Aajonus VonderplanitzFood rights activist Aajonus Vonderplanitz died in Thailand yesterday, and the circumstances of his demise reflect the way he lived–on the edge and shrouded in mystery and controversy.    


The 66-year-old nutritionist was, in some ways, the father of the food rights movement, having fought, often nearly alone, on various fronts over the last 15 years–in Los Angeles, in Washington DC, and in states around the country for legalization of raw milk sales and the rights of farmers to sell nutrient-dense food privately. It was his farm lease and food club models that were the basis of the arrangements used by Vernon Hershberger in Wisconsin and Alvin Schlangen in Minnesota. Those arrangements and a half dozen others were the common thread linking government legal assaults on farmers over the last half dozen years, described in my book, Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Food Rights. Vonderplanitz’s agreements, formed under the auspices of a nonprofit organization he put together known as Right to Choose Healthy Food, mostly stood up well to the legal assaults. 


But Vonderplanitz seemed to be followed by controversy, never more so than when he went after his old partner in arms, James Stewart,  who launched the first Vonderplanitz-conceived private food club: Rawesome Food Club in Venice, CA., back in 2003 and 2004. Vonderplanitz began his assault on his former partner in October 2010, a few months after the initial government raid on Rawesome, accusing Stewart and a farmer who supplied Rawesome, Sharon Palmer, of misrespresenting eggs her farm supplied the food club. 


Eventually, Vonderplanitz would go to the Ventura County District Attorney with his allegations, put up a web site to show off supposed evidence he had against Palmer,  and also file a civil suit against Stewart and Palmer. He abandoned the civil suit a few months ago, coming to a settlement that provided for him to take down the web site. He insisted after the settlement that he had additional evidence and allegations that he wanted to make public against Palmer. 


His seeming obsession with endlessly lashing out at Stewart and Palmer alienated many food rights supporters, and reportedly damaged his nutrition business. He advocated raw foods of all sorts as a means to fight disease and maintain health, and traveled around the U.S. and various parts of the world holding get-togethers where he would teach about his raw food concepts and diet. 

He grew up Richard Swigart, and changed his name in his early twenties. He also said he grew up autistic, and credited raw milk and carrot juice, consumed on the advice of a friend, with helping unshackle him from the effects of the condition. 


Vonderplanitz died in a rural area of Thailand where he had a home, about three-and-a-half hours from Bangkok. According to close friend Larry Otting, Vonderplanitz was seriously injured a few days ago when he stepped out onto a second-story balcony on the house, and it collapsed or a railing collapsed. Vonderplanitz broke his back, and was taken to a local hospital where he was placed in traction. He was in such intense pain that he accepted pain-killing medication, and shortly after, went into a coma and died. 


Otting is planning to travel to Thailand to retrieve Vonderplanitz’s body and bring it back to the U.S. Vonderplanitz has a son, whom Otting said was unable to make the trip. 


While he’s there, Otting says he plans “to investigate the balcony. It was strange that it just gave way like that.” 


Vonderplanitz related frequent tales about mysterious attempts on his life–he figured government or private corporate-hired agents working to derail his food rights activities were behind the efforts. In one episode a few years ago, he said he was tied to his bed in a hotel room in the Philippines while agents injected him with various toxic substances. In another last year, he said an auto he was driving in Thailand was sabotaged, causing it to roll over into a swamp; he and his girlfriend barely escaped from the car before they would have drowned, in his telling. 


Ironically, Vonderplanitz was in Thailand in part because of yet another legal controversy. According to Otting, Vonderplanitz was helping Otting pursue a legal action against a Thai woman whom Otting had purchased a machine to make coconut cream. The woman had failed to deliver the machine after Otting and a group of investors had issued her a check for $5,000, he alleges. 


Otting told me that Vonderplanitz didn’t have a direct interest in acquiring the coconut machine–it was being acquired by a business group Otting was involved with that wanted to produce a coconut cream sorbet. Vonderplanitz “was just a good guy. He was trying to get us a machine.” The machine uses the milk from coconuts to produce a creamier thicker  product than coconut milk. 


Not surprisingly, reactions to Vonderplanitz’s death among food rights supporters varied widely. James Stewart, who adopted some of Vonderplanitz’s dietary recommendations to turn around various health problems he had had, said he had written Vonderplanitz an encouraging note earlier when he was hospitalized. After learning of Vonderplanitz’s death, Stewart wondered if his former colleague “had pushed the karmic envelope” in the controversy over Sharon Palmer. “If he does get reincarnated, he’ll come back and do a better job.” 


Otting said that Vonderplanitz “saved my life. I was headed downhill healthwise back in 1998. Using his diet, instead of losing wight and wasting away, I put on about thirty pounds.” Otting allowed that Vonderplanitz “went a little crazy about Sharon and James. But he felt he was lied to.” 


Otting expects there will be a funeral or memorial service of some kind, probably in Los Angeles, once he returns with Vonderplanitz’s body.