Vegandale, one of Chicago’s largest food events takes place this weekend in Grant Park. It features about 40 food vendors from across the country serving meat- and dairy-free food to the delight of the estimated crowd of 18,000 expected to attend on Saturday, September 11. However, festival organizers ignited controversy Wednesday when they announced their COVID-19 safety policy.
Despite an Instagram post that declares the contrary, Vegandale will not abide by all of the city of Chicago’s recommendations for large outdoor events. The festival will not require proof of vaccination from visitors or a negative COVID-19 test. These are the requirements that festivals like Lollapalooza and the upcoming Riot Fest have in place. Vegandale organizers also run events in Austin, Texas; LA; New York; and Toronto. For Chicago, the festival is mandating masks and asking ambiguously that ticketholders “limit consumption of substances,” with references to “alcohol or substances” that “may make you less likely to follow COVID-19 safety measures.”
The city’s health department “recommends checking documentation of vaccination or negative test status, if feasible. If vaccination or negative test status cannot be checked, CDPH recommends that all attendees, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks whenever social distancing cannot be maintained.”
Three food vendors have pulled out of the festival due to the policy: Liberation Donuts; Pie, Pie, Pie My Darling, and Vagabond Vegan Club. All three vendors tell Eater that Vegandale reps said organizers weren’t asking for vaccine proof because they claimed the vaccine is not vegan.
Vegandale organizers did not respond to a request for comment, but their policy reflects a long-standing argument within the vegan community over the ethics of vaccinations, with a vocal group denouncing them as non-vegan due to animal testing and because some vaccines contain animal byproducts. That includes voices from conspiracy theorists like German vegan cookbook author Atilla Hildmann. In fact, in England, vegans are considered by law as a protected class, afforded the same exceptions as those who say religion prohibits them from certain practices, including vaccinations. That’s led some U.K. anti-vaxxers to feign veganism as a strategy to avoid a jab.
None of the three U.S.-approved COVID-19 vaccines contain animal products, though laws require animal testing before medications reach the market. Animal rights activists and proponents of veganism at PETA have advised vegans to get vaccinated, as there is no better option right now and staying healthy is the best path in continuing to support animal rights. Though breakthrough cases are possible, health experts point to data revealing that vaccines reduce the risk of severe illness, hospitalization, and death by roughly 90 percent, even as the more contagious delta variant wreaks havoc across the nation.
Natalie Slater of Liberation Donuts in West Town has been asking about Vegandale’s policy since June. Although she’s grateful that Vegandale’s organizers chose to make masks mandatory, she feels ignoring other recommendations at a large event is irresponsible and risky and that Vegandale made its decision to pander to a loud and aggressive anti-vax portion of the vegan community who would boycott the event and affect sales.
“Someone I was talking to had the perfect description,” says Heather Bodine-Lederman of Pie, Pie, Pie My Darling. “It was almost like they were emboldening COVID deniers and anti-vaxxers.”
Marc Bannes of Vagabond Vegan Club throws pop-ups all over the city with his wife, Meg McGrath. Bannes was frustrated with festival organizers: “I’m only interested in working with people who I think are doing the right thing,” he says.
Slater, Bodine-Lederman, and Bannes all say they don’t wish ill will on any of the vendors who elect to participate. However, they couldn’t justify sending their teams to a busy festival where workers might be at higher risk of contracting the disease.
Liberation Donuts is selling it doughnuts earmarked for the fest online. It received criticism from anti-vaxxers who commented on the company’s social media pages after it announced plans to pull out of the event. Slater says she understands that vegans are naturally suspicious of government regulations, as their diets and regimens differ from what health experts have traditionally prescribed. But with so many deaths and hospitalizations across the country — especially in less-vaccinated regions — Slater says this loud faction shouldn’t dictate the terms of a public event. “Can’t you just show us you don’t currently have COVID to get into this event?” she says.
The three also took issue with Vegandale waiting until three days before the event to announce the policy. The fest’s policies have varied for each city and a Chicago policy hadn’t been announced previously. They argue that the changes didn’t give vendors enough time to make an informed decision as many purchased ingredients to sell to festival patrons. Bodine-Lederman says she spent about $1,500 on the festival, including fees. While she has her own bakery to sell her goods, not every business has that luxury and many can’t afford to eat the fees. Vegandale reps told Slater, Bodine-Lederman, and Bannes they had no plans to make refunds.
Rodolfo Cuadros owns Bloom Plant Based Kitchen in Wicker Park and has made 1,000 curried arepas for the event. All of his team members are vaccinated. He’s got two kids, ages 5 and 8, who aren’t vaccinated. He’s going through with the festival, but says he would have pulled out if not for the mask requirement.
The festival is important to his business, and after a rough pandemic where restaurants struggled to survive, he looks forward to the opportunity to introduce food from his recently opened restaurant to hungry customers. He’s had discussions with friends about vaccines and he scoffs at the excuses for putting children and those with underlying health conditions at an elevated risk.
“As far as the vaccine not being vegan?” he says. “If there’s a better option, let me know.”