I think we got this!” I know you think we got this, but I don’t think we got this. The falls… we had so many near misses. I think for my mom, so much of it was that tunnel vision of, “This is just what you do, this is just what you do…” I remember a day, it was around Father’s Day two years ago and I was helping my dad up the stairs. I had my hand on his back and when we got to the top of the stairs and there was a moment where everything flashed in front of me… you’re not sure if you’re going to make it up that last step. Oh my god, this is going to end so badly. I was holding on to him, but he’s taller and he was really underweight at that point, but more weight than I can lift. Luckily, he made it up, but it was stuff like that. Especially those last few months. But it was the ER visit where my mom was like, “Ok, I’m going to get some part-time help.”

Around Labor Day, we brought my dad downstairs because it got too hot staying upstairs. It was around that point it started getting too hot for him to walk. He was only in hospice for about a week. But at that point, it is hard. Living in a bed? You can’t walk around anymore. He was starting to have problems with the stairs about a month before. Looking back, we showed up all the years it was hard… we didn’t always take the best care of ourselves but there’s so many unknowns. You’re like, “I’m just trying my best here to keep my head up.” That’s one of those very jarring adult moments where you’re like, “I don’t know how this works.” No one tells you those things when you’re growing up. My dad helped his mom when she was getting old. No one talked about it, though. It’s not the most open conversation that people tend to have.

The grief aspect of someone you were responsible for being gone, that takes a long time to recover from. The first two months, it was shell shock. There was a point where I was looking to move back to the bay and work up there, that was a year ago, but then I realized I think it’s going to be too hard on my mom to be by herself. I only very recently moved to L.A. because it’s not far. Baby steps. She’s doing a lot better. I got a part-time job working for the city in the summer. That would be my first step back into working with kids, not stuck at a desk, it’s afternoons in the summer. It’s probably going to fly by. A couple hours with kids every afternoon doing fun things, arts and crafts. I’m looking forward to it. I haven’t had a work routine in a while. It’s just been volunteering or freelance stuff that comes up.


That was something I did think about when I was younger: if you stayed in one food company for a very long time, at some point would you be like, “I know this commodity extremely well, but I don’t know others”? It’s not like you could go from a salsa company to an ice cream company and be like, “I know how this works.” It’s a completely different product. And the days of the conglomerate — Proctor & Gamble, they don’t have any food products anymore. Unilever… All these companies that had so many different food products and sometimes personal care, too, that if your worked there you rotated through different products. That’s cool that you could do all that and not change companies. You’re working on a mayonnaise and tomorrow you’re working on a detergent. But that is a thing of the past now. Even that tomato company that I was working at in Fresno, they sold that division about a year after I left. So I would have lost my job there, too, if I had stayed. Someone from Unilever once told me that one of the head people had said, “If we’re not number one or number two in a category, we sell the category.” The whole category! Unilever used to own Skippy and now Hormel owns Skippy. There’s so many companies that, since I went to school, a lot of those divisions have been shuffled through and now someone else owns them.

As far as broader categories within food science, a lot of kids go into product development. That’s usually the most exciting side of it: I get to work on these recipes, I get to make this product come to life, start from benchtop to scaling it up and the shelf life. The other sides of food science that aren’t as exciting: quality assurance, food microbiology, food safety, regulatory. There’s definitely other more desk job-related aspects. They pay well, they have stability, it’s pretty easy to find something where you can work from home. That’s also laterally transferable, too. Quality assurance is something that happens in every company. But the R&D side of it, that’s primarily where I’ve been. I guess I lucked out in that respect because I didn’t realize until the last few years talking to undergraduates who were like, “It’s really hard with an undergrad degree to get an R&D job now. Usually, you end up in quality or one of the fields considered less exciting.” But the tradeoff might be stability, though. If you don’t mind working at a computer.


It’s not fair to tell people, “I’m vegan, you should be, too.” But what you can do is say, “Do you want to share this food with me?” There are things you can do to make people feel like not eating animal products is a bit more doable. There’s stuff you can do that’s not preachy or pushy or scary or judgmental. No one wants that. The level of abuse towards animals, that part’s not fabricated. But the approach you take… inviting a friend over for food. There are so many things you can do to make vegan food seem more palatable and accessible than shaming them.

I’ve never worked somewhere where I was willing to taste nonvegan products. So that was always a limiting factor for me. The first job I ever applied for, one of the major companies I applied for, was like, “If you’re not going to taste dairy products, we can’t hire you.” Now every company cares about vegan food. I think a lot of companies now will put on the job description “must be willing to taste [whatever],” but at the time I was like, “Man, this is going to be so hard to find my first job.” But even that first job at the tomato processing company, they were like, “Well, if something has dairy, can you taste it and spit it out?” No. Or sometimes the enchilada sauces would have chicken broth in them. I can’t eat that. I’ve had other vegan friends at my job who were like, “Yeah, I’ll eat it.” I can’t. That defeats everything I did to get to this point.

The first major job I got hired at, they were like, “Can you take your nose ring out?” No, I can’t take it out. And they were like, “Well, you can’t go into the facility with it.” I can wear a cover or something… but it’s true, the people who work assembly lines, they can’t have any jewelry. They get informed of that. But I got this [nose ring] because of my grandmother when I was younger, I can’t take it out. I don’t know how to take it out. And I’m not cutting it out for you, for this job I might be at for six months. It’s been part of my face since high school. That was one thing with startups and other companies, where they’re like, “Oh yeah, just wear it,” but that company was very heavily regulated and they had certifications and if an auditor comes, you’d need to hide. I get it, if you have someone who works in a research kitchen and periodically has to go into a factory, just cover it up. It’s funny, I had a box of N95s before N95s were a big deal. It’s safer wearing those, even if you don’t have facial piercings, if you’re around food. Maybe everyone should keep their face covered. So all of the quality jobs, I think they’re a lot more strict about stuff like that because you have to keep checking on things in the plant. I also think the attitude toward piercings and tattoos in the last 20 years is so different. Especially in L.A. or Oakland. There’s bigger fish to fry.


I never wanted to “climb the ladder” because in a food company, the higher up you go, you’re no longer really working in the kitchen, you’re not doing benchtop work, you’re sitting in an office with your reports, doing all this paperwork, and having all these meetings. The idea, to me, of climbing up within a company was always a thing because the higher up, it’s more stress and more paperwork. Now with cell phones and work phones… even the last job I had, I was like, “You guys cannot call me on this thing at night. This isn’t my life.”

Now I’m going back to this job where I’m going to work with kids again, I think the flexibility is good, and I keep looking at city jobs. Once you have your foot in the door, what else is out there? I feel really open to a lot. If it doesn’t compromise my values and I’m learning something, and it’s not the most duress… because that’s the other thing, I can’t work seven days a week. In your early 20s, you’re like, “I can do anything!” No. I need 8 hours of sleep, I need time with my family and time with my friends.

I feel like the next step is… baby steps into a routine again, keep your eyes open. It’s not like I’ve been out of work — caregiving’s a lot of work. You also have to be like, “Do you know of anything?” or tell people what you’re comfortable doing or not doing. One of my old neighbors works for a solar panel company and she said they might need temporary help with sales… hit me up. I’m open. There’s not a lot of things where I’m like, “Why would I do that?” Get out there and give it a shot. Keep life interesting, keep trying things.


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