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How plant-based meal options are increasing for vegans and nonvegans alike in Bloomington-Normal

under the ground feature image.jpg
To bring more options to local vegans and vegetarians, Under the Ground is a meal-prep service and restaurant opening this spring in Downtown Bloomington.

“Word on the street is you won't miss the meat!” That’s the message meal-prep service and restaurant Under the Ground is spreading as it prepares to open in Downtown Bloomington.

Owners Cecil and Jackie Gunderson said they are almost completely vegan themselves and want to help everyone — vegans, vegetarians, people transitioning to a plant-based lifestyle, and even carnivores who just want to eat a little less animal product.

Now, Jackie Gunderson said the two have not always eaten mostly plant-based meals.

“I grew up on a farm, and so it was not common in my family and in my previous life that anyone around me was vegetarian. I don’t think I knew anyone vegetarian growing up,” Jackie said.

Eight years ago, Jackie said she got sick, and she and Cecil tried various elimination diets to find the root of the problem, including taking out gluten and dairy. Jackie said she eventually found her problem wasn't diet related, but by that time they didn't miss meat and dairy.

Around this time, Jackie said they watched a documentary called “Forks over Knives,” about how factory farming treats animals.

“We foster and adopt animals. We’re big softies for animals, so I think that was the biggest catalyst for, ‘We kind of need to do this. We want to do this,’” Jackie said.

Cecil said they started the food journey because of Jackie's health but found big health benefits themself.

“My blood work improved significantly. I dropped 100 pounds. I’m healthier, stronger than ever. Before we went vegetarian, I was in rough shape. I really want more people to experience what their bodies can do and what life can be with a healthy, proper, nourished body.”
Cecil Gunderson, owner of Under the Ground

“My blood work improved significantly. I dropped 100 pounds. I’m healthier, stronger than ever,” Cecil said. “Before we went vegetarian, I was in rough shape. I really want more people to experience what their bodies can do and what life can be with a healthy, proper, nourished body.”

In 2019, Lancaster’s fine dining in Bloomington closed, and Cecil lost their job as executive chef. At the time, Cecil had been meal prepping for themself and Jackie. Eventually, friends and family members began to notice the creativity behind Cecil’s meals, and they said the idea of a meal prep business grew.

“Honestly, I think it was the anxiety of having to find a new job and working for somebody else. I don’t want to work for somebody else,” Cecil said.

Jackie said they started serving plant-based meals at Bloomington Pride Fest.

“We never stopped moving the entire day. People were super excited to eat our food. We’ve gone to festivals before, and there’s nothing to eat or there’s one vegetarian item, or we just eat potatoes, which is terrible for you when you’re out in the heat all day,” Jackie Gunderson said. “We were really uplifted by how many people were so excited to try our food.”

For a short period, the Gundersons based Under the Ground in Downs. But they will open in downtown Bloomington by early May. They will do a mix of meal-prep, grab-and-go meals and made-to-order meals.

“It’s a good mix of healthy but also some of them are more homestyle and veganized versions of the stuff that Cecil was known for back at Lancaster’s,” Jackie said.

One vegan impacted by Under the Ground is Amelia Smith. Smith first met the Gundersons when Under the Ground began ordering produce from Common Ground Grocery, where Smith works.

“I love animals, and I respect them. So, that was my original reason for going vegan. As I’ve learned more about the animal industry, farming, health and the environment, it’s kind of changed to include all of those things as well. I really respect animals and their lives,” Smith said.

Smith said independent retailers and restaurants can help people to make a change.

“If you’re trying to include more vegetables and vegetarian food in your diet, it’s a great way to do it. It’s an easy option. You don’t have to think about it. You can just go somewhere and know that you’re going to get good, quality food,” Smith said.

Jackie Gunderson said she hopes Under the Ground will spark awareness of the benefits a plant-based diet creates. But they don't want to limit their audience.

“Most of our clients for the last two years are not actually vegan or vegetarian," Jackie said, "but they’re just looking to either reduce their meat consumption or were just happy to have something different than what they were making at home.”

Smith said she often hears people say vegans have a hard time finding enough protein and can be nutrient deficient. She said that is a misconception, and she addresses it by telling others to understand why plant-inclusive diets help the human body.

“If you don’t make them feel like they’re being attacked, then they’re much more willing to open up and learn about it. So, there’s always somebody that’s going to be like, ‘stupid vegans’ or ‘don’t tell me what to eat.’ You just kind of have to lead by example and not be pushy about it,” Smith said.

Switching one’s diet suddenly can be overwhelming. Cecil and Jackie Gunderson said the goal is just to help people be more conscious about what they put into their bodies.

“I feel like we’re a good starting point for people that have been thinking about it,” Cecil Gunderson said. “My own journey to more conscious eating and a more sustainable way of life, I feel like personally I’m a much better person now. I didn’t used to care about any of that, and now that I found it and it’s very important to me, I want to share it with everybody.”

Amelia Smith at Common Ground said eliminating meat consumption takes time.

“I don’t think it has to be an all or nothing deal. Cut it out a few meals of the week and go from there. I’ve met a lot of people through my job that will go vegan and then they tell me, ‘Oh no. I ate cheese pizza. I’m not vegan anymore,’" Smith said.

Smith said attaching a label does not help people because it encourages them to think any departure from the practice is failure. She said it is better to think about the benefits of food habits than to make them a restriction.

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