Compassion and education are the framework for Vegfest

Northwest Veg organized the 11th annual vegan food and lifestyle festival, VegFest, at the Portland Convention Center on Nov. 14 and 15.

What was originally a small affair at the Friends Meeting Hall, with 300 people the first year, is now a weekend-long event with thousands of people. Jill Schatz, the Northwest Veg membership coordinator, attributes this growth to an overall increase in awareness of the health, ethical and environmental issues associated with plant-based foods.

“More people are interested in plant-based foods,” Schatz said. “So while probably there aren’t more necessarily vegetarians and vegans, more people are doing things like Meatless Monday or eating lower on the food chain overall. It’s a lot healthier and better for the environment.”

The festival was certainly a celebration of vegan foods, with dozens of companies distributing free samples from baked sweets and raw energy bars to savory meat and cheese alternatives.

“If you think about how many products are on the market now that weren’t even a year ago, and then you go back five years and ten years, the market is just flooded now with all sorts of convenience foods for people who don’t like to cook,” Schatz said.

However, not everyone is impressed by the array of new products on the market. In a festival celebrating plant-based foods, some said there was a surprising lack of whole plants. Megan Denton, a local farmer and member of the Portland Area Community Supported Agriculture, commented on the lack of farmers present and sees this as one way the event has changed over time.

“It’s becoming more focused on vegan rather than actual vegetables,” Denton said. “Vegans eat vegetables, so it’s important for them to support local farmers, which is why we’re here. So as a farmer it’s a bit disheartening, but this is still a nice platform to be a part of.”

In addition to PACSA, a coalition representing other farms and promoting community-supported agriculture, only one other farm was present. Denton said the presence of packaged vegan foods was understandable, but that an awareness of food systems and keeping a balance is extremely important.

It seems to her that as vegan foods gain popularity, the event has become more mainstream and less local.

Schatz estimated about 65 percent of the vendors at the festival are local. Northwest Veg offered pricing options to make it easier for startup companies and restaurants to participate. Chad Miller, from Food Fight!, an all-vegan grocery store on Southeast Stark that’s participated in VegFest every year, said that veganism is growing and their presence at the festival is good for business.

“A lot of people will come afterwards,” Miller said. “We usually get a really big day at the store. We get to talk to a lot of people.”

It’s also great exposure for nonprofit organizations that are working directly for animal welfare, like Mercy for Animals, which fights cruelty toward farmed animals and works for policy changes.

“Mercy for Animals does a lot of the undercover videos that you see on the news,” said Lauren Mash, a volunteer for the organization. “So they’re really working to expose the realities behind factory farms, but also helping people to make compassionate food choices.”

The festival is also about more than food: It’s about education. Each day was packed with presentations, film screenings and lectures from speakers, experts and authors. Matt Ruscigno, a registered dietitian and expert in the field of vegetarian nutrition who’s new to the VegFest circuit, is used to attending academic events, often speaking to audiences that are resistant to his message.

“I love speaking to people who aren’t on board with what I have to say,” Ruscgino said. “I wear two hats. I’m an ethical vegan, but I’m also a nutrition professional, and I take those roles very seriously.”

His approach is heavily based on science and letting the research speak for itself.

“As health professionals, it’s our duty to know the research and be able to help people who want to eat better,” Ruscigno said. “I don’t force it. I don’t say everyone should be vegan.”

In addition to other medical professionals, chefs, athletes and business owners occupying the many stages, the festival also included some unexpected vendors, like fiction writers. Christopher Locke is the author of the young-adult series the Enlightenment Adventures, which is about a raccoon and his friends who risk their own lives to end animal suffering.

“I always love VegFest because the story is perfectly meant for people who care about animal issues,” Locke said. “These are like my people, if you will. They care deeply about what animals are going through.”

VegFest offers everything for the vegan or veg-curious, including books and magazines, beauty products, bamboo clothing, fitness advice, professional kitchenware and travel options. And while ethics, the environment and health might be the main reasons more people are gravitating toward plant-based foods, compassion was the buzzword of the weekend.

“People come in here and say, ‘Gee, you are so friendly, and this is such an easy place to meet people and get information. Everyone is happy and nice and helpful,’” Schnatz said. “We’re a compassionate group. So we’re compassionate to people as well as to animals. Because we’re animals too.”