I had a chance to sit down with Dave Norris, former Mayor of Charlottesville and founder of the Charlottesville Vegetarian Festival, for lunch and a conversation about how it all got started.
“I was relatively new to vegetarianism/veganism. I had only been practicing it for about four or five years.”
Dave reminisces on going to the gay pride festival on the east end of the downtown Mall in 1996, well before the Pavilion was built, and thinking, “This is really cool. We should have something like this for vegetarianism.”
There was one up in Boston, a whole festival just for vegetarianism, and he started reading up on it (he notes this was before the Internet). It was the second one in North America with the one in Toronto being the first.
At the time he was the co-president for Voices for Animals and he took the idea to them. He chuckles as he remembers Susan Weidman’s response, “Who would come to that?”
In the beginning
After months of planning, the first Charlottesville Veggie Fest drew in over an estimated 1000 attendees that hot August day on the Downtown Mall where the pavilion is now in 1997. As the day started, with only around 20 vendors at that time, all of which were focused on vegetarianism, Dave remembers thinking, “I wonder if anyone will show up.” It turned out to be a success. So much so that Voice for Animals continued to plan and put on the festival for the following 14 years.
Marianne Roberts, a fellow member of Voices for Animals, took on the lead organizer role in 2000. At this point they moved the festival to Lee Park and pushed it back to September, when the weather was a bit cooler.
“I took on the role because I believe in a reverence-for-all-life philosophy in which non-human animals are not subjugated at the hands of humans, but instead are considered to be blessed, exquisite, and valuable beings, just as all humans are,” she says.
From the beginning it was never about trying to force anyone to become a vegetarian or vegan.
“We wanted to make it festive,” Dave explains. “We wanted to portray this lifestyle, this diet, this way of living, this way of being, in a very positive light by making it festive.” It is meant to be a celebration.
“If people walk away deciding to convert all the way, awesome. If they decide to eat one less meal with meat a week, awesome, and anything in between, awesome!” he explains.
Evolution and impact of the Veggie Fest
As the years went on, and under Marianne’s leadership, the festival continued to grow, some years drawing crowds of more than 6000.
“She really professionalized it,” he says speaking of Marianne. “Pretty quickly it evolved well beyond just being a vegetarian festival, and became more of a healthy living festival.”
For many years the festival featured well over 100 booths. There was always a core of 20-30 vegetarian specific booths, but it expanded to include tables focused on environmentalism and health, and of course the pet adoption fair. Music became a centralized aspect.
However, the core intent remained to educate people about the health, environmental and animal welfare benefits of a vegetarian and vegan lifestyle.
“Now there’s a vegetarian festival in almost every state. We even helped spin off the one in Richmond and Norfolk. The one in Norfolk only lasted a few years, but I hear it’s picking up again. Now Richmond’s is even bigger than ours,” Dave explains.
A recent study referenced in an article by the Huffington Post revealed that Charlottesville is the #2 most vegetarian city in America. It’s not necessarily that our restaurants offer a lot of vegetarian and vegan options, but that the residents are more likely, 147% more likely according to the study, to order a vegetarian item off the menu.
Dave reflects on the impact the festival has had on Charlottesville and it’s residents. “I really do think that the festival did a lot in terms of normalizing veganism and vegetarianism in Charlottesville and attracting more people here who were inclined in that direction. A lot of that has to do with the fact that we’ve had this big event every year, and we were just not ever hesitant about it. We put it out there. At the time when we started it, it was still fairly radical to be a vegan or vegetarian.”
Volunteers are critical
While organized under Voice for Animals the festival was run entirely by a group of volunteers. Dave was amazed to see this group of people come together, work hard and put on this annual community event.
“I think one of the reasons why it worked so well is because it was so much fun doing it. The priority was on enjoying each others’ company. It didn’t feel like work. The thought was ‘we’re going to plan a party,’ and that’s what it felt like.”
The food was almost always vegan
Very early on Voices for Animals made the decision to make sure all the food was vegan, and it remained so every year after until the festival was turned over to the Healthy Food Coalition in 2011.
“I love that the vegetarian festival is a celebration of a humane and healthy lifestyle and that the focus is on gently and non-judgmentally educating people how to live a reverence-for-all-life philosophy,” reflects Marianne Roberts when asked why she loves the veggie fest and why it’s an important annual community event.
Living lighter and healthier...and laughter
After 15 years the Voice for Animals volunteer group decided that they’d had their fun, and wanted to turn it over to someone else. At that point, with the help of Jim Ward and a group of loyal volunteers, Dave Redding took over planning the festival under his nonprofit, the Healthy Food Coalition. They just didn’t want to see this important community event come to an end.
Being in the driver’s seat definitely takes patience and focus. You don’t really get to “enjoy” the festival. You spend a lot of time answering questions, directing people, running around, and putting out fires, I’ve come to find. Despite all that, when I asked Dave Norris what his favorite veggie fest memory was he gave a heartfelt reply.
“It’s not one particular moment. It’s the sense of community and enjoyment, people having a good time. Learning how to live lighter on the earth and live healthier. It’s a really positive atmosphere. The music, food and kids playing everywhere. It really captured the essence of what Charlottesville was becoming at the time: lively, progressive, and health oriented.”
He then nearly breaks out into a full on laughing fit when he remembers pitching an idea for the 10th Anniversary of the festival to the Voices for Animals volunteer group.
“Let’s make the world’s largest vegan birthday cake.”
They shut the idea down immediately and still give him grief about it. I did find that a Rohvolution Raw Food Festival in Germany has the world record for the largest vegan cake. Any Charlottesville vegan bakers want to take on the challenge for our 20th birthday?
See you on September 24th @ The IX Art Park.
Lead Festival Organizer