'Valley Vegfest' draws devotees of plant-based diet

Last modified: Monday, March 31, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — Organizers of Saturday’s “Valley Vegfest” were guessing that 400 people might show up for the event, the first of its kind in Northampton. When numbers swelled to over 1,100, the success of the festival was unmistakable.

“We really had no idea what to expect,” said event organizer Sara Tower of Springfield. “We wanted to cover all of the areas we thought people might be interested in, so it would have a broad appeal, but this is just amazing.”

People of all ages and backgrounds attended the event, coming from as far away as New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut and New York. Some came to check out the latest vegan foods and products and to meet others living a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle. Others showed up to learn more about the health benefits of shifting to a plant-based diet.

Dozens of vendors were on hand selling a wide selection of vegan foods, kitchen appliances, books, clothing, makeup and jewelry.

“Many of the food vendors were so popular that they ran out of food,” Tower said.

Those wishing to make their own smoothies could hop on a stationary bike provided by the River Valley Market in Northampton, pedaling to create energy for a blender on the back.

Several tables represented animal rights organizations and animal sanctuaries for the “survivors of the animal-based food industry.”

Some in attendance said the desire to eliminate meat products from their diet was predominantly motivated by an affinity and respect for animals and a disdain for factory farming and the industrialization of food.

“For me, it goes beyond just an eating choice. It is about the suffering and sadness of animals and I don’t want to be a part of any of that,” said Georgiann Kristek of Florence, recalling the first time she learned about the processing of animals for food. “Once you see what really happens, you can never turn that off in your head.”

Others said they moved away from a meat-based diet to a plant-based diet for health reasons such as lowering cholesterol and controlling diabetes.

“I think a lot people still see vegetarianism or being vegan as some sort of food fad or something that young people do to rebel against the status quo,” said Kelly Ahearn of Albany, N.Y. “I didn’t become a vegetarian until I was 43 and diagnosed with diabetes. Eating a plant-based diet reversed that trajectory and now I don’t have diabetes.”

Promoting the idea that “food is medicine, Dr. Kumar Sidhartha offered a presentation in the afternoon on combating the epidemic of diet-related chronic illness.

“For every health care dollar, 78 cents goes to diet-related chronic diseases that for the most part are entirely preventable,” Sidhartha told the audience in the Community Room at JFK Middle School, packed to standing room only. “All that money is being spent on controlling symptoms, instead of focusing on prevention.”

Sidhartha practices medicine at a practice called Emerald Physicians in Cotuit, where he specializes in preventive medicine using evidence-based nutritional management. He noted that many of his patients have lowered cholesterol and reversed diabetes and heart disease by shifting to a vegan diet. He said it is not only possible, but it is also economical.

He said the average diabetic person in this country spends $13,000 on health care. “For many of my patients, their health care bill is basically their grocery bill,” he said.

Born in India and educated in Switzerland, Sidhartha said a vegan or vegetarian diet was not only very good for human health and ending food-based illnesses, but it has global implications as well.

“Producing a plant-based diet preserves the environment because it is environmentally sustainable. This protects land, decreases the amount of refugees moving from environmentally damaged areas and increases our global food security,” he said.

While moving away from a meat-based diet may be a health choice, it is still difficult in a culture that has not yet embraced the idea.

“It is not always easy to be vegan. We often have to travel some distance to get the kind of food that we like,” said Lori Reiner of Springfield, who attended the event with her husband, Carl.

The Reiners said they are trying to convince their adult children to become vegan.

“We are the only vegans in our family. We keep trying to set a good example for our two children and four grandchildren, but they haven’t done it yet,” Carl Reiner said.

Outside the building, a vegan snack truck called “Like No Udder” served shakes, non-dairy soft-serve, floats and candy.

“This is the first day of my fifth year in business and it has been great,” owner Karen Krinsky of Rhode Island said.

“I always wanted to work for myself and I knew there was a need for a business like this,” she said as she hustled to keep up with the long line outside of the truck. “And really, it’s not just for vegetarians and vegans, it’s for people who just like good food.”

The idea for the festival was born out of a group of friends who regularly meet at Café Evolution, an eatery in Florence, and the event’s major sponsor. Several in the group had attended other popular “vegfests” in Worcester and Boston and thought the Valley was the perfect location for such an event.

“We called it the first ever Valley Vegfest rather than the first annual, because we didn’t know how it would go or if we could do it again,” organizer Larry Kuttner said. “Seeing how the day went, I think we might try to do this next year.”