On April 19th, 2015, I attended my first ever Michigan VegFest (Vegan Tastefest & Expo) with Hillary, Jan and new friend Nathan at Suburban Collection Showcase in Novi Michigan. Over 50 vendors and 1,500 people (Correction: 100 vendors and 6500 attendees according to Jim Corcoran from VegMichigan, Thanks!) came to advocate plant-based diets and show off their amazing and fascinating businesses. “VegFest has been going on since 1998 … and was happy to receive an audience of 50 people during the first year” claimed Jeff Hampton, a Director of Vegfest, in between presentations from well known Vegan activists including Anya Todd, Gene Baur, Alicia Silverstone and Jane Velez- Mitchell. This event has grown tremendously over the past 18 years and is now the largest single day event of its kind in the entire country.
This write-up will detail my first hand experience at VegFest with people, vendors and speakers during my time there.
After driving two hours from Kalamazoo we finally arrived at the expo center. Being that I have never attended an event like this before, I was unsure about how many people were set to be there. To my surprise and joy, the parking lot was packed. Like, very packed. We had to walk about three football fields just to get to the entrance from our car and as we were getting to the door, I began to get that excited feeling one gets right before they are about to experience something truly special. I described this as the feeling one gets as they enter a music festival (to each, their own). We walk into a crowded entrance way and made our way to purchase tickets. Entrance was simple and organized with volunteers handing out paper schedules with maps of the floor and a Whole Foods bag to place your goodies or swag into. The smell of food and free handouts filled the air.
I started in a clockwise path around the vendors, weaving through the masses of people. To my left were people receiving massages from a massage clinic and to my right were many booths selling Vegan T-Shirts or shorts with phrases like “I <3 vegan boys” or “Plant Eater” with a very cool picture of a gorilla. I make my way to the back where I got my first taste of many vegan options available. Red Pepper Deli, a company from Northville, Michigan, focuses on raw, organic, vegan food and although their permanent shop has closed, they still are accepting food orders via email at email@example.com. I ordered the raw vegan taco and was blown away by how good it tasted. The fake meat filling was perfectly spiced and the fresh made salsa added the perfect accent to sprouts and romaine lettuce. I ultimately ended up mixing it all together and eating it like a salad although I was told to use the lettuce at the holder smh.
I struck up conversation at the table I was eating at with another VegFest attendee who also had driven two hours to be there. Attendee claimed it was his fourth year attending and this was the largest crowd he had seen. We made some more small talk, I thanked him for the conversation and proceeded to my first lecture. I was about to see Alicia Silverstone, celebrated actress and animal rights, environmental activist according to Vegfest’s website. FYI, Silverstone was in the movies Clueless and Batman & Robin. I see a line to the presentation hall and try to enter another way but to no avail. The room was packed with no standing room to be seen. Being that I had no idea who she was, I decided to check out some more exhibitors.
Enter, human version of a gestation cage brought in by The Humane Society of the United States. This cage came all the way from New Jersey I was told. For those uninformed, a gestation cage is an enclosure made from metal which restricts a sow’s (pig) movement to the point that they cannot turn around to ensure that profitability of the animal is maximized. These ridiculously small enclosures are where the sows spend their ENTIRE LIFE OF FOUR YEARS, I repeat, THEIR ENTIRE LIVES!!! This is incredibly disturbing and I got the chance to experience four minutes inside the human comparable enclosure. As I stepped in, I admittedly was enjoying myself and trying not to smile from the novelty of the exhibit and the attention I was receiving. As the seconds pasted, the novelty quickly wore off and I began to experience claustrophobia and the need to get the heck out of that enclosure. Every time I moved my head, my glasses hit the metal bars. I could not move an inch forward or backward but did have lateral movement although it was only a few inches on each side. Three minutes and thirty seconds went by before I got anxious and asked how long. “Thirty seconds” replies the person running the exhibit. I am ready to GTFO of that enclosure by this point and exhale a huge sigh of relief when the cage unlatched and I gain the freedom of motion back. I will never eat pork again to begin with but especially now that I have experienced a fraction of what millions of sows live with daily. Just saddening and disgusting what factory farms do.
I regain my composure, chat with some folks who watched me inside the cage then make my way back to the exhibits. Back to the happy. I got to taste vegan fudge for the first time from The Sweet Kind and it had been at least three years since the last time I had fudge so I was super excited. As I put the sample on my tongue and feel it melt in my mouth, I about melted into my shoes as it tasted so good. A moment of bliss in a vegan wonderland is how I describe my experience with The Sweet Kind at VegFest. I collect myself, thank them and move to the next area. I scan the booths looking for one that specifically interest me and land on the SMART booth where people can watch a horrific video on animal cruelty in exchange for one dollar US. SMART stands for Southeastern Animal Rights Team and these people were the real deal! Having heard about this type of incentive-based education activism, I wanted to experience it myself, back to sad (sorry). I am handed headphones and placed behind a laptop where I proceed to watch four minutes and 26 second of horrific abuse to animals that occur pretty normally in the factory farm industry. I hold down my vomit and disgust to make it through and sadly collect my dollar which was neatly placed in a “Why Vegan” handout. I thank them and walk to my next activity, Gene Baur’s lecture.
Gene Baur (@genebaur), President of Farm Sanctuary, an organization which provides a safe place for rescued farm animals to go, was set to speak at 2pm. Baur was just featured on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart where he provided an absolutely wonderful exchange of conversation about veganism to the total of Daily Show viewers so I was particularly excited to hear him speak live. I stayed for about 30 minutes listening to him speak on compassion, empathy and the indoctrination which occurs in academia regarding “standard” farming practices such as ear clipping and tail removal of pigs. These abuses are done without the use of anesthesia BTW. The indoctrination I speak of is in regards to the initial disgust that the students experienced while watching these practices done by the professor for the first time. Being “good” Cornell students who want passing marks, they blindly followed the prof’s lead and Baur explained how he watched the empathy and compassion drain from the group as they all began to participate in the practice.
I heard much of what I already knew and grew bored so I dipped out to speak with more attendees and eat some more food. This led me to Earthen Jar which is a restaurant in Ann Arbor, Michigan that I highly recommend going to. I think I ordered the Alu Bhaji which is a spicy masala potato, Nan, and some basmati rice with green beans, peas, corn and some spices. All was amazing and I ended up trading the rest of my Alu Bhaji to the person dining next to me for half a vegan chili dog with onions and mustard which was surprisingly similar to a traditional chili dog, mediocre and sloppy. Ah the memories come rushing back…
Before watching the final presenter, I learned about a sweet company that makes vegan belts out of wasted conveyor belt scraps from local manufacturing plants called HELD Gear and a wonderful organization which provides safe haven for horses if owners can no longer care for them called Michigan Horse Welfare Coalition. MHWC even runs a Hay Bank which is comparable to a food bank so owners can feed their horses even in times of economic distress. Awesome job you two!!!
Lastly, I watched a lecture from Jane Velez – Mitchell (@JVM) who gave a very locally relevant speech about how Detroit was once the last place for those taking the Underground Railroad before they found freedom in Canada during the legalized slavery era in the United States. Velez-Mitchell roused the crowd making comparisons between the courage that it took to be the first to stand up for social justice in the times of slavery to the courage that it takes to stand up for animal rights and welfare today where factory farms are perfectly legal and good in the eyes of the US Gov. Velez – Mitchell spoke with the vigor and boisterousness of a politician trying to lobby for some cause they had already been paid off to support.
In my opinion, she gave the best speech of the VegFest although I unfortunately missed Anya Todd, a licensed dietician in Cleveland who focuses on veganism, speak before we had arrived. Velez – Mitchell ended on the note that we must all become our own media and advocate veganism and animal rights to anyone who will listen as the standard media outlets have historically blacked out animal rights protests from the general public. It should be noted that no major media outlets were reporting on this event when she asked if they were there. This message resonated strongly within me, hence why I am writing this.
As the VegFest ended, I became very excited to start this article and advocate what a wonderful, fantastic, amazing, great, inspiring and informational experience the 2015 Michigan VegFest was. Shout out to VegMichigan for organizing this event and to every single one of the people attending!! The most diverse group of people I have ever been a part of was at this event. People from all walks of life and all ages were there to share one common thing; we all care about our health, the planet, the animals on this planet and each other. I struck up conversations, shared food, ideas and pleasantries with complete strangers who I now consider loosely to be friends. VegFest created an atmosphere where I could connect and meet with people who share similar ideals and values which sets the stage for amazing and positive change to occur. Veganism is on the rise and if this expo is an indicator of future growth, it is going to be the majority in a few decades or sooner. I cannot wait to help bring that future into the now.
-Chris Hendrickson (@c12hendrickson)