Thousands expected at Tampa Bay Veg Fest in downtown Tampa

The annual Tampa Bay Veg Fest takes place at Cotanchobee Fort Brooke Park.
The annual Tampa Bay Veg Fest takes place at Cotanchobee Fort Brooke Park.
Published Oct. 17, 2013

The festival is aimed at meat eaters, but that doesn't stop the hosts, vegetarians and vegans, from coming and enjoying themselves.

Tampa Bay Veg Fest, happening 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 non-profit group Florida Voices for Animals, which organizes of the event. "This is an opportunity to show how delicious vegan foods are and that there's great variety."

The free event had 3,000 attendees last year and is expecting an even bigger crowd this year — around 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 what she thought was a startling number of 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 of bananas, vegan soft serve, vegan milkshakes, 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.

"The movie is called From Farm to Fridge and shows the process without sugar coating," Tassi said of the film, which the Farm Animal Rights Movement, a nonprofit group in Washington, provides volunteers to show, refunding them for all the money given out. "We get an array of emotions. Sometimes people are angry, sad, in tears."

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 throughout the day, and the producer of Bethany's Story, a documentary about how food served as medicine for a paralyzed teenager, will take part in a Q&A session after the film's screening.