Pearl of the Ocean uses fresh, farmers’ market-sourced plant-based ingredients.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Food & Drink

Sprouting a movement: Veganism goes mainstream

Santa Cruz has had a vegan streak for years, and between the area’s open-minded consumers, access to fresh, top-quality ingredients and the blossoming of options at big chains like Safeway, “it’s never been easier to go plant-based.”

In forward-thinking Santa Cruz, with our ample locally sourced plant-based choices and sustainability awareness, being vegan was perhaps never a super-fringey concept. One need only look at our farmers markets and beautiful menus all around town, such as at downtown’s two all-vegan outposts, Cafe Gratitude and Veg on the Edge, to see the bounty of animal-free eating options available to our community. Vegetarian/vegan-centered institutions such as Dharma’s in Capitola, Pearl of the Ocean, and Charlie Hong Kong in Midtown are community staples.

Colleen Holland, publisher of VegNews — which bills itself as the world’s No. 1 plant-based magazine — calls Santa Cruz home, and pre-pandemic, in April 2019, we even got our own VegFest, thanks to organizer Wendy Gabbe Day. “For being a small town, we have lots of options,” she says, “but I’d love to see more.”

Gabbe Day moved to Seabright from Portland, Oregon — another vegan mecca — where she worked on VegFest there before bringing it, for the first and only year so far (because of COVID-19) to the Cocoanut Grove. Hundreds of attendees sampled vegan food and products and listened to talks from the likes of Santa Cruz’s own science-based vegan influencer, Dr. Jackie Busse, who has over 39,000 followers on her Plant-Based Pediatrician Instagram page.

Bay Federal Credit Union continues their investment in the community by helping Jacob’s Heart Children’s Cancer Support...

“It’s never been easier to go plant-based,” Gabbe Day said over a recent outdoor lunch at Cafe Gratitude. “Options are everywhere. Every supermarket, every Safeway, has Beyond Burgers and things that would have previously been hard to find. As people age they want to eat more healthfully. Eating more fruits and vegetables and less saturated fat does well for the human body, generally speaking.”

Gabbe Day looks forward to bringing VegFest back in 2023, assuming it is completely safe by then to resume a large indoor gathering. “It’s coming and hopefully we’ll have smaller events between now and then,” she said. “It’s time to start digging in and doing things.”

VegFest at the Cocoanut Grove.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Meanwhile, we’ve come a long way from the “vegan” word invoking images of home-baked kale chips sprinkled with nutritional yeast in a commune. With plant-based Starbucks and Impossible Whoppers, perhaps it isn’t for long that veganism will be regarded as an unusual lifestyle choice. With the advent of better, tasty plant-based products (see: Gardein, Miyoko’s, Beyond Meat, Impossible, Violife, Daiya, Perfect Day ...), innovation in the vegan foods industry is at an all-time high and it’s visible on grocery store shelves, to the point where it’s undeniable that veganism is going mainstream.


Some handy links for locals interested in exploring veganism:

- Keep up with VegFest at

- Join Santa Cruz Vegans on Facebook

- Learn about the VEG OUT Santa Cruz Project, an initiative to recognize local vegan- and environmentally friendly restaurants

This summer, Kraft Foods launched a vegan version of its classic blue-boxed mac-and-cheese in Australia. Heinz (also Kraft) put out a line of vegan mayo and salad dressings in the United Kingdom. And stateside, California’s Miyoko’s vegan pizza mozzarella is making a splash at Pizza My Heart, with creations like the Vegan Sur that are a plant-based twist on classics. Trader Joe’s has heaps of vegan options: shredded parmesan and mozzarella, “turkey” burgers, strawberry oat-milk ice-cream, the sweet potato chickpea wrap that’s always out of stock. … For a dairy-based ice cream without cows (yes, you read that right!), science has created actual-dairy ice cream from a genetic blueprint for whey protein — no animal cells required — in a process comparable to making beer. The dairy-without-cows approach reduces greenhouse gas by 85% compared to animal-based dairy production.

California is also at the center of a controversial step in the direction of a possible future vegan world. It’s being called “Bacongate,” and it is a revolutionary win for those in favor of humane treatment of animals raised for food. In 2018, voters here approved a proposition requiring more space for pregnant pigs — enough for the animals to be able to turn around and extend their limbs — veal calves, and chickens. Since much of California’s pig supply comes from Iowa, the market could be affected by the new law, effectively shrinking the availability of bacon as pig farms struggle to find the space in a system that crams these animals in.

The Associated Press reports, “At one typical hog farm in Iowa, sows are kept in open-air crates measuring 14 square feet when they join a herd and then for a week as part of the insemination process before moving to larger, roughly 20-square-foot group pens with other hogs. Both are less than the 24 square feet required by the California law to give breeding pigs enough room to turn around and to extend their limbs. Other operations keep sows in the crates nearly all of the time so also wouldn’t be in compliance.”

It’s looking complicated. Less so? Beyond Bacon.

Is veganism the answer to the climate, ecological, and ethical crises we face? Providing a balanced answer, popular plant-based food journalist Alicia Kennedy writes in her newsletter that “it’s probably best to listen to the conscientious omnivores. I’d prefer to live in their world than a corporate processed protein dystopia, even if I continue to abstain.”

A sign promises local organic produce at Staff of Life
Staff of Life has a particularly impressive plant-based selection, including a tempeh reuben.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)


When I became vegan one late winter morning in 2019, I wasn’t thinking about those usual suspects — climate change, animal well-being, or health. Instead, I woke up one morning with a hunch, a little inner voice that said, for no discernible reason at the time, go vegan for a month.

It was Feb. 28. My curiosity was piqued. Go vegan for March — why not? I hadn’t thought about it, but I was in a dietary rut as a second-time new mom, a chronic loop of salmon, cheese trays, and egg-and-cheese breakfast bagels. Nothing wrong with that, but veganism could be a welcome reset, I figured. On my first night, I made a three-bean chili with bell peppers, sweet potato, broccoli, and kale.

I didn’t think I’d stick with the experiment beyond that month, but the change got me hooked. I felt energized and became more active. It’s been two and a half years now and I don’t miss anything, though I did lose: dropping all my baby weight from my second pregnancy (60 pounds!).

I don’t think it was a coincidence. There is scientific evidence that plant-based diets can aid with weight loss, reduce cholesterol, and help with diabetes and arthritis. Since veganism can still be misunderstood as a woo-woo hippie pursuit or a diet that will leave you nutritionally deficient, it’s important to study the science. My favorite free resource on the health impacts of veganism is Nutrition Facts with Dr. Greger, who holds informative sessions on Facebook Live and YouTube on topics such as avoiding a B-12 deficiency, plant-based diets for improved mood and productivity, and eating for weight loss and disease prevention.


New Leaf has vegan options aplenty.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The pandemic was another eye-opener on the dangers of viruses that can leap from animals to humans. It also allowed consumers more detailed grasps of cruelty to workers and animals in the factory farming industry. As a result, more than ever, people are choosing to cut back on meat and explore vegan, vegetarian, and flexitarian diets.

“The coronavirus gives us this perspective,” Akindele Bankole, owner of Santa Cruz’s Abbott Square vegan outpost Veg on the Edge, told me. “If we are not united, something is in the waiting to get us as a species. If we don’t learn that lesson now, we may never learn it.”

As if taking Bankole’s advice, global culinary influencers began making some major changes this year. New York’s Michelin-starred Eleven Madison Park reopened fully vegan; its chef, Daniel Humm, has said he believes the future of restaurants is vegan. The popular recipe/foodie site Epicurious no longer publishes beef recipes. Both moves are prompted by concern for the planet; chef Humm and the Epicurious editors cited sustainability as the reason for backing off meat.

On the sustainability, health, and animal-welfare fronts, and with the advent of delicious products — goodbye, rubbery cheese replacer of the early 2000s — the timing is ripe for the vegan-curious to give it a try. For anyone grappling with the notion of that transition, Gabbe Day offers that it isn’t predicated on a binary. “You don’t have to go all vegan,” she said. “Eliminating our consumption of animal products might not happen, or maybe it will one day, but lessening them is good for the animals, environment, and our health. Reducing our consumption doesn’t sound so scary. Just substituting.”

You don’t have to call yourself “vegan” to reduce meat, egg, and dairy consumption, or to periodically replace an animal-based burger with a plant-based one. Gabbe Day suggests joining the Santa Cruz Vegans group on Facebook and finding “a community, a friend, anyone to support you; it’s too easy to give up otherwise.”

Luckily, Santa Cruz has an overwhelming number of satisfying options for eating on a plant-based diet. Grocery stores are well-stocked with the latest vegan products — B12-fortified macadamia milk; vegan meats and cheeses; indulgent chocolate chip cookies; Ben & Jerry’s, Brave Robot and Cado (avocado-based) ice creams … the list goes on. It all makes trying out more vegan meals and indulgences, well, easy.