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MEATLESS SATURDAY

Tampa Bay Veg Fest returns with food booths, cosmetics and animal advocates.

Tampa Bay Veg Fest in Tampa this weekend will for the fourth year bring omnivores and herbivores together to appreciate and learn more about a plant-based diet.

"A lot of people have this wrong impression that vegetarians are limited to salads," said Isabelle Tassi, member of the volunteer-run nonprofit group Florida Voices for Animals, which organizes of the event.

The free event had 3,000 attendees last year and is expecting an even bigger crowd this year - about 5,000 people, a growth that, according to Tassi, reflects a nationwide and local trend.

"There have been more and more Veg Fests around the country," she said. "Tampa Bay doesn't have many restaurants that are strictly vegan or vegetarian but slowly it is becoming more vegan-friendly."

Some of those restaurants joining the movement will be among the 18 food vendors at the event, giving guests a taste of their meat-free and dairy-free cuisine.

"We have a lot of vegetarian and vegan customers. It's a whole new trend where people are more conscious of what they eat," said Rene Valenzuela, owner and head chef of the Taco Bus. "A lot of Mexican food just happens to be vegetarian. We don't even have to veganize it. You don't have to fry the beans in pork lard; the taste comes from all the spices."

For R. Jones, owner of Gone Bananas, a vegan frozen dessert truck in Tampa, it was allergies in children that motivated her to create a vegan sweet alternative. "A lot of parents bring their children because they can't eat ice cream," she said. "We have a raw ice cream based on bananas, vegan soft serve, vegan milk shakes, root beer floats. Everything on the truck is vegan and lactose-free."

The festival will also highlight animal rights, an issue commonly tied to veganism. Lush, a vegan cosmetics company, will give people free makeovers with their products made of ingredients "that have been used for hundreds of years by actual humans and not tested on lab rats," as Jenny Branch, manager at the International Plaza Lush store, puts it. On another booth, attendees will be offered $1 to watch a four-minute movie about how their food is made, From Farm to Fridge.

Next door to the park, at the Tampa Bay History Center, the festival will feature nationally acclaimed experts and health advocates talking about the benefits of a plant-based diet. Films and documentaries relating to the cause will also be screened.

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If you go

Tampa Bay Veg Fest

The festival is 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday at Cotanchobee Fort Brooke Park, 601 Old Water St., Tampa. Admission is free; charges for food and drink. See tampabayvegfest.org for schedule.

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