Torre Washington is built like a brick house. African-American with long dreadlocks and bulging muscles, he is not what some might consider a poster child for veganism.
But maybe he should be.
"All you see is what's promoted, which is mostly people of Caucasian descent on a pedestal," he says of the stereotypical vegan.
Unlike many converts, Washington has been eating a plant-based diet since long before it was fashionable among America's so-called elite.
Washington was raised vegetarian in the Seventh-day Adventist Church and now follows the Rastafarian traditions of his Jamaican roots, which include eating Ital, or vegan. "We've never called it a religion; it was just our culture," he says. "We call it a lifestyle."
Washington is a bodybuilder, trainer, and speaker who partially credits veganism for his physique. "People don't recognize that you can build more muscle and keep it longer when you cut out the animal protein," he says.
Washington is one of many people of color participating in the fifth-annual plant-based Seed Food & Wine Week, taking place Wednesday, November 7, through Sunday, November 11, in Miami. The event will include more than 200 exhibitors, 40 celebrity chefs, and a host of experts, authors, and athletes. It is expected to draw 10,000 attendees.
The festival's founder, Alison Burgos, is Puerto Rican and says she is dedicated to ensuring the event is accessible to all people. "Minorities and people of lower incomes don't always have the education and support to make better choices in how they eat," Burgos says.
A 2014 Purdue University study titled "Who Are the Vegans?" shows that although whites are almost three times likelier to be meat-free than blacks or Hispanics, the primary influencers are political beliefs, income, and education, not race.
Burgos is not totally vegan, and she wants other attendees, vegan or otherwise, to feel like they are in a judgment-free zone. "The festival, at its core, is a conversation, not just an event," she says.
Vendors, speakers, clothing designers, and chefs from a rainbow of socioeconomic backgrounds will be on hand to educate attendees about the benefits of a vegan lifestyle and treat them to vegan cuisine. Registered volunteers can even attend one event for free.
One of the celebrity chefs presenting at Seed is Joshua Gripper of the W South Beach. The executive chef says he understands why people of limited financial means sometimes feel that veganism is out of reach.
"I think the perception is that it's just an expensive hobby," Gripper says. "Where I grew up in Queens, and even in parts of Miami, you have these food deserts where you don't have easy access to fresh produce and quality ingredients."
Accessibility to fresh produce is one obstacle to veganism, but Gripper, who is African-American, says there is another hindrance that people of privilege sometimes fail to recognize.
"The biggest problem is time," Gripper says of the challenges of low-income individuals. "Most people feel like they just don't have the time to take on that endeavor, especially if you're struggling to make ends meet, you have multiple
Gripper recommends the festival's plant-based Burger Battle for anyone who might be new to vegan food. He says the creativity and variety of choices offer something for everyone. "You want to have the best experience out of the gate so that you are not turned off," he says.
Nzingah Oniwosan is a vegan raw-food chef of Haitian descent who will speak at the festival. Her company, Yes Baby I Like It Raw, caters to those who want healthier versions of traditional Haitian foods such as the pumpkin-based soup
Oniwosan says that she has been accused of "eating like white people" but that nothing is further from the truth. "This diet has no color," she says, adding that the ability to control diabetes, high blood pressure, cholesterol, and heart disease through diet is important for people of all ethnicities.
African-American film producer and director John Lewis
Lewis is trying to change that perception. His forthcoming film, Hungry for Justice, highlights the role veganism plays in the hip-hop movement, which he says has not traditionally been welcoming of that particular dietary lifestyle. "It was portrayed as a white, elitist thing to go vegan," he says. "It was a kind of sellout."
But because hip-hop influence is so far-reaching, Lewis sees the film as a way to reach those who might otherwise have limited exposure to veganism.
"We have to be open to meeting people where they're at and not expecting them to come to where we are," Lewis says of the vegan community. "We have to meet them through their music, their culture, their clothing, their food."
Lewis says that in the movie, vegan artists such as Damon Dash, Professor Griff from Public Enemy, Jaden Smith, and Mya talk about why they went vegan and what they learned from going through the process.
If veganism is ever to become mainstream, Lewis says, existing vegans must be more accepting of the struggles that some nonvegans face, such as finances, culture, access to vegan foods, and education level.
"A lot of people don't understand that just because it's not happening to you, doesn't mean it's not happening," he says. "A lot of people think everybody should just go vegan, but they're negating all the things that this person has to deal with."
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Lewis remains dedicated to his vegan lifestyle, and he will speak at the festival about the little steps that people of all socioeconomic backgrounds can take to live healthier, more peaceful lives.
"Sometimes the vegan movement can be very hypercritical," Lewis says. "You got people who have been vegan for two days and they're calling everyone who is not vegan an asshole. Bro, you weren't even vegan until two days ago."
And though Lewis still endures the occasional taunting, he says events such as Seed Food & Wine Week help people of all backgrounds see veganism as an achievable goal. "I had a lot of friends and family that thought I was nuts," he says. "And they still think I'm nuts, but now they ask for advice."