Goodful producer and vegan influencer Merle O’Neal on cheese, working at Buzzfeed, vegan extremism, and having mental breakdowns about climate change.
Cheese was second nature to Merle O’Neal. It was her salt, the seasoning she’d put on everything. “It was shocking to see how much I used cheese in every single dish,” she tells me from her home in Los Angeles. This was back when she was vegetarian, and on the verge of turning vegan.
“Let’s be honest: cheese is a big crutch.”
It’s true; for many people, giving up cheese is the toughest — often final — obstacle to going vegan. O’Neal is a video producer for Goodful, Buzzfeed’s sustainability brand. Before that, she worked for Tasty, where she used to eat an entire mozzarella ball when cooking for a video.
O’Neal went vegetarian at 23, after watching Cowspiracy. She found it scary. “I was like: ‘Climate change is just happening and it’s so easy to feel like you have no control over it; it’s so big,’ right?” she says. “So what was the one thing I could do? I could reduce my animal consumption.”
Her mother, an environmentalist, had always been vegetarian. “She’s just always made me more conscious of my decisions, whether it’s about food or reducing waste,” recalls O’Neal. But she wasn’t vegan yet, and cheese was why.
Soon, however, while walking around Montreal, she encountered Anonymous for the Voiceless’s Cube of Truth. They stood in their trademark cube formation, holding up screens showing the brutalities of factory farming. She’d given herself a pat on the back for going vegetarian, but realised dairy is, in a lot of ways, scarier than meat: “It wasn’t until I watched actual factory footage from the Cube of Truth that I felt personally responsible for the suffering I saw.”
What was in that footage? Female cows living in terrible factory conditions, being impregnated by ‘rape racks’ and giving birth over and over again. Seeing that pushed her over the line; O’Neal lost her appetite for cheese.
Walked into this, and I wish more people walk into this.
Factory farming is the worse for the environment than all forms of transport, combined. Think about that.#CubeofTruth #AnonymousfortheVoiceless #Veganism@cubeoftruth pic.twitter.com/xYHDyUdsmT
— Anay Mridul (@AnayMridul) February 6, 2020
“Going vegan was, in some ways, easier for me,” she says, “because the pain in having to see something so upsetting stuck in my mind more than even just climate change at large. It was just so specifically terrible.”
She took the 22-day vegan challenge, documenting her progress on Tasty’s Instagram. “I started to tell more people to hold myself accountable, so that I would actually stick to it,” she says. “I had hundreds of people messaging me every day: ‘This is awesome! Keep going!’ So I had a little bit of a spoiled experience going vegan,” the Goodful producer admits.
O’Neal joined Buzzfeed’s first New York video team as an intern in 2016, having studied TV production and business at Hofstra University. “I always knew I wanted to be involved with video. I’m actually a huge film person. I like to write my own screenplays, short stories, stuff like that,” she says, adding that she had moved to New York before securing the internship: “So I was kinda like, banking on that.”
After six months, she was hired as a full-time producer for Buzzfeed Video and given the choice of celebrity or food videos. “Alvin, who is part of Tasty, was doing food videos,” she recalls. “I was like: ’I wanna do that! Because that guy is doing something right!”
She didn’t have a culinary background, however, and had to learn on the job. “It was very humbling. Something I love about Buzzfeed is that everyone there is a jack of all trades,” she notes. “It was kinda like sink or swim. I certainly made some really embarrassing mistakes in some places along the way. But it was an asset in some ways; if I could do it, I knew the audience could do it.”
When she gave up meat, Tasty saw it as an opportunity to “make vegetarianism go viral”. O’Neal produced vegetarian recipe videos for six months, which performed well. That’s when she advocated to start Tasty Vegetarian. “People who are vegetarian or vegan, or even who aren’t but want to focus on plant-based food, need their own space.”
“For about nine months, it was just me on the Tasty Vegetarian page. Literally, just me!” she recalls, laughing. But after continued growth, she was able to hire Rachel Gaewski, “Thank goodness for that, because it was so good to have another perspective, and she was already vegan.” They noticed that vegan recipes were doing even better than vegetarian ones, as they’re harder to imagine for people, proving there was a home for such content. (Tasty Vegetarian now has 10 million likes on Facebook.)
O’Neal wasn’t doing any on-camera work, just the top-down videos Tasty famously pioneered. But she always wanted to work on longer-form shows or series, producing as well as presenting them. “I didn’t want to just do the hands anymore, I wanted to do all of it,” she says. And that’s when she was offered to join Goodful, which she agreed to, as long as she could do longform videos for YouTube instead of Facebook. “And that’s how I ended up moving to LA. Less so because of Goodful specifically, but more so because of YouTube.”
How was the switch from New York to LA? “As someone who was living in an 1100-person town [she grew up in Worthington, Massachusetts], LA is much more my speed. There’s so much more access to hiking and nature,” she says.
I ask her about her favourite vegan spots in LA. Big mistake. “Oh my goodness, there are so many. I love Crossroads Kitchen, that’s a big one. I eat at Honeybee Burger in Los Feliz,” she says, before going off-location. “You know what’s funny? I love ramen. I first had it in New York in a pop-up called Ramen Hood.” Her eyes give away the sheer excitement from just talking about these places.
“Cruzer Pizza is a great vegan pizza place, and I eat a lot of Thai food too. I live in Thai Town in LA, so I try to do a mix of supporting vegan-only restaurants and also vegan options at non-vegan restaurants.”
Does she ev— “Stuff I Eat is another really good one.” She laughs. “Sorry, I just keep throwing these at you!”
Does she ever get tired of cooking? “I’ll admit, sometimes. But doing it for my job actually grew my love for doing it outside of work,” she notes. “It’s also a really good way for me to procrastinate It just calms me down, it’s a nice way to decompress at the end of the day.”
Read Honeybee Burger founder Adam Weiss’s story behind creating the vegan restaurant chain.
In February, O’Neal published a video on Goodful’s YouTube channel entitled ‘Why I Decided To Go Vegan’. She talks about her journey going vegan, but also a challenge every vegan faces. “The most difficult thing about being vegan, honestly, is the extreme culture that surrounds it,” she says in the video, and sums it up with: “I constantly feel like I’m either too vegan, or not vegan enough.”
Vegan extremism puts people off. “I like to think about plant-based eating as a spectrum, instead of just black-and-white,” she says. “I can promise you I’ll make my best effort to not eat dairy and meat, but who knows?”
In the video, she talks about eating vegetables cooked in butter if that’s the only meal she can have at a wedding, or consuming eggs laid by her neighbours’ rescue chickens back home.
“That was scary to put in the video, because I had to think about the backlash. There’s a big thing around large vegan influencers getting ‘caught’,” she says. “People get so mad at them. I understand the feeling of being deceived, and that’s why I always try to be upfront about it.”
She goes on about how extremism makes veganism daunting. “The whole idea of veganism is to be cruelty-free, and that shouldn’t be scary. It should be celebrated, not something that’s the cool kids’ club,” she says, explaining: “It feels like people are scared to go vegan because they’re afraid of what’ll happen if they slip up. They can’t tell their vegan friend, or they failed and gave up.
“No. If you went vegan for one day this week, great! That’s a good start. If you’ve been vegan 100% for five years, and then one day, your grandmother makes a cookie that has eggs in it? Does that mean you’re not vegan anymore, even if you keep doing it for the next five years? Maybe. But to me, the label is way less important than the intention behind it. If your intentions are good, then specifics don’t matter as much.
“It doesn’t need to be so serious. Being less regimented and militant about it makes people more comfortable to even ask me questions about being vegan,” she says. “Because they don’t think I’m going to judge them.”
O’Neal acknowledges her privilege time and again: “I just think mainstream veganism has been whitewashed a lot of the time, which has made it unattainable for people in communities like food deserts. What, are we going to judge someone who can’t go vegan because they don’t have access to fresh food?” she says. “The simple answer to that is: not everybody has the privilege to go vegan so easily. They don’t have the access, or the money, or the education. It’s not that simple.”
She believes education about veganism is more important: “It’s one thing to know about it and feel that you’d like to go more plant-based, but it’s another thing to actually be able to afford, access or do it.
“Maybe I’ll be travelling at some point and someone will offer me a traditional meal. I’m not going to say no to that, just to prove to the world, like: ‘See, I won. I said no!’ I will never turn my nose up to other cultures that eat dairy and meat for their own reasons,” she adds.
The Buzzfeed producer has been vocal about politics on Instagram. What does she think about the US’s handling of the climate change crisis? She scoffs, pauses, and lets out a sarcastic laugh. “I mean, yeah,” she says. “The way the system is set up, the way we have monopolies in the government, the way we have money in politics, and the fact that these big corporations can make decisions about whether or not to prioritise the environment? That’s the issue.”
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She thinks there needs to be a systemic change. “Money out of politics would be,“ she pauses and smiles, “my dream solution. If you’re voting between Democrats and Republicans, they’re both giving you these vague broad-stroke responses, and there just isn’t much room in between to hear what they actually believe.”
As an environmentalist, O’Neal has been outspoken against Donald Drumpf on social media. “If he’s reelected, it’s going to be a huge, huge offset to fix climate change.” She’s been smiling throughout the conversation, but her tone takes a sharp turn when talking about the American president. “It’d be tragic to me, because these are really important years for the climate. And if we don’t have a president who acknowledges and takes that seriously, then… you know,” she sighs deeply, visibly worried. She adds earnestly: “Our future looks pretty bleak. It’s upsetting.”
So proud to work for @BuzzFeed we terminated our ad deal with the republican party because frankly, @realDonaldtrump is bad for your health
— Merle O’Neal (@merleeshay) June 6, 2016
Is it too late to save the planet? Definitely, definitely, definitely not, she tells me, almost before I finish the question: “I absolutely do not believe we’re doomed.” She elucidates: “First of all, the planet’s going to be fine. It’s us, whether we want to keep biodiversity and life as humans. The planet’s going to figure itself out. It went through the ice age, it wiped out the dinosaurs.”
She’s had mental breakdowns about climate change: “I have had some seriously dark, dark days and weeks. I have anxiety as well, and I think the anxiety around that sometimes gets to me.” She explains her thought process: “I’ll watch a documentary, like Earthlings, and I’ll see the abuse going on and the mistreatment of animals and workers in factory farms. And I’m just like: ‘This was one moment they got on tape. One day. This is happening times a thousand every day, all the time.’
“That is catastrophic thinking. We could go further and talk about the worrying climate, and I could just think about how long it’ll actually take for the planet to recover, even if everything stops today. That kind of mindset has made me cry and not want to leave my apartment.”
And she has been stuck in that apartment, like the rest of the world, during the coronavirus. But there is a positive side to it: her new YouTube channel. “I’m trying to figure out the balance between my ‘brand’. Someone who’s known for sustainability, or someone who’s known for sex positivity, and I kinda want to do all of the things,” she tells me.
“I think a lot of people were worried I was leaving Buzzfeed, but I’m absolutely not!” she says, laughing. While Goodful is driven towards sustainability and wellness, O’Neal wants to raise awareness about further-reaching things: “I want to talk about other things like sex and relationship therapy, travel stuff, doing things with Aria [her boyfriend and Buzzfeed co-worker] that aren’t food-related, you know? It’s nice to broaden the net a little.”
She adds: “Since I also do have such an interest in film, it would be a nice opportunity for me to start putting some work on my own channel that I won’t necessarily be doing for Goodful. We’ll see if people actually want to watch them.” Judging by the 31,000 subscribers she’s amassed in just over a month, it seems like they do.