.Healthy, Not Boring

VegFest has dishes even meat lovers will love

For the first time since 2019, Santa Cruz VegFest returns to the Cocoanut Grove on April 6, attracting more than 80 exhibitors dedicated to environmentally conscious cuisine.

Thousands of foodies, health enthusiasts and nature lovers will get together under one roof to celebrate a lifestyle that’s not just about what’s on the plate but also about the impact of dietary choices on the planet and our well-being.

VegFest organizers Camilla and Helbard Alkhassadeh, founders of Little Hill Sanctuary animal rescue center, call this event an immersive experience that transcends mere food festivals and delves into the heart of plant-powered living. The festival is the latest evolution in a lifestyle the two have embraced for decades.

The couple opened Little Hill in 2020; today, the nonprofit has become home to more than 100 abandoned animals. Their mission has been gaining momentum in recent years, with more and more people choosing to adopt a plant-based lifestyle. During a recent interview, Camilla and Helbard spoke in depth about the changes driving this trend.

One top reason they cite is the potential benefit to health. Diet-related disease rates continue to rise, even with all the latest interventions, the newest diet plans and whatever the Kardashians are doing. Yet nutrition doesn’t need to be all that complicated.

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Plant-based diets are rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, which are packed with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Studies have shown that adopting a vegan diet may lower the risk of certain chronic diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes and certain types of cancer.

But those who aren’t yet ready to give up cheese fries forever are also welcome.

Helbard says that most attendees are not entirely vegan but are interested in learning more about healthy eating, spurred by recent media coverage about the Netflix series You Are What You Eat: A Twin Experiment as well as studies on “blue zones,” those regions noted for healthy longevity and plant-based diets.

A Gastronomic Adventure

For the plant-curious, VegFest is a foodie mecca filled with creative vegan dishes, desserts, drinks and samples. Though meat consumption has steadily risen over the past decades, VegFest is ready to help reverse the trend by proving veganism is anything but boring. Local and national faves like Bitchin’ Sauce, Cedar’s, ChocoZero, Foods Alive, GoMacro, Lesser Evil, Love Corn and Teeccino are a few of sponsors that purvey delectable vegan cheeses, sauces, snacks, drinks and desserts.

Old favorites like Charlie Hong Kong, a budget-friendly dining hub that has served local and sustainable food since 1989, intermingle with newcomers like Rock N Roll Donut Bar, the bakery café on Pacific Avenue where the old Starbucks used to be. The latter features a Strawberry Shortcake donut that looks more like a small birthday cake and tastes good enough to make it worthwhile to brave the downtown parking experience.

The culinary adventure doesn’t stop there. Other locals include Honey B Market, a plant-forward cafe and marketplace founded by Funky Bean Tempeh visionary Katie Belanger, and YoSoy Ceviche, providing traditional Peruvian recipes with a twist of fusion. Both offer diverse plant-based options that rival traditional animal-based dishes, demonstrating that veganism doesn’t mean sacrificing taste or variety.

For many people, vegan living is an ethical choice driven by animal welfare concerns. The livestock industry is often associated with animal cruelty, environmental degradation and the exploitation of animals for human consumption.

This was the motivation for vegan leaders like Camilla Alkhassadeh, who even as a kid turned her love for animals into activism. She shares her most memorable Thanksgiving story: the time she pointed to the turkey roast centerpiece and explained why she wasn’t going to eat it. Camilla learned about factory farms in her early 20s, when she met Helbard; they both embraced the same ideals, and together they never looked back.

VegFest also explores compassionate living and sustainable choices with an array of eco-friendly products, cruelty-free cosmetics and ethically-sourced fashion. VegFest offers a glimpse into a world where sustainability is not just a buzzword but a way of life.

Live Music, (Non) Killer Comedy

Enticing as the wares are, Saturday’s festival offers more than conscious consumerism, with five bands and a “vegan comedy show” taking place throughout the day. 

Dead Nettle, a band led by Lindsey Wall from American Idol—who recently recorded and released her first album, How I Thought—offers an amalgamation of fierce folk and indie rock songs with a nostalgic grungy edge.

Additional performers range from the skillfully crafted lyrics of soloist Nat Letkof and Snake Oil Road Show, the duo composed of longtime music veterans Adam Stafford and Mr. X, to acclaimed bands Village of Spaces and Cement Ship.

Yes, vegan comics do exist; so far I’ve met two, and both will be performing at VegFest. Regular Good Times readers know DNA as a talented writer and columnist. But they may not know he’s also a vegan comedian with a psychedelic twist who has opened for Moshe Kasher, Janeane Garofalo, Myq Kaplan and most of the Bay Area. An intergalactic performer, DNA uses comedy to bridge the gap between generations, genders, religions and species.

Connoisseurs may know vegan comedian Virginia Jones from her appearances on Portlandia and CNN’s History of Comedy or from her interviews on the LEGENDARY s, Nobody Listens To Paula Poundstone, Call Me Curious, and Jackie Kashian’s long-running masterclass in Dorkdom, the Dork Forest.

Virginia, who has 20K followers on TikTok,, defines a vegan comedienne as “a comedienne who is also vegan.” She doesn’t make jokes about meat eaters normally, but no promises for this session. 

And don’t miss DCherry Clown’s Drag Vegan Story time. This local drag performer from Monterey County has been a vegetarian since age 14.

Get Inspired

For those ready to take this lifestyle to the next level, VegFest has a daylong lineup of presentations by leading experts in the fields of nutrition, environmentalism, and animal welfare, such as Lauren Ornelas, founder of the Food Empowerment Project, and Tamearra Dyson, the founder of Souley Vegan.

And among the list of authors and activists sharing insights and inspiration, nutritionists Rachel Brown and Dr. Maria Jose Hummel share tips for healthy plant-based eating.

One VegFest sponsor, Vrinda Quintero of local catering company La Areperia 831, was motivated by social justice concerns related to food access, cultural representation and food sovereignty. By promoting plant-based alternatives and traditional cuisine, they aim to address issues of food injustice and empower marginalized communities to reclaim their culinary heritage.

A Call to Action

For Camille and Helbard and the team that made Santa Cruz VegFest happen, the big goal is to raise awareness. They hope attendees leave with a renewed sense of purpose and inspiration to make positive changes in their lives and the world around them. Whether it’s adopting a plant-based diet, reducing their carbon footprint, or starting where they’re at with more conscious sustainable choices, VegFest empowers individuals to be the change they wish to see in the world.

VegFest is more than just a food festival; it’s a celebration of compassion, sustainability, and the power of collective action. Whether you’re passionate about animal rights, environmental conservation or simply enjoy delicious food, VegFest offers something for everyone.

April 6, 10am-6pm, Cocoanut Grove at Beach Boardwalk, 400 Beach St., Santa Cruz. Adults: $5, Children under 12 free. vegfestsantacruz.org

2 COMMENTS

  1. This article has the wrong date for when Charlie Deal opened up CHK; it was in 1996.
    One problem with that business currently, even though the owners say they care about our bodies (serving mostly organic food), they clearly do NOT care about their workers health since they pay such low wages. Sad, but true – customers beware !
    Oh, donuts of any kind? not for my fam, thanks

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  2. That’s great and all but Camilla “took over” Caroline’s Pantry in Prunedale claiming her and her husband would keep it running. They took all of the pantry’s equipment, embezzled a grant Caroline’s Pantry was given and used it to remodel their garage. On top of that they threatened to call the police on pantry volunteers as a means to strong arm the equipment and grant away from the pantry.

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