Off Campus

The Food Industry’s Sprouting Trend

The Dandies line opened up and masses of children clustered around the booth, eagerly holding out their hands for an air-puffed vegan marshmallow. Their parents, mingling over shared plates of tapioca cheese and avocado popsicles, raised their voices over the excited clamor of the 19th annual Boston Vegetarian Food Festival (BVFF).

“This is the craziest crowd we’ve had yet,” said onlooker Evelyn Kimber, president of the Boston Vegetarian Society. “We’ve been growing every year, but now we have non-vegetarians, we have kids.”

Nodding to the throng of passersby wandering towards a nearby produce cart, Kimber continued, “The goal [of the festival] is to introduce the alternative diet to as many people as possible. And, clearly, it’s a success.”

The festival kicked off early this November, recently dubbed World Vegan Month, involving what could only be described as a veggie lover’s dream: samples of vegan cakes, sandwiches, popcorn, and smoothies wedged between rows of animal-free bath products and anti-cruelty t-shirts. Watching more than 110 of these exhibitions rub elbows, it was suddenly challenging to think of a product that couldn’t be made vegan.

This kind of success might have seemed a mere pipe dream to non-meat-eaters five years ago. But that was before the paleo diet burst onto the scene, quinoa sales nearly doubled, and Chipotle added sofritas to their menu. It was also before pop-culture royalty from Carrie Underwood to Jay Z and Beyonce to, yes, even Mike Tyson all publicly dabbled in a vegan lifestyle, and Justin Timberlake soulfully implored SNL viewers to “bring it on down to Vegan-ville.”

So, while it’s 2014 that marks record-level spikes for the festival, this emphasis on “free-from” foods—that is, foods picked up for their absence of certain ingredients—has been further entrenching itself in both Hollywood and mainstream society for years now.

Need further proof? A quick search on Google Trends shows a steady climb in the search of the word “vegan” starting around 2011, and a sharp increase in late 2013. Vegan cookbooks have more than doubled in Amazon sales in the past three years. And the National Restaurant Association predicts that “hyper-local sourcing” and “environmental sustainability” will remain among the top 10 trends for restaurant menus this coming year.

But, as the BVFF vendors collectively insist, the turn towards locally sourced vegetarian food is proving to be a bit more than a surface-level fad. Despite the oft-caricatured hipster reputation of alternative, meatless products, no one at the festival could deny their rising market pervasiveness—as people of all ages and backgrounds stood wedged in line for tofu tacos and fizzy kombucha.

“Business is always a good indicator of where trends are headed,” noted Tamara Monroe of organic produce delivery service Boston Organics. “The increase in veg-friendly companies speaks to this. We’ve been profitable and growing every year since we started in 2002. The fact that we’re still growing [further proves] the demand.”

It’s a powerful pattern: as buzz about the benefits of vegan and vegetarian diets grows louder, the alternative food market proliferates in response, giving us the option to not only eat cruelty-free products but wear them, read them, decorate and bathe with them. A quick glance around the festival yielded a dizzying array of these newly sprouted options, about half of which just entered the market in the last year or two, according to Kimber.

“Most people are omnivores and want good quality food, so they will also purchase from veg companies. Boston is one of those cities that has more and more options every day,” said Deena Jalal, owner of vegan ice cream vendor FoMu, one of the most heavily swarmed booths at the fair. “People are taking a chance, and using their own need to fuel a new business venture. The rise of these companies means the trend is here to stay for a while.”

So who’s benefitting from this boom in vegetarian production? Many would be quick to decry the trend as a shallow indulgence of the socio-economic elite, those who can afford to regularly gulp down $4.00 Naked Juice from Whole Foods. But the sponsors of the festival abhorrently contest this criticism, harmonizing in defense: for every celeb turned fair-weather vegan, there are dozens of college students, blue-collar workers, and everyday parents for whom local vegan options are now well within reach.

“Eating a vegan diet certainly does not have to be a privilege,” Jalal insisted. “The basis of the diet includes fresh and basic ingredients. It is those premium products created by companies that make it seem elite sometimes.”

At an adjacent table, Katie Collings of Camberville Dog Treats chimed in: “If you are not buying processed, ready-to-eat products, vegan foods are simply whole foods and can be found at grocery stores, farmers markets, bulk stores, and home or community gardens.”

A thirty-something waiting patiently nearby for a skewer sample of grilled seitan echoed the sentiment. “It’s the Gwyneth Paltrows of the world that give vegans a bad name because we all know we can’t afford the vegan chefs and the faux-leather designer pants,” he said, between handfuls of spiced pumpkin seeds. “We resent the preach-y, ‘let them eat quinoa’ types.”

“But that’s disappearing,” he continued. “When I was in college no one cared if their dining hall sold cage-free eggs. Now, everyone wants to know where their food comes from and what it’s made of.”

The crowd at the food fest certainly corroborated this statement. With so many age groups, classes, and professions represented, it would have been hard to pinhole these consumers into any kind of niche. And this one weekend’s festival was no isolated case: from gourmet dining to neighborhood markets, the lifestyle seems to be expanding in all directions.

While their children continued to push forth towards vegan dessert handouts, parents gathered around another table setting up shop nearby: Vegan Publishers, which puts out picture books aimed at educating toddlers on ethical eating. Flipping through glossy pages of cartoon cows and baby food recipes, I couldn’t help imagining a coming generation raised on these alternative options, ushering in a new era of environmental equity from our stomachs to our wardrobes.

For this year’s festival goers, the dream is already being realized. As they start to make up a greater and greater portion of the mainstream food market, vegetarians and vegans are no longer obligatory afterthoughts on major vendors’ menus. The larger-than-ever crowds, multiplying vegan brands, and exponential growth of those represented at the festival all point towards a generation-wide turnover of the food industry. As for the next wave of teens and young adults who inherit our shift towards sustainability, these choices might not be “alternative” at all.

Casey Taft, co-founder of Vegan Publishers, certainly shares the vision. “More and more young people are embracing the lifestyle with open arms,” he said, gesturing towards oncoming visitors. “If that’s not an indication of the future, I don’t know what is.”

All photos by Greta Jochem.

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