Portland Veg Fest 2011

Yesterday I attended Veg Fest, a big event at the Portland Convention Center put on by Northwest VEG. I don’t think I’d ever been at a gathering with so many people dedicated to minimizing suffering for animals while simultaneously caring for their own health. I was surprised to have to wait in line behind about 60 people to pay six dollars for a ticket. A good sort of surprised.

Flavored coconut milk on tap! Courtesy of So Delicious.

Inside the event, thousands of attendees sampled seemingly endless bites of faux meats, flax crackers, dark chocolate, frozen coconut milk treats and other quality vegetarian offerings. Some of my favorite local products were there. I was especially excited to meet the people who make Thai and True, my favorite local curry paste.

Susie Kasem and her husband Pon of Thai and True curry paste company

I also love the Nut-tritious line of fresh nut butters, made in small batches here in the Portland area. One couple with a company called Foods Alive had come all the way from Waterloo,Indiana, with their line of flax crackers and oils. As they told one attendee, the crackers are so lightly processed that you can plant them and they’ll grow!

Ellen Moor of Foods Alive

The Beanfields Snacks tortilla chips were especially good. They’re made with black beans, navy beans and rice, which one of the Beansfields owners told me don’t soak up as much oil as corn. Now I’m going to have to fry a bean just for fact checking purposes.

Veg Fest had a whole list of impressive speakers and cooking demos. Dr. Neal Barnard, who wrote Food for Life and many other books promoting healthy food choices and veganism, spoke to a packed room. I didn’t hear him talk, because they were turning folks away. So I went extra early to hear Wayne Pacelle, the president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States. While I was waiting, I met Elaine French and Jerry Smith, who live in Mesquite, Nevada. They’re both long-time vegans who used to cook vegan food for weight-loss spas in Utah. They’ve generously written up a whole lot of their expertise and put it on their website.

Wayne Pacelle is on a huge book tour for The Bond: Our Kinship with Animals, Our Call to Defend Them. He was a practiced and moving speaker. I was taking notes by hand, which seems to be slower going the longer I use a computer, so I missed many of his eloquent statements. But I will summarize here, or at least mention some of the highlights.

Wayne Pacelle, who is not actually blurry in real life

Pacelle said he has felt a strong bond with animals since childhood. “People think they’re different so we don’t have to care for them,” he said. But to Pacelle, the differences were not disqualifying. As he got older, he never had that feeling drummed out of him; he remained connected to animals.

In his teen years, he learned more about all the ways humans exploit animals. “I was struck as a teen by this incredible set of contradictions that exists in society,” he said. He pointed out that we’re a nation that expresses a love for animals, and cares enough about their welfare to make animal cruelty a felony in 47 states. Two-thirds of American households have pets, and more than 70 million Americans consider themselves active wildlife watchers. Yet there’s so much institutionalized cruelty. More animals go through slaughterhouse lines in the US than there are people on the planet. And almost every animal seems to have its own advocacy group.  “Why do we need so many organizations for animals in need?” Pacelle asked. “Why are so many animals in crisis?”

He answered his own question: The central problem in our relationship with animals is we have all the power.

He mentioned other battles where we had to synch our values with commerce, including ending slavery and child labor. “If we accept the value of animal welfare,” he said, “we have to find a way to live our lives without leaving a trail of animal victims behind us.” He doesn’t believe that veganism and other things we do to stick up for animals are strictly personal. “We sit down three times a day and make life or death choices for animals,” he said, adding that even if the killing takes place out of our sight, morally our food choices are as consequential as it gets.

“This is a political problem,” he said, “that we’re misusing our power with animals and causing them so much pain and suffering just because we can do it.”

Pacelle got a standing ovation from the hundreds of animal lovers who made up the audience. I left the lecture hall, inspired, and went to look for more vegan chocolate samples.

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