VegFest Fiji 2023 starts tonight, and at this year’s event you can learn how to make vinegar and kombucha, share brunch with your children, or go vegan at some of Suva’s most loved restaurants.
This evening’s opening event, a dinner at Lami Novotel, is by invitation. But the rest of the program is open to all and includes a free party for kids at Suva’s Carnegie Library.
VegFest Pasifika co-founder, Vittoria Pasca, a nutritionist by profession, says the first VegFest Fiji, six years ago, was a response to the challenges she and partner/co-founder Ben Czapnik, faced when they settled in Fiji some years ago.
“Honestly, as vegans, there weren’t as many [vegan] options,” says Pasca. “It was even a bit hard to find local food in restaurants.
This led the determined duo to start VegFest “to promote local fruits, vegetables and crops, and also legumes, which are very easily available in the region,” said Pasca.
“VegFest has always tried to communicate the message of encouraging people to eat more fruits and vegetables and to go more towards plant-based diets,” said Czapnik.
“In the beginning it was mostly expats. Now we have been able to diversify the type of events and the partners as well.
“I think people are generally quite curious. We don’t have many vegans, and I would say, even 20% [are] vegetarians. And others are just people who are curious and interested in the concept and are inspired to find new creative ways of cooking local vegetables.
Czapnik agrees that at the beginning, “it was a passion project. We did it because we enjoyed doing it. We didn’t necessarily envisage that it would turn into something big.
This year thanks to their sponsors, “We are able to do lots of free events that we couldn’t do before [like] our free tasting [event],” said Pasca.
“We’re doing lots of kids activities as well [which is a] completely different target, and also introduce some student discounts for dinners. We’re seeing more younger people so that’s very good for us.”
The kids’ party at the Suva Carnegie Library is in partnership with Bush Bunny Crafts, which is founded by Courtney Underwood, who with Pasca co-authored ‘We Love Our Veggies’, a kids’ recipe and gardening activity book.
“Then there’ll be dinner at Kanalevu Kitchen, who is not a new partner. After that, we’ll have a market, which we do every year with the Hope Clinic and the 10,000 Toes campaign. That event is focusing more on health education and prevention. We’ll have health screenings, and we’ll be selling some items and giving free tastings at the FNPF Downtown Boulevard.
“Another event is a kombucha and vinegar making class [at the Pacific Theological Centre] for those who want to learn how to make these. I’m actually very keen to attend myself,” Pasca chuckled.
“I think we’ve been super lucky to have amazing chefs who really went out of their way to create some wonderful dinners [from] recipes created for the event. So yeah, people are really waiting for it and really want to try the menus,” said Pasca.
“The restaurants we work a lot with are people who are not just doing an event, but they really like the idea. And they have fun experimenting and trying new recipes for us. It’s really a good collaboration. People have to be onboard to do something like that.
“The quality of the food is really the number one priority. I don’t think there was one dinner [in past events] that were better than the other. So I really like that each chef is working with their own style.”
The co-founders are hopeful that the event will influence healthier lifestyles.
“I like the idea that people are often surprised. They never realise maybe it’s their first meal that is purely plant based. And they see, you know, if I could eat like that every day, I really didn’t miss anything.
“And also that maybe they’ll look at local vegetables a bit differently, to value them more because they’re amazing from a nutritional point of view. They’re very tasty. They’re very easily available and there’s really no reason to not eat it on a daily basis and in large amounts,” said Pasca.
“When people are using local fruits and vegetables, they can get creative. They don’t have to do it the way it’s always been done traditionally, that’s something Vittoria is very proactive about teaching people about,” added Czapnik.
The interlinkages between climate change, the environment and non-communicable diseases (NCDs) is also influencing personal dietary choices, Czapnik said.
“It’s not just about saying to the government, we want you to address this, it’s something that people can do with their everyday decisions. So we’re trying to get that message through as well,” he said.
In terms of influencing restaurant menu items in the longer term, Pasca said: “We definitely would like them to have more vegan options, or at least to be more flexible when they have customers asking for it, to be more prepared to have something tasty and nice.”
Their plans for the future?
Pasca says there are plans to launch VegFest events in New Caledonia, following a successful one in Samoa in June.
“We’re really keen to find new partners in other countries and make it happen quite quickly. So yeah, our focus is on getting bigger, into a more regional movement.”
Tickets are now available via VegFest Pasifika on Facebook.