Meatless in South Texas: Thousands flock to vegan festival in Rio Grande Valley

The third annual Vegan Fest was held this year in Elsa on May 11. Elsa is in the Rio Grande Valley, about 22 miles northeast of McAllen. (Verónica Gabriela Cárdenas For, Verónica Gabriela Cárdenas For)

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ELSA — Hungry residents from around the Rio Grande Valley showed up at a concert venue here Saturday to get a taste of what local vendors had to offer.

There were plenty of local favorites — barbecue with Mac and Cheese and coleslaw, bistec tacos with all the fixings, discada, a popular Mexican mixed-meat dish, and plenty of sweet bread.

These dishes are not hard to find in the Valley. But locals swarmed to the venue because these vendors offered an assurance: No animals were harmed in the making of this food.

The gathering was the Valley's third annual Vegan Fest, an event that draws vegans, vegetarians and even meat-eaters, showcasing that both vegan food and the appetite for it exist in the Valley.

Like the Cumbia-style cover of The Beatles' "Come Together" that played as the event began to wind down, vegan food in a region that popularized topping a botana platter with steak fajita, chicken, or both might seem like an unlikely blend. But as meatless and plant-based food options have become more mainstream, vegan chefs and patrons alike have discovered they're not alone in the Valley.

Previously named Harlingen Vegan Fest after its first host city, the event moved about 22 miles west this year to The Garden at Pacific Trails, a small concert venue in Elsa, population 5,600.

Vegan Fest co-founders Canda LePage, 49, and her husband Jim LePage, 48, pose for ap photo in Elsa, Texas on May 11, 2024.Verónica Gabriela Cárdenas for The Texas Tribune

Vegan Fest co-founders Canda LePage, 49, and her husband, Jim LePage, 48, pause for a photo at Saturday's festival. Credit: Verónica Gabriela Cárdenas for

Event organizer Canda LePage, a retired teacher, moved to the Rio Grande Valley six years ago from Bellingham, Washington.

Aside from a few small gatherings in McAllen, there was a lack of vegan options and events, she said. So she and a friend brainstormed ideas for a festival that came to life in 2022. Taking up one city block in downtown Harlingen, the inaugural event included 15 food vendors who all sold out within an hour.

"The turnout blew us away," LePage said. "We didn’t know what to expect but it was obvious that the area had been wanting a vegan festival."

The following year, LePage and friends formed a committee. With help from the city, they doubled the event in size, taking up two city blocks and a small city park. They also doubled the number of vendors, inviting nonprofits to participate by setting up tables and featuring live music. An estimated 2,000 people attended.

Gerardo Elizondo, 51, prepares vegan food at Vegan Fest in Elsa, Texas on May 11, 2024.Verónica Gabriela Cárdenas for The Texas Tribune

Gerardo Elizondo, 51, one of the vendors at Vegan Fest, plates vegan food for a line of hungry people. Credit: Verónica Gabriela Cárdenas for

"I had no idea the vegan community was so big," LePage said. "It was so great to see families, young people and a diverse group of people enjoying the festival. We had people who showed up out of curiosity and they loved it."

This year, the event included 16 food vendors, 17 artisan vendors and eight nonprofit groups. A local rock band, a fire dancer and a drum circle provided entertainment for the evening. Nearly 1,000 people attended.

Vegan Fest became a trailblazer in the Valley. The region now hosts three festivals that cater to vegans including Earth Day Veg Fest, which held its second annual event last month, and BTX Vegan Fest, a festival in Brownsville which held its inaugural celebration in November.

About 4% of Americans identified as vegetarian while 1% said they were vegan, according to a 2023 Gallup poll. But vegan food has fans even among those who don’t identify as either.

Clarissa Morales came to the festival, her 6-year-old daughter in tow, because she likes vegan food.

"I don't feel gross after, that's my favorite part," Morales said of vegan food. "It feels light, it feels like it does what it's supposed to do which is give you energy ... my body just reacts better to it."

Her daughter also seemed to enjoy the plant-based grub, eating up every last bit of faux taco meat that fell onto her plate.

Morales said she'd fed her daughter plant-based foods since she was a baby and said she’d be more willing to adopt a fully vegan diet were it more affordable.

Clarissa Morales, 26, poses for a photo with her daughter Mía Vásquez, 6, at Vegan Fest in Elsa, Texas on May 11, 2024. “We don’t eat red meat. We like vegan food, but I’m not vegan. If it was more affordable I would be.”Verónica Gabriela Cárdenas for The Texas Tribune

Clarissa Morales, 26, poses for a photo with her daughter, Mía Vásquez, 6, at Vegan Fest. “We don’t eat red meat. We like vegan food, but I’m not vegan. If it was more affordable I would be,” Morales said. Credit: Verónica Gabriela Cárdenas for The Texas Tribune

She’s not alone. About two-thirds of plant-based buyers and say cost is why they don’t buy more of those products, according to a consumer profile of plant-based shoppers.

Alternative meat products are also facing tighter restrictions after Texas legislators approved a bill requiring manufacturers to clearly label such products as “analogue,” “meatless,” “plant-based” or with a similar disclaimer.

Turtle Island Foods, the producer of Tofurky, filed a lawsuit against the state in August, arguing the law favors in-state animal-based meat producers — a $16.5 billion industry in Texas — over out-of-state plant-based meat producers, providing an unfair advantage. The company also claims the law is a violation of its free speech and due process.

Legal challenges were also filed against similar laws in Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma and Arkansas. A federal judge in Arkansas ruled in favor of Turtle Island Foods, though the company was not successful in Missouri. The Mississippi case, filed by Upton’s Naturals Co. and The Plant Based Foods Association, was settled out of court. The cases in Texas and Oklahoma are ongoing.

Producers of plant-based meat alternatives who challenge these laws argue their products –– sold at grocery stores and other retailers –– are already clearly labeled and don’t want their products to be mistaken as being animal-based.

Meanwhile, Ingrid Monserrat, owner of plant-based restaurant Maria Cruz Cuisine in McAllen, said she’s had customers bring family or friends along to unknowingly try her plant-based dishes.

"Our slogan is: 'We turn any carnivore into a believer,'" Monserrat said.

"Our goal is to make dishes that are easily transitional for people who are animal protein-oriented," she said. "This is like a stepping stone for people that want to try vegan foods."

Ingrid Monserrat, 35, owner of María Cruz Cuisine, poses for a photo at Vegan Fest in Elsa, Texas on May 11, 2024. “When I became a vegan there wasn’t any restaurants open. So mine was a juice bar and vegan restaurant. I did it [becoming a vegan] because of my own personal health, for the environment, and for the animals.”Verónica Gabriela Cárdenas for The Texas Tribune

Ingrid Monserrat, 35, owner of María Cruz Cuisine, at Vegan Fest in Elsa on May 11. Credit: Verónica Gabriela Cárdenas for

Maria Cruz opened in 2021 but was born out of a smaller juice shop Monserrat launched in 2016. She sold juices that targeted gut health.

"We're super proud to be part of this movement," Monserrat said. "We lacked that back then but right now, we're very very abundant. Almost in every RGV town, there's something vegan that you're going to find."

Adam Gonzalez also appeals to meat-eaters through his pop-up business, Riff Valley's.

Gonzalez, the organizer of Earth Day Veg Fest, began making vegan food when he worked as a concert promoter. Some of the musicians he brought to the Valley were either vegan or vegetarian and they needed to eat. He currently sells his tacos at local events as well as music festivals. In November, he sold his food at Flyover Fest, a music festival in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and was invited to be a vendor at So What?! Music Fest in Dallas this June.

Vegan dishes are displayed at Vegan Fest in Elsa, Texas on May 11, 2024.Verónica Gabriela Cárdenas for The Texas Tribune

Vegan dishes are displayed at Vegan Fest in Elsa on May 11. Credit: Verónica Gabriela Cárdenas for

By selling at music festivals, he hopes to feed people who otherwise would have gotten to a fast food restaurant or a traditional taco place after the show. Despite being a vegan himself, Gonzalez said he has felt a disconnect between himself and the broader community because his business caters to providing meat eaters an alternative after concerts.

But then, with the help of his wife, he began organizing Earth Day Veg Fest as well as becoming a staple at the other vegan-centered events.

"I guess I am part of the vegan community now," he said.

Reporting in the Rio Grande Valley is supported in part by the Methodist Healthcare Ministries of South Texas, Inc.

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