Having been vegetarian in the past and having grown up with an older sister who worked for Greenpeace I was already fairly receptive to much of the ethos behind this type of festival, and knew that I would not need to worry about having a Jeremy Clarksonesque reaction to being confronted with so many non meat- eaters. I was already aware that Vegfest promotes vegan and vegetarian values, but realised once I was there that what Vegfest really advocates is not so much a way of eating, but a way of living. Founder and organiser of Vegfest Tim Barford, explained that the motivation behind Vegfest when it first started 10 years ago in Bristol was to bring together various parts of the vegan community. “We wanted to help people access the best of the vegan lifestyle as well as helping business owners access a wider customer base […] we want people to leave with inspiration and motivation as well as a warm feeling inside.”
With Bristol Vegfest celebrating its 10 year anniversary in May and a new Vegfest springing up in London this October it would seem that Brighton’s Vegfest is part of a much bigger picture. It is also, perhaps unsurprisingly in Brighton, massively popular- with over 7,000 people attending the weekend long festival on the 16th and 17th of March. Spread over three floors in the Hove Centre, this year’s Vegfest was home to around 125 stalls including caterers, bakeries, health and beauty products, clothing, jewellery and nutritional supplements. There was also a huge presence in the form of animal rights and welfare groups such as Animal Aid, the League Against Cruel Sports, the RSPB and Animals Asia Foundation. In keeping with the ethos of educating people about an alternative lifestyle there were various talks, film screenings, cooking demonstrations and classes as well as various live musical and comedy performances.
My first impression of Vegfest was based on aroma. All food at Vegfest (in fact, everything sold at Vegfest) was 100% plant based, but that did not stop it looking, smelling and tasting fantastic. Gone are the days when vegans and vegetarians were expected to survive on a diet which consisted almost solely of lentils and nut roasts. It seems that you can now find almost anything to satisfy a plant based diet; from the more processed meat and dairy alternatives to the more traditional salads and curries which take advantage of the wide range of fruits, pulses and vegetables available. For those people with a sweet tooth, there was ample provision in the form of almost every baked good imaginable, all 100% vegan.
Vegfest is, as I have mentioned previously, about lifestyle as much as about anything else. Whilst many people I spoke to jokingly cited their reasons for attending as being to do with free food, the majority of attendees seemed to be those who were already converted vegans and vegetarians and were simply looking for more information about what was available to them. For many, Vegfest provides an educative platform to further explore an alternative way of eating and living. The presence of various animal charities also provided learning opportunities; many of the people I spoke to said their favourite part of the Vegfest experience involved educating themselves about different causes that they were previously unaware of.
Of course, much of the Vegfest clientele is made up of the old stalwarts. There is a tangible sense of preaching to the converted; for many people this is not their first Vegfest and they have returned to soak up the atmosphere, appreciate the food and socialise. “We come every year to support the cause.” Explained Baz and Steph from Brighton. “We know quite a few people here so it’s nice bumping into friends, sampling the food and going to the talks.”
Whether you’re a seasoned Vegfest participant or a recently converted vegan or vegetarian it would seem that Vegfest has something to offer you. There is even room, as evidenced by my own attendance, for those who are neither vegan nor veggie but simply curious and open to new things. Vegfest does, of course, have an agenda. It seeks to promote animal welfare and drive home the arguable benefits of a vegan lifestyle. If you are a staunch meat eater then this is probably not the place for you. There is no room for manoeuvre when it comes to the message that veganism is a superior lifestyle choice, which of course is their prerogative. If any of this is likely to offend you then I would advise against going. If however you are veggie, vegan or v-curious then head on down to the next one. You might be pleasantly surprised.