As plant-based options are suddenly popping up at fast-food chains like McDonald’s and Burger King, it could appear to the unknowing eye that the vegetarian diet has become mainstream overnight. But for Nira Paliwoda, a seasoned event coordinator/producer and co-founder of U.S. Veg Corp and the NYC Vegetarian Festival, this shift has been a long time coming. Nectar News sits down (over Skype) with Paliwoda to discuss her journey into the plant-based industry, sustainable living and the need for education in this field.
NN: You are the Co-Founder and President of U.S. Veg Corp. Can you tell us how the company was founded?
NP: U.S. Veg Corp started in large part because I have another company called Two Shes Productions. Around 10 years ago Two Shes Productions was putting on an event over at Brooklyn Bowl for the earthquake victims in Chile which a lot of people didn’t know about because it happened around the same time that there were earthquakes in Haiti. We were raising awareness and funds for that initiative and I asked a friend of mine to assist by photographing the event. He brought a woman that he had just started dating at the time along with him. She and I got to talking and she said to me ‘I love what you are doing here, I wish there was something like this for my community.’ I was very curious about what she could mean by that, and she explained that she was a vegan and that at the time there really were no such events that were being catered to the vegan community in New York, especially those of higher caliber.
This struck a chord with me. Not being vegan I didn’t realize that there was a limitation like this toward people with different dietary restrictions. All of the events back then were almost always catered without any type of vegan option. I also didn’t really understand what vegan was back then. A lot of it had negative connotations associated with it. So I started doing some research and I found that even just by going online you would get different types of opinions towards veganism. Speaking to doctors and business owners and the general public that I had access to I also got very skewed responses as to the question ‘what is veganism?’ and ‘is it actually healthy for you?’. So I thought ‘you know what, I need to do an event where I just bring in the experts and all of the products that I am interested in trying, put them all under one roof and then basically get an education that way. But I also wanted to make it a fun and enjoyable experience. So I partnered with the woman that I had met at the Two Shes Productions event and we decided that it would be great to do some type of festival in New York City. And that is where U.S. Veg Corp originated. I didn’t want to put it under my other events company since we wanted an initiative that was specifically plant-based and green living oriented. So we started the company, just the two of us, with the NYC Vegetarian Festival being our launch event. This May 2020 will be our 10th NYC Vegetarian Food Festival anniversary.
NN: Happy Anniversary! It looks like over the 10 years you have expanded outside of NYC.
NP: Yes. We have always thought we would expand outside of the constraints of New York City and really hit the entire United States and so we have since expanded to California and Arizona. Now we have the Arizona Vegetarian Food Festival coming up in February. This past year the California Vegetarian Food Festival was in San Francisco. In previous years it was in Los Angeles. Historically, the California festival is held in the Fall.
NN: What was the response like to your first event 10 years ago compared to now?
NP: The first event we entered into somewhat naively since my background when it comes to events is very much in the entertainment business. I’ve worked in music, television, and film throughout my career so I was very used to creating an atmosphere for people from all walks of life to coalesce and really just have a good time. So for me, I approached the NYC Vegetarian Food Festival as any other event I put together and aim to provide a wonderful experience for anybody who would walk through the door. What I didn’t realize was how much interest there really was in healthy living and curiosity when it came to plant-based diets. So there were a lot of people, like myself, who really did not know what veganism was. We ended up advertising the event across the board. It took place at the Altman Building in Chelsea and we were expecting maybe 500 people to show up. It turned out that we had a line all the way around the city block all day. We even had to turn people away, which didn’t even deter them because the line itself was an event. People were meeting each other and having the best day. So it caught the attention of the press and the helicopters overhead trying to figure out what was happening in Chelsea – was it a new iPhone release? And then we made the morning news and it seemed like overnight we were on the map.
So of course, the following year we needed a bigger venue to accommodate us and make some changes on that level. The next year we went next door to the Metropolitan Pavilion and took up the first level there. Through the course of the year, there was so much interest that we also started to do smaller events throughout the year to keep up with the demand of people wanting to gather and learn. In the Festival’s second year we saw the attendance double, the number of vendors double, the buzz was contagious and we had to create a 2-day event instead of the original one day. Over the years it has continued to increase in size and attendance which is wonderful.
NN: What kind of changes have you witnessed in our culture as it relates to plant-based eating over the past decade and what are some of the biggest misconceptions people have about plant-based eating?
NP: The biggest misconception is that plant-based eating is not healthy and you can’t get enough protein. This is one of the reasons that we started doing the event because the vegans that I knew when I first started were not healthy, they didn’t know how to eat. Mainly because they didn’t have an education. So they were eating a lot of french fries, celery, and carrots. They were the ones that also needed to get in front of nutritionists and doctors to learn what else is out there. The vegan diet itself is not unhealthy – the lack of education around the diet itself leads to unhealthy behavior. You actually can get a lot of protein eating vegan if you know how to get it. Leafy greens and beans have a lot of protein in them. It’s also shocking how much less protein we need than I had originally thought. As a society, we overeat meat and protein and so our sense of what we need is skewed. Especially because most of us are not getting the nutrients and vitamins that we need from fruits and vegetables. So it is fascinating to learn about what your body really does need and what it does not. What we have noticed throughout the years is that more people have made plant-based living more mainstream and there are more products out there. Every year it seems that there is a new push for a type of vegetable product. One year it was Kale. Another year it was Mushrooms and each year something different. Food science has also become a cool thing to do and is very backed in the mainstream, whereas before it was not so much. You can see that more prominently this year with products like The Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat. These are products now going into fast food places like McDonald’s and Burger King so there has definitely been a huge push toward plant-based industry. Obviously, there are environmental concerns that go hand in hand with plant-based living as well.
NN: Yes, I think that is definitely one of the most profound drives toward plant-based lifestyles today. So many people want to know how we can help the earth in this time of climate emergency. Can you speak to how your events make the connection between plant-based consciousness and environmental activism?
NP: Absolutely, one of the most important components of our event is education. We always have panelists and speakers that talk about sustainability. We try to incorporate it at a young age as well. For example, we have a kids area where we do hands-on activities to teach about recycling, composting and eating healthier. To teach the parents about healthy eating is really important as well. That is where a huge effect takes place because mothers really are the ones that drive a lot of sales and education in the plant-based market. We also have the interaction between not just doctors but also the farmers that are out there sharing how they are doing their part by growing organic healthy crops.
Education is key and being able to actually do events that are fun and bring people in and doesn’t make them feel like they are coming into some type of seminar. But then they walk out definitely having learned something and with a cause of action to make a difference in their own life. That is the main reason that I put on the event.
NN: It sounds like there is a major sense of community being built at these events that is very empowering.
NP: Yes. As one person it’s easy to feel like your contribution is not really making a difference but when you go to an event where thousands of people from all walks of life are congregating you feel like you are within a community that can create change. Then to be exposed to different types of organizations that are out there doing it and are asking for you to participate and learn about them, you start feeling Iike you are part of a system. Our vendors also show actual statistics of how your individual contribution does affect the whole. 50% of the people who walk through the door are not plant-based at all. They are just plant curious. And many people have told me that they came in very skeptical but they walked out so hopeful and enlightened. Right then and there they decide to make a difference even when they were not planning on it at all. That difference varies. For some, it may mean giving up all meat and dairy and becoming vegan. For others, it is a shift to incorporating one day or one meal a week where they eat plant-based. Others decide the plant-based lifestyle is not for them but they are really curious about helping the environment so they go do recycling or they don’t use single-use plastics anymore along with other sustainable changes in their life. So it is definitely a situation where you have to educate people and not force it down their throats. You let them come to it at their own time and put the correct information in front of people as opposed to bullying them into doing something. That is what I find to be the most dramatic way of getting the message across, just listen to people and their concerns then answer their questions and get into a discussion. That’s what we try to offer and it seems to work.
Plant-based living is really a lifestyle. It’s not just about what you are putting in your body but also about how you interact with the earth and the community. So that is what our event is here to promote. Learn about your surroundings, your community, and your body. Treat people and animals the way you should be treating them and enjoy life. The wonderful thing is that the people who attend our events are so wonderful. The energy is so high. You see smiling faces that you don’t normally see and engagement amongst strangers. It really is an inclusive and beautiful event.
ARE YOU A FLORENCE BELSKY ADVISOR WITH SUSTAINABLE BUSINESS INTERESTED IN BEING REPRESENTED AT THE NYC VEGETARIAN FESTIVAL. EMAIL: DAN@FLOBEL.ORG FOR MORE INFORMATION.