VegFest
Food & Drink

First-ever VegFest Plants for Success

Santa Cruz summit will teach plant-based dieting and sustainability

Lifelong vegan and zucchini lover Wendy Gabbe Day is organizing Santa Cruz’s first-ever VegFest April 6, to teach curious guests about sustainability and serve up a sample of plant-based living.

Home to funnel cakes, corn dogs and cheese fries galore, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk doesn’t exactly bring to mind healthy fare. But on Saturday, April 6, it’s being taken over by vegans.

The first-annual Santa Cruz VegFest, a free celebration, will introduce participants to the pleasures and benefits of plant-based, cruelty-free, sustainable lifestyles at the Cocoanut Grove. Organizers hope it’ll be a springboard for a larger audience to get a taste of veganism.

“It’s more important than ever to think about our choices, health, the environment, animals, and our responsibility to our children to make changes,” says Wendy Gabbe Day, a lifelong vegan and the event’s founder. She hopes that both the curious and those already familiar with the lifestyle will come out to try a variety of foods while they listen to presentations about nutrition, raising kids vegan and the environmental positives of a plant-based diet. For the kids, there will be face painting, succulent planting, and fruit-and-veggie printmaking.

Among the 100-plus vendors will be the local favorites Saturn Café, Areperia 831,Vixen Kitchen, and My Cupcake Corner, along with Healthy Milkshakes, Cinnaholic and the chocolate company Endorfin Foods from around the Bay Area. A lineup of eight speakers includes Jackie Busse, a local Palo Alto Medical Foundation pediatrician with expertise in plant-based nutrition for families, and Sailesh Rao, a Stanford-educated former internet developer who shifted careers to focus on reversing climate change. Rao founded the nonprofit Climate Healers and was a producer on the documentary Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret.

DEEP ROOTS

I personally commenced my own nascent journey into veganism based only on a hunch that I should try it for March (without knowing that a “spring cleanse” is a somewhat archetypal tradition). One week into this foray, I heard about VegFest via a volunteer’s announcement at a Zumba class, which led me to Day, the woman behind a festival that seems so spot on for Santa Cruz that it’s hard to believe it’s in its first year.

Day moved to Seabright in 2016 with her husband (producer of the documentary Vegan: Everyday Stories) and two vegan kids. Speaking with Day over tempeh sushi-style bowls at Café Gratitude, she cites her father, who worked as a vegan cooking instructor, as an inspiration for her choices. “Growing up in Eugene, Oregon, it wasn’t that unusual,” she says.

Day mentions how much her 4- and 6-year-old both enjoy the diet. “When we’re out and there’s food, they’ll ask, ‘Is this vegan? Is that vegan?’ They don’t want to eat it if it’s not.’” Children are inherently compassionate, she says, and if taught about meat in the context of animals, they may express a natural distaste for consuming it.  

In Portland, Day worked for the nonprofit Northwest VEG and coordinated a VegFest there since its founding 15 years ago. After moving to Santa Cruz, she was eager to recreate a community rooted in food and compassion. Day decided to restart her passion project locally, posting on Facebook to organize a planning committee, which 20 people joined eight months ago. When she toured venues, the Cocoanut Grove “had the right vibe,” she says. “There aren’t healthy vegan options on the Boardwalk, but there is foot traffic.”

SKY’S THE LIMIT

Sailesh Rao, who will be speaking on climate change, says that adopting a vegan lifestyle “is the single most important action that we can do now to bring the earth back into balance.”

“When the world goes vegan, it’ll free up one-third of the planet’s land area to be returned to forests and draw down the excess carbon from the atmosphere,” Rao says.

Global warming, Rao explains, is going to create “dramatic change” in the next few years. Still, he adds, “while change is inevitable, transformation is intentional. The vegan movement is such a global transformation of our species, which cuts across race, class, creed, gender, and national identity. Adopting a whole-foods, plant-based diet is great for our physical, mental and spiritual health, bringing us back into balance with who we really are—a caretaker species of the planet—and helping us evolve out of our savage predator role.”

At the event, pediatrician Jackie Busse will use her time to focus on the health impacts of a plant-based diet for kids.

“Children’s nutritional needs can easily be met with a diet based on whole grains, beans, veggies, and fruit, along with healthy fats like avocado, tofu, nuts, and seeds,” Busse tells GT via email.

But can VegFest fulfill its mission of transcending one-day-event status, serving as an inspirational springboard for fundamental eating and lifestyle changes? Day hopes so.

As I learned from my own vegan experiment, plant-based eating is not as life-altering as one might think. Many everyday options end up being vegan, and many Santa Cruz restaurants have vegan options. Plant-based offerings have come a long way from when I first gave it a go back in the early 2000s, when Tofurkey was but a rubbery novelty. For the veg-curious, Day plans to extend the VegFest experience to include cooking classes, an ongoing speaker series, and documentary screenings—most of them at the Westside New Leaf. She’ll post upcoming schedules on VegFest’s website.

“I’m most excited about introducing people to mainstream vegan foods,” Day says. “Maybe they’ll enjoy a sample and be inspired to make small changes in their lifestyle.”

Santa Cruz VegFest will be at the Cocoanut Grove on Saturday April 6 from 11 a.m.-6 p.m. visit santacruzvegfest.org for more information.

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