By Rissa Miller, Senior Editor,
Imagine the word vegan… Picture each letter over four feet tall and three feet wide,
made of repurposed wooden planks – wide enough to stand or sit on if you can
climb that high (not that you should ever climb on artwork, by the way).
Now imagine that more than 10,000
festival-goers were greeted by such a bold, confident, and dramatic
installation on Saturday June 1 at Buchanan Park in downtown Lancaster, Pennsylvania
as they entered the grounds of the 3rd annual Lancaster VegFest.
“A lot of people are talking about
this vegan thing and about plant-based,” said Courtney Kokus, festival
co-organizer. “I see a lot of curiosity and that’s
why I think (the VegFest) is perfect. It’s very welcoming to anyone.”
Kokus and her husband John
organize the VegFest as volunteers. The first year, 2017, they had 45 vendors
and about 3,500 attendees. In only three years, those numbers have more than
“I meet a lot of people
and not everyone is vegan or even vegetarian or pescetarian. But there’s
interest and they want to learn” said John Kokus.
In popular culture, Lancaster is
mostly known as a quiet town in south central Pennsylvania, famous for its
Amish residents and large agricultural influence. No one might have guessed
that in the past few years, a strong grassroots vegan effort has taken hold.
The Kokuses reported that
after each Lancaster VegFest, they are flooded with emails from Lancaster,
York, and Harrisburg area residents, all thanking them for making vegan food
available and opening up the dialog. Most of those emails are from non-vegans,
This year the festival had more than
140 vendors and over 50 of those were selling vegan food. Delicious options
ranged from the elegant cakes and cannolis of Vegan Treats to loaded vegan hot
dogs at Yeah Dawg to ZWild Vegans’ kale salad and sandwiches. While it’s a
cliché to say there was something for everyone, really, there was something to
please any taste.
Srirupa Dasgupta, owner of
Lancaster-based vegetarian Upohar restaurant, said that she has seen the
upswing in vegan demand as well.
“Maybe it’s the fashion
but more people are doing vegan food. It’s what people want,” she said.
Upohar had their food
truck at the event, serving up warm plates of their exotic and hearty global
cuisine. Nepali, Puerto Rican, Iraqi, and African fare were on the menu. I
sampled a Central African inspired plate with peanut stew, Nigerian rice and
Congalese kale and needless to say, it was worthy of several fork scrapes!
Dasgupta noticed another
trend at her restaurant – guests finding her business because of phone apps.
Vegans, vegetarians, and the veg-curious are making their way to her door
thanks to technology.
Lancaster VegFest had more to offer
than tasty food, though. Two stages were going all day, giving festival goers a
chance to listen to panels on vegan topics, watch a jackfruit cooking demo, or
hear local bands. West End Yoga had a free class on the lawn. There was a tent
with sprinklers to run through and cool off. Vendors sold apparel, cruelty-free
bath and beauty goods, health and wellness services, and others had information
on vegan living.
And don’t forget the critters! In
addition to many canine guests, Ricky the pot belly pig was in attendance from
the Pig Placement Network. Ricky greeted guests, created tempera paintings, and
was a ready volunteer to show attendees how much personality a pig can truly
to Jonina Turzi, co-founder of Lancaster Farm Sanctuary, one part of what made Lancaster
VegFest effective as a vegan advocacy effort was how it created animal
sentience awareness subtly. With co-founder, Sarah Salluzzo, Turzi cares for
rescued cows, hens, turkeys, goats, and sheep on their sanctuary farm in
event has that precious factor of it being a ‘fun’ day. The usual defense
mechanisms are down, which can interfere sometimes when people are challenged
to consider their part in an animal’s suffering,” said Turzi. “Through
discussions on the panels, conversations among the attendees, and interactions
at certain stands awareness is cultivated. For example, we stopped by the Art
of Compassion Project tent and saw so much beautiful artwork that both captured
the reality of animal suffering and celebrated animal lives.”
Like all great events, Lancaster
VegFest also had an after-party. New York-based vegan drag queen Honey LaBronx
put on a show in a downtown Lancaster ballroom as a benefit for Lancaster Farm
For residents, the celebration goes
on, too. This week is the first ever vegan restaurant week in Lancaster.
Organized by Anna DeCosmo, who also operates the area’s franchise of Vegan
Drinks, LVRW features eight locally owned eateries who are putting out vegan
menus through June 9th and donating a portion of sales, also to
Lancaster Farm Sanctuary.
The festival’s iconic wooden “vegan”
art piece was created over the past two months by Amber St. Clare Grebinger and
Tom Tagerli of East Petersburg, PA. It was part of a vision to set Lancaster
VegFest apart, to make it memorable. It was a special moment during the event
for Grebinger when she saw Ricky the pig pose with her art.
“I didn’t want to
just sit on the sidelines when I went vegan, I wanted to make an impact. We all
knew (the art) would be something, but holy sh*t, there was not a single time
that I walked past that somebody wasn’t taking a picture!” said Grebinger.
Throughout the day, guests and passers-by
posed with it, showcasing the installation in thousands of social media posts
along with the usual VegFest-esque message-tees and vegan eats. The posts and
photos will continue to echo the vegan message, the Kokuses hope, long after
the festival has been packed up and everyone has gone home.
Grebinger and Tagerli’s “vegan” art now lives at Lancaster Farm Sanctuary with Turzi, Salluzzo, and their animal companions. As visitors roll up to the farm for volunteer hours or just to meet furry or feathered friends like Benji the goat or Sweet Eddie the hen, they are reminded once more of the Lancaster VegFest and its message of compassion, health, community, and justice.