Brooklyn’s Black Vegfest Is More Than a Food Festival

Enjoying an ice cream sandwich. Photo by the author.

On August 10 in Bed-Stuy, Black Vegfest kicked off its second year underneath blue skies and a hot sun on the grounds of the Weeksville Heritage Center. New York City’s first black-led intersectional vegan food festival offered free admission, highlighting the work of vegans of color while promoting the interconnection of veganism with social movements like food justice, LGBTQIA+ & black liberation, feminism and disabilities rights, among others. 

Founded in 2018 by Omowale Adewale, the outdoor festival expanded from a single day event last year—that, despite heavy rains and logistical hurdles, drew over 2,000 attendees—to two full days with scheduled activities like cooking demonstrations, composting classes, film screenings and presentations on topics like mental health, animal rights and community organizing. 

“We listened to people, and one of the things they wanted this year was more talk about mental health and a space that is ADA accessible,” Adewale tells me. Organizing an event that is inclusive for all bodies and all levels of need is foundational to Adewale’s ethos. 

As an organizer, Adewale is a proponent of change through community work and participation in local politics like the proposed fur ban. This year, Black Vegfest began hosting monthly health talks and cooking demonstrations at Brevoort Housing, a senior community house in Bed-Stuy. Each month, they taught plant-based nutrition to elderly people on fixed incomes who are risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. Recipes for berry smoothies and homemade hummus have been a hit. 

Through the event itself, Adewale has been able to collaborate with new black-owned businesses, many of which are based in neighborhoods currently fighting against gentrification. “We want to support them and show everybody, look what we can do together,” Adewale continues. “The positivity is overflowing.”  

Food proved to be an easy entry point into conversation with strangers. “I’m tapping on everyone’s shoulders asking what they’re eating,” says Akasha Nelms, a native New Yorker who lives on the Lower East Side. She brought her entire family, most of whom are vegan but live outside of the city in towns without access to vegan food on the scale that Brooklyn boasts. Though not vegan herself, Nelms attended the event last year out of curiosity and returned this year, excited to introduce her family to the growing community of vegans of color from across the city and beyond.

“There’s this idea that black folks can’t be vegan, but this space gives them the opportunity to. It’s really nice to see a group of black people who are eating the same food as them,” she continues, gesturing to her sister and nieces. “You got oxtail, you got mac and cheese, wings and there’s even an oyster mushroom po’ boy. I’m already full and it’s so sad.” she laughs. “I want to eat it all.”

The atmosphere was relaxed, family-friendly and lacked the commercial stiffness of other more established vegfests. There was no talk of disrupting markets with microgreens and trademarked meatless burgers. Instead, the focus rested on celebrating black plant-based foodways and addressing health issues facing the community. It had the characteristics of a Brooklyn block party, with live music, dancing and people enjoying themselves on a street that happened to serve vegan food at every turn. 

Among dozens of vendors, Bad Gyal Vegan, a Brooklyn Carribean pop-up, attracted long lines for Voxtail served over rice and peas. Philadelphia-based Gangster Vegan Organics utilized walnuts for taco meat in a loaded nacho salad. Ste Martaen, a catering company based in Chicago, served baked mac and cheese, available with or without vegan lobster, which was a crowd favorite. How Delish, a local family-run dessert company, provided a sweet finish to the weekend with sweet potato swirl cheesecake, peach cobbler and tiramisu.  

Entrance inside the Weeksville Heritage Center required $10 tickets—still a fraction of admission costs at other vegfests—and included hourly tours charting the history of Weeksville, one of the first free black communities in the U.S. founded before the Civil War. 

“As black people, it’s important to share our stories,” a tour guide implored our small group that stood before the remaining Weeksville houses that are now historic landmarks. Only people who registered for the tours were allowed inside the houses, but anyone within earshot was invited to listen to the story of Weeksville’s radical beginnings. “When you think of Weeksville, think of interdependence and political activism,” he said. “Remember that this community was founded by abolitionist freedom fighters.” 

The ability of African-Americans in the 19th century to purchase plots of land to build homes, start businesses, raise their families and establish safe communities provided more than economic independence. Land carried significant political power. In a time when free black men couldn’t vote unless they owned $250 worth of land, the Weeksville plots ensured them a voice at the polls as well as a safe haven from mounting racism in the city. 

Nearly two centuries later, systemic and individual racism still plague New York City and the U.S., from the highest levels of power to individuals act of terrorism, but Weeksville stands as a reminder of the collective empowerment of people working together toward racial justice. More than an annual event, Black Vegfest is part of a movement to push back against police brutality, mass incarceration, gentrification and animal rights in tandem through an intersectional vegan framework.