It is no surprise that Toronto, one of the most diverse cities in Canada, plays host to an assortment of events and festivals throughout the year to celebrate the various cultures, people, lifestyles and causes all around us. On Sept. 7 – 9 at the Harbourfront Centre, the 28th annual Vegetarian Food Festival, regarded as the oldest and largest event of its kind, will be taking place. The festival will bring together those looking to add a little colour and variety into their meals, experienced vegetarians wanting to expand their nutritional knowledge, experts and advocates for vegetarianism and of course, lovers of food.
Last year, the Vegetarian Food Festival saw over 40,000 attendees from all different walks of life. While most were already vegetarian or vegan, others were first-timers who opened themselves up to options that they had not yet explored. Many walked away with a completely different perspective and appreciation for greener and healthier eating habits.
The Toronto Vegetarian Association (TVA) has spent months planning and organizing an outstanding line-up of top chefs, restaurants, social advocacy groups, athletes and noteworthy speakers. This year’s festival promises more than 120 exhibitors, cooking demonstrations, an enlightening and powerful panel of guest speakers (composed of leading experts in nutrition and fitness), children’s activities, live music and entertainment, delicious samples and of course, an all around great time.
“In comparison to other years, this festival will be our biggest one yet. We have more exhibitors, restaurants, bakeries, nutrition consultants, environment-friendly businesses and as a result are expecting an even bigger attendance,” said TVA Executive Director David Alexander.
The TVA was founded in 1945 and is a volunteer-driven charitable organization that aims to inspire a healthier, greener and more peaceful lifestyle. For more than 60 years the TVA has been Toronto’s go-to resource for all things veg. Providing vital information through workshops, resources and a vegetarian business directory, the TVA does its part in the community to promote healthier lifestyles. It is through events such as the annual Vegetarian Food Festival that the TVA encourages individuals to think critically about their food choices and what is best for themselves as well as the environment.
Alexander joined the TVA in 2006, which is when he began working alongside TVA’s other volunteers on noteworthy projects such as Veggielicious, the Totally Fabulous Vegan Bake-off, a Why I’m Veg video campaign and of course, the Vegetarian Food Festival. Alexander has been a vegetarian for about seven years now and has since attended six food festivals.
“It’s the world’s largest vegetarian food festival and it’s a great event for people who are vegetarians like myself. We get to eat all of our favourite food all in one place, hangout, hear talks by great speakers, see cooking demonstrations from some of the top vegan chefs in North America and it’s also a great event for people who aren’t vegetarian but are just looking for some really great food to eat,” said Alexander.
Another attraction of the Vegetarian Food Festival is that with so many different foods to try that there really is something for everyone. All newcomers have to do is make themselves open to new options that they may grow to love.
“It comes down to the simple fact that the food is really great. I think people who come to the festival for the first time are first of all shocked by how big it is and secondly by how tasty the food is,” said Alexander. “North American cuisine doesn’t have a long history with vegetarian and vegan food, but other cultures obviously do, and in Toronto we’re lucky enough to have a lot of these cultures come together at our festival. Once people start trying the different variety of food out there, whether it’s South Asian, Buddhist, Chinese and so forth, it really puts to lie the myth that by being a vegetarian you’re giving something up. It’s definitely more like a culinary adventure where you are constantly gaining something”.
Adding a new spin to this year’s programming at the Vegetarian Food Festival is the screening of the documentary Forks Over Knives, directed by American independent filmmaker Lee Fulkerson. Forks Over Knives explores how people can use healthy diets that reject animal-based and processed foods to manage and in some cases, reverse common health problems like heart disease, type two diabetes and certain forms of cancer.
“It is going to be the biggest single event happening at this space as we’re expecting around a thousand people present for the screening,” said Alexander. “It’s going to be very eye-opening for viewers and hopefully they walk away with a better understanding of the benefits that come from cleaner eating.”
In addition to the documentary, messages will be received from some of the many speakers who are being featured at this year’s festival, such as vegan athlete and author of the book Finding Ultra, Rich Roll.
A graduate of Stanford University and Cornell Law School, Roll is a world-renowned ultra-endurance athlete, wellness advocate, husband and father of four who will talk about the key to healthy living. In addition, nutrition and fitness consultant John Pierre will share with listeners his expertise in the areas of geriatrics, nutrition, fitness, women’s empowerment, green living, and cognitive retention and improvement.
Pierre has appeared on the Ellen show and has spent a quarter of his life helping to improve the lives of others. Likewise, speaker, writer, vegan advocate and chef Colleen Patrick-Goudreau will be showcased as a returning guest to share her knowledge.
Returning to the Vegetarian Food Festival with Colleen Patrick-Goudreau is Terry Hope Romero, author of bestselling vegan cookbooks Veganomicon: The Ultimate Vegan Cookbook, Vegan Cookies Invade Your Cookie Jar, Viva Vegan!: Authentic Vegan Latina American Recipes and Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World.
“Terry Hope Romero has been at the festival for the past 3 years. This year her cookbook co-author of Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World, Isa Chandra Moskowitz is coming too, which is very exciting” said Alexander. “One of the things we’re doing this year since we have both of them present, is we’re having a cupcake competition. We have six local vegan bakeries competing against each other to impress the authors and experts who wrote the book on vegan cupcakes”.
If you have not been won over yet by the quality and entertainment that the Vegetarian Food Festival promises, you should know that it is absolutely free to attend the festival, all of the events at the festival, and there are even free samples to be given. The only cost stems from whatever attendees choose to buy from the exhibitors.
“We’re in a position now where the festival is self-sustaining financially, which helps us to invest in promoting vegetarianism in Toronto throughout the year. However, part of that financial success also means that we’re able to bring in more prestigious speakers and films the following year. The screening of Forks Over Knives for instance, is something that we wouldn’t have been able to afford two or three years ago because of the additional costs of screening a film on in an outdoor space where it’s going to be shown,” said Alexander.
Though every year the Vegetarian Food Festival continues to thrive and improve, there is something memorable and special about each one that has come and gone.
“There are many really positive moments that come to mind when I think of past years, like the Iron Chef cooking contest we hosted which was really fun,” said Alexander. “Sometimes it’s just that unexplainable feeling that you get from being out there in the Harbourfront Centre space listening to great music and eating really delicious corn soup, spring rolls or vegan cupcakes. It’s just the whole experience of going to a festival that’s as vibrant and positive as this one that really stands out to you. It’s definitely my favourite time of year.”
In the next couple of years the TVA hopes to gain more traction for their smaller projects such as Veggielicious, which takes place Sept. 24 – Oct. 7. This year marks the second annual Veggielicious, where restaurants in Toronto and the surrounding area will offer deals on healthy, compassionate, eco-friendly and delicious vegetarian meals. Veggielicious is a great way for undiscovered restaurants to be found as well as vegetarian meals that you will never know you enjoy until you try them.
“In terms of goals, our biggest one would be to continue growing and to continue showing people that being a vegetarian in Toronto is easy, something that’s healthy, affordable, good for the planet and really delicious,” said Alexander. “We have a lot of room to grow in this city and the tools needed to do so. It takes a lot of work and effort to put together events like the festival, but as long as people keep showing up and hopping aboard it makes it all worth while”.
The Vegetarian Food Festival will take place at The Harbourfront Centre, 235 Queens Quay West, Toronto on Sept. 7 from 4:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., Sept. 8 from 12:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. and Sept. 9 from 12:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. Admission is free and attendance is encouraged. For a complete listing of event schedules and guests, please visit the Vegetarian Food Festival Web site at festival.veg.ca