Portland’s Vegetarian Food Festival, set for June 4, is among a rapidly growing number of similar festivals around the United States and the world.

A reported 4,000 people attended the first VegFest held in Nashville in early April. Vegetarian festivals took place on May 7 in New Hampshire, New Orleans and New York City. Earlier in the month, VegFest Los Angeles and the New England VegFest in Worcester, Massachusetts were held on the same day. Vegetarian festivals around the world include those held in London, Bangkok and Tel Aviv.

“We can’t keep up with up them there are so many now,” cofounder Charles Stahler of the Baltimore-based Vegetarian Resource Group said. The group’s website lists 37 such events, but Stahler admits the list is incomplete – the Portland event is one of many not listed.

Though they are often billed as vegetarian festivals, the vast majority – like the event in Maine – require that all food served be vegan, Stahler said.

The dramatic increase in the number of such festivals in the last 10 to 15 years reflects the increasing numbers of vegetarian food companies, vegan cookbook authors and plant-based physicians. “To me that’s almost a bigger story,” Stahler said. “There’s an infrastructure now.”

The Vegetarian Food Festival in Maine has grown since it began in 2005 in the number of attendees and exhibitors, according to Beth Gallie, president of the Maine Animal Coalition, which hosts the festival.

“We now get far more requests to be a speaker than we can accommodate,” Gallie said. “And there are many good films to show related to vegetarianism. Also environmental groups increasingly want to be exhibitors.”

Many festivals, including Portland’s, wrestle with finding a venue large enough to keep up. The Portland festival has a scenic location at the East End Community School, but the venue presents constraints, including limited parking, the small size of the school’s function space, the lack of an available commercial kitchen and scant foot or auto traffic nearby to generate walk-in attendance.

The cost to obtain temporary food licenses from the city – which prevents some potential food vendors from attending – is another hurdle the festival confronts each year.

As a result, the Portland event is a smaller festival, with a couple dozen exhibitors, a handful of speakers and one feature-length film presentation each year. Even so, it regularly draws 800 to 900 people.

Gallie said the festival has had four locations since it started. Festival organizers have considered moving again but have yet to find a better spot.

The tradition of vegetarian festivals stretches back to at least 1853, when the American Vegetarian Society (an organization that didn’t survive the end of the Civil War) held the New York Vegetarian Festival in Metropolitan Hall. The event was hosted by Horace Greeley, a presidential candidate, congressman and influential newspaper editor, and drew more than 300 attendees, including women’s rights advocates Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone.

The longest running vegetarian festival in North America, the Veg Food Fest, takes place in Toronto. The event, held over three days each September, is 32 years old and regularly attracts 50,000 people. It benefits from its venue in the city’s Harbourfront Centre, which sees steady pedestrian traffic.

David Alexander, executive director of the host Toronto Vegetarian Association, said the group’s first festival featured information booths and drew 100 people.

“The next year, someone said we should put the word ‘food’ in the name, and the vegetarian food festival was born,” Alexander said.

“This event featured 16 exhibitors, 10 cooking demos, three talks on veg issues and a screening of ‘The Vegetarian World,’ a documentary narrated by William Shatner. The new focus attracted 500 attendees.”

The move to Harbourfront Centre in the event’s early years allowed a big uptick in festival-goers, drawing 10,000 visitors by the 10th festival.

“We now feature 30 hours of informational programming, yoga workshops, music and over 100 vendors, including loads of food and beverage vendors,” Alexander said.

According to Stahler at the Vegetarian Resource Group, food is the key to a festival’s success. “There are always lines to get food,” he said. “And the longest lines are usually the vegan doughnut lines. That’s why people are going: to get food.”

The appeal of vegan food is now so strong that Los Angeles is hosting a Vegan Beer & Food Festival at the Rose Bowl in June for the seventh year in a row. While most vegetarian festivals are free, tickets to the typically sold-out LA event start at $50 and go up to $80 for VIP admission.

The longest running vegetarian festival on U.S. soil has been hosted in Boston since 1995.

“Attendance has grown so much that in 2009 we expanded from one day to a two-day festival,” said Boston Vegetarian Society President Evelyn Kimber.

This year, the Boston Vegetarian Food Festival, scheduled for Oct. 22 and 23, is expected to attract from 15,000 to 20,000 people and vegan food vendors from across North America.

One area “where we have seen explosive growth,” Kimber said, is in the number of vegan cookbook authors eager to give talks and demos. There is a “bounty of fabulous, completely vegan cookbooks released every year,” she said.

Since the Boston festival began, Kimber said, it’s been exciting to see vegan options at local restaurants increase and to hear from people all over the country interested in starting their own festivals.

“All it takes is a small group of dedicated and enthusiastic activists to get things going,” Kimber said. Massachusetts now has two other vegetarian festivals, in Worcester and Northampton.

Likewise, Alexander said many vegetarian festivals have sprouted across Canada since Toronto held its first. He said the vegetarian landscape of the city has also changed dramatically.

“When we got started, there were just a handful of veg businesses in Toronto, and that’s grown exponentially since,” said Alexander. “Now we have vegan bake shops, pubs, cafés and over 80 veg restaurants.”

The camaraderie these festivals offer vegetarians is invaluable, said Gallie of the Maine Animal Coalition.

“Increasingly large numbers of people want to learn about vegetarianism because they want to help animals and improve their health and the environment,” Gallie said. “And getting together with those who are like-minded reinforces one’s commitment.”

Avery Yale Kamila is a freelance food writer who lives in Portland.

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