Just weeks before the competition for the Miss America crown, 21-year-old contestant Acacia Courtney—otherwise known as Miss Connecticut, a title she’s held since this past June—took some time our of her busy day to chat with SmartGirlVeg about her motivation to go veg, staying healthy despite a nonstop schedule, spreading the word about Meatless Monday, and much more.
Below is a condensed version of our conversation:
SGV: So nice to meet you, Acacia! What do you do when you’re not busy being Miss Connecticut?
AC: Right now this is my full time job! I just finished my junior year at Fordham University in New York City; I’m a communications major with a minor in theology, and I want to go into sports broadcasting, particularly specializing in horse racing.
SGV: Sounds interesting; why horse racing?
AC: I grew up riding horses. I actually now run a nonprofit for ex-racehorses called Racing For Home, Inc, which I started back in 2011. The organization serves as a middleman between the racetrack and new careers for horses that have been injured or are no longer making money as a racehorse. When they come off the track, we can retrain them and adopt them out to new homes. I’ve always been an animal lover.
SGV: That’s so great. We hear you've chosen The Monday Campaigns as your platform for Miss America. How does your relationship with animals play into that decision?
AC: Well, each contestant in Miss America has a particular platform that she speaks about and mine is called The Monday Campaigns: A Guide to a Healthier World. I first started working with Meatless Monday when I was in high school. As I mentioned, I’m a huge animal lover, and I was always very interested in the way our food system is run. I also became a vegetarian my sophomore year of high school—my parents actually did it with me. I realized that I have this opportunity as somebody competing in the Miss America Organization to use my voice to speak up about something that I feel so strongly about; why not speak up about this?
SGV: We love The Monday Campaigns, too! What attracted you to it?
AC: It’s such a good way to encourage people. It’s easy to do something one day a week—but something that small can be the catalyst to long-term change. As Miss Connecticut, I spend a lot of time speaking with kids at schools and summer programs. Kids of all ages get excited about diet and exercise through these little sound bites. If I’m able to get just a handful of kids to start thinking about being healthy—then I think it’s a big success.
SGV: Was it hard for you to make the transition to a vegetarian diet?
AC: It’s been really helpful to have that support system right there in my family, since my parents and I did it together. I remember our first Thanksgiving. It was fun because we were really creative about the sides we were serving and all the different foods we were eating. We had so much on the table that you didn’t even miss the turkey!
SGV: Many teens we talk to feel left out at holidays and family gatherings after they give up meat; you’re lucky to have your parents along for the ride with you. What have been some of the benefits of going veg—aside from a great Thanksgiving?!
AC: When I first became a vegetarian I found that without trying I lost a little bit of weight and I felt like I had more energy. But mostly I just felt really good about the fact that I was not contributing to the factory farms and slaughterhouses that I took issue with. I have a much more positive outlook, and feel so good every time I have a meal knowing that I’m doing something good for the animals, the environment, and my own health.
SGV: It’s so empowering when your eating habits line up with your value system! What was your “aha” moment, the one when you decided to go veg?
AC: I was Googling things and stumbled upon videos from factory farms. When I forced myself to really watch those videos, and look at the impact they make on our environment, I found that I couldn’t continue to eat meat. It wasn’t that hard for me because I never really ate a lot of meat anyway. And that was it; I decided to go full vegetarian right there.
SGV: We call that going “Cold Tofurkey!” What would you say are the biggest challenges of being a vegetarian?
AC: My schedule! When I’m at home I like to cook for myself or with my family. But when you’re out of the house all day, it can be hard to find food. I often pack my own snacks, just in case there are no good choices. And especially when you’re preparing for Miss America and you have to walk on stage in a swimsuit, you need healthy vegetarian options!
SGV: So no spaghetti without the meatballs for you!
AC: Exactly! Putting some olive oil on lettuce and calling it salad…
SGV: Oh, we’ve totally been there. So what kinds of foods do you pack for yourself?
AC: Nuts are great on the go; little bags of almonds and walnuts. I’m a huge peanut butter fan so I’ll do a couple of rice cakes with peanut butter. Sometimes I pack a little cooler with hummus, peppers, and tomatoes. And there are some vegetarian and vegan protein bars out there that aren’t loaded with sugar and are really good for on the go.
SGV: All excellent choices. What message would you send a teenager who is thinking about going veg?
AC: I think that having a really good support system when making any change in your life is so important. Talk to your parents and friends about it, open up. And look at those resources online, especially from an organization like Meatless Monday that makes it so easy and fun.
SGV: You mentioned that you like to cook at home. Do you have a favorite recipe to share with our readers?
AC: Sure! Here is one of my favorite Meatless Monday (or any day) recipes:
Kale and White Bean Soup
1 tbsp olive oil
1 cup diced onion
4 cloves diced garlic
1 can tomatoes
1 can white beans, drained
4 cups chopped kale
1 box low-sodium vegetable stock
Sautee the onions and garlic, then add the broth, kale, and tomatoes. Add the beans last, and cook everything through until you have a nice soup. And that's it! Healthy, filling, and meatless!
SGV: Sounds delish!
Thanks so much, Acacia. And good luck on September 14th. We’ll be tuning in at 8:00 p.m. EST on ABC to cheer you on!
P.S.: Great news! If you’re passionate about the Monday Campaigns like Acacia is (or simply think she’s awesome like we do), you can vote for her to become America’s Choice for Miss America. Check out her selfie video and vote for her any time before 11:59 p.m. EST on Friday, September 12th, 2014 (you can also cast your vote via Facebook here).
Share your veg story with Acacia and wish her good luck next month in the comments below!