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Thousands descend on Boston Vegetarian Fest

Caitlin Yoshiko Buysse

The Boston Vegetarian Food Festival drew more than 15,000 people to Roxbury last weekend to celebrate “compassionate living” and good food.

The Festival has grown so large since its inception 14 years ago that its organizers, the Boston Vegetarian Society, decided to expand the event to two full days of exhibits and lectures.  

Even with this expansion, crowds filled the Reggie Lewis Athletic Center, the venue of the Festival, on both days.

The Festival featured more than 100 exhibitors and a dozen speakers and cooking demonstrations — all aimed at promoting the vegetarian lifestyle.

Attendees tasted free samples of hummus, curry, chocolate, energy bars, ice cream, falafel, peanut butter and veggie burgers, and were able to buy larger quantities of their favorites.

In addition to the exhibits of food brands and local restaurants, the event featured animal rights organizations, organic clothing and beauty products companies, spirituality groups and farmers markets.

The Festival’s speakers focused largely on health and nutrition, and sought to educate audience members on the benefits of a plant-based diet.Their focus was aligned with the festival’s mission to “provide a fun, welcoming environment where people from all communities can sample a diversity of plant-based foods, as well as learn about the health advantages and ethical significance of a vegetarian lifestyle.”

The Festival advocated not only values of health and animal welfare, but also environmental protection. The event featured a thorough recycling program; in fact, volunteers were stationed throughout the exhibition to instruct vendors and participants on how to sort and recycle their trash.

The origins of the event can be traced to Toronto, whose Vegetarian Food Festival inspired members of the Boston Vegetarian Society to host their own. The first Boston Festival 14 years ago was held in a MIT athletic facility; during its second year it was held at a local community college; and for the last 12 years Roxbury’s Reggie Lewis Athletic Center has hosted the event.

Organizers praised the Roxbury site for being the best possible venue for the Festival. It offers free parking and close proximity to the MBTA subway and bus routes.

The growth of the Festival in recent years led some organizers to consider a change of venue — like Boston Seaport’s World Trade Center. But festival organizers explained that the diversity that the Roxbury location brought to the Festival led them to not only stay put but also add an extra day to the celebration.

Organizing committee member Beverly Rich and Boston Vegetarian Society President Evelyn Kimber emphasized the importance of outreach to the Roxbury community for the Festival.

The Roxbury community was explicitly targeted in the event’s advertising, and planners worked with the Roxbury Community College, the Whittier Street Health Center, the Dimock Community Health Center, the Roxbury Comprehensive Community Health Center and the Madison Park Village to publicize the event.

The focus on the Roxbury community is important to the vegetarian movement, festival organizers said, given the common criticism that fresh produce and organic foods are too expensive or are unavailable for many families.

Rich explained that there are many inexpensive ways to be vegetarian and, more important, argued that processed food is actually more expensive than fresh food.

 She further explained that nutritious food is more filling than junk food — and that means more cost-effective.  With the right knowledge of how to buy and prepare food, Rich said, there is a lot one can do with a limited budget.

On the issue of access, festival organizers pointed to companies like Jeff Barry’s Boston Organics, a home delivery subscription service for certified organic fruits and vegetables.

By offering door-to-door service, Boston Organics provides fresh produce to those who may not have access to grocery stores. Boston Organics delivers different assortments of fruits and vegetables to Roxbury every Tuesday afternoon and now has 75 subscribers.