Bake sales often recall memories of things like high school gymnasium fundraising for new dance team uniforms or junior varsity baseball games. But the reality is that spreading the love via baked goods is a non-abrasive form of camaraderie that can unify communities under the auspices of a good cause, and that’s what Gary Loewenthal has tapped into with his Worldwide Vegan Bake Sale. Worldwide Vegan Bake Sale operates at the same time every year, from all over the globe. Participants raise money for a cause with cruelty-free food – a chance to help people, animals, and the planet at the same time. Vegan Mainstream talked to Gary Loewenthal, founder of WVBS and man behind the curtain, about the sale, and how interested readers can start a bake sale of their own.
Vegan Mainstream: How did you first become vegan?
Gary Loewenthal: It started when [my wife and I] reluctantly agreed to foster a cat for “five days.” He’s still living with us 11 years later. At the time I had no interest whatsoever in animals and virtually no knowledge about veganism. Within six months I was host of About.com’s Cats forum. Through the magic of hyperlinks, I became aware of cruelty of other animals. Before you know it, my wife and I both transitioned to veganism. For a while, I resisted it. I used the same excuses that I now see all the time from other people so I think that helps me when I communicate with them. Ultimately, none of those justifications were solid, and the reasons for going vegan were compelling. And that was 2004.
VM: How did you get started with WVBS?
GL: We started a Compassion for Animals group in late 2008. We had a meeting and were thinking about stuff we could do. Someone said, “How about a vegan bake sale?” The thought may have never occurred to me, but I loved the idea. So I went online to research bake sales. I’d never put on a bake sale before, I’d only bought the stuff. [laughs] While I was there I saw some programs such as Great American Bake Sale, which, FYI is sponsored by two sugar companies. They used the proceeds towards fighting hunger. The idea popped into my head to do that, but vegan. Later, I thought, we don’t really have resources or money. Even if we thought of a charity or ten charities, there would always be some other charity someone didn’t like and would want the money go to some other charity we don’t even know about. But that ended up being one of the best features of WVBS, participants can do what they want with the proceeds.
You know what they say about writing, the best way to write a book is to start writing. The best way to get a project going is to start doing it. I made a website and we searched the internet for possible groups that would be helpful to participate. Our expectations were rock bottom. But, we had almost 90 [groups participate]! We weren’t prepared for success. It took up a bit more time than we thought! We had some great help from promoters. Anything from national groups like Compassion Over Killing, Farm Sanctuary, bloggers, radio hosts, podcasts, and that really helped. The idea must’ve resonated; maybe at the time it’s why cookbook authors helped out also.
Isa Chandra Moskowitz of Post Punk Kitchen was a huge help in 2009. It took off. We’ve refined it since then, but not too much because we don’t want to mess with success. The first year we did it in June. I wasn’t even thinking, it was so hot. Since, we’ve moved it to April and that’s worked out much better.
VM: How did Isa Chandra Moskowitz first hear what you were doing?
GL: I think the first place I announced the WVBS publicly was on the PPK forum. Several of the bake sales that participated that first year came out of collaborations on that forum. Isa also did her first interview ever I think on her PPK blog with me about the WVBS. She also helped out with the bake sale in New York. She’s helped a ton in terms of promoting it and doing co-interviews with me. We are very appreciate and thankful of that.
VM: Why is it important that vegan organizations and/or bloggers form these partnerships?
GL: I think the energy and strength that comes from putting your heads together makes for fruitful collaborations. No pun intended. With the WVBS, you have this core that’s conducive to all kinds of organizations working together, all across the animal advocacy spectrum, as well as outside that field. Nothing like some rich, buttercream frosting to bring people together.
VM: What is it about those vegan cupcakes?
GL: The power of a cupcake is not to be underestimated.
VM: It’s kind of a cause in and of itself. What was the motivation, then, for non-vegan organizations to get involved?
GL: One thing is that the organization can use it as a fundraiser for whatever they want. Bake sales are fun community events anyway. If you’re baking vegan, everyone can eat it. If you have a variety of foods on the table, even allergy considerations aren’t that hard to deal with. The other thing is that people love the buzz and want to be a part of it. A lot of sign-ups happen in two weeks prior to the “official” week of the event. By then the buzz is at a fever pitch and people like the idea of participating in this meaningful world party. Even if they’re not vegan, it’s fun, it’s helpful, and they can do it for a cause they believe in. It’s not scary.
VM: WVBS is in six continents. What’s the continent that gets left out of your bake sales?
GL: Well Antarctica, but we were a little bit close to having one there.
VM: Have you had any negative responses?
GL: Very few. There’s been very slight concern that bake sales are too soft. But, hardly anyone really has that objection because you can do whatever you want at a bake sale along with offering baked goods. If you wanted to provide literature and have a conversation with people about veganism, I think that having the baked goods there actually enhances those activities. They’re sort of disarming. People are less inclined to be provocative and more inclined to be sincere. The conversations at vegan bake sales tend to be friendly and productive.
We’ll occasionally have someone consider participating but wonder why it conflicts with such and such. If you can’t have your bake sale during the “official” week, you can have it as close to it as possible. Really, it’s been an overwhelmingly positive response.
VM: So, you’ve also started “veganizing” recipes on non-vegan websites. What’s that about?
GL: I don’t know how many other people are like me in that they use the internet as their cookbook, but when you do a search for a recipe, you tend to get a lot more of the non-vegan ones than the vegan ones. A lot of the recipes are easy to veganize, you just have to change one or two, maybe three ingredients. I’ve been doing that for a while. I leave comments about what I liked about the dish…and I like almost everything. I give a favorable response to the chef and mention that I veganized it. Usually the chefs are open to positive feedback. They’re kind of intrigued that you veganized it and realize you didn’t veganize it because of taste, but for ethical reasons, so no offense taken. I started doing that more and then mentioned it to other people, and other people started doing it. I noticed I would get some other positive comments that followed mine, like “Hmm, sounds interesting!” I tried to make the comments helpful and convey the deliciousness of the final product. If I would feed it to non-vegans or use a product they didn’t know about, I would use the specific names of products, like Tofutti Cream Cheese instead of vegan cream cheese. A couple of discussion groups on these sites just revolve around cooking, things like “What did you cook today?” so I would go write what I ate. It would convey what a day-to-day diet would be for a vegan and hopefully dispel some myths in an interesting way. So I got some good feedback for that as well and formed relationships with the people in the group. We wound up sharing funny stories and things like that. I haven’t said one word about the health, ethical or environmental reasons for being vegan. All I’ve done is mention what I’m eating. Food outreach even by itself is powerful and easy…and sort of relaxing. I’m a big fan.
By the way, I don’t know if you’re interested in a couple of other ways WVBS allows partnerships between vegans and non-vegans, and between vegan advocates and businesses?
GL: Well, again, I love the concept of Vegan Mainstream… More than you know. The site as well as the underlying concept. A sidebar here, but one of my big things in advocacy is to make vegan eating and ideas more mainstream. That’s maybe the most important thing we can do to get more people to trend that way.
Anyway, with the vegan bake sale, you can feature not only baked goods by individuals cooking at home, but local businesses. Most local businesses are probably not going to be vegan, but it’s a great opportunity to showcase featured items from local bakeries. You can also get individual non-vegans to participate if they’re curious about vegan baking or if they’re a good baker looking for a challenge. You can also host the bake sale at public places that have a lot of non-vegans, like at a public library, and donate a vegan baking book…there are just all kinds of partnerships to have local businesses be involved. The bake sale is a great venue. It’s a fun positive event and people are likely to form positive associations with those involved.
VM: What are some tips for starting a vegan bake sale in a smaller community that doesn’t have a large vegan population?
GL: You might be motivated to know that there’ve been a lot of vegan bakes sales at smaller towns. They don’t require a lot of resources and can be as small as a table with two people. If the food looks good and is delicious and you’re in an area with a lot of foot traffic, you’ll end up getting people to buy it and selling out.
Visit the tips page on the WVBS website for more information about promotions, customer services, starting a table, collaborating with businesses, etc.