By Joseph Winters ’20
This weekend, the sixth annual Ivy League Vegan Conference drew a crowd of around four hundred health-conscious eaters to Harvard’s Geo Museum for three days of nutrient analyses, animal rights roundtables, and—of course—a healthy dose of delicious vegan food.
The conference, called iV, was first held in 2012 at the University of Pennsylvania, and has since taken place annually at Yale, Princeton, Cornell, Columbia, and this year was hosted by the Harvard Vegan Society. Speakers and panelists presented on a range of topics, from bioethics to chronic disease, in the Harvard Geological Museum from Friday to Sunday afternoon.
At the registration booth, attendees were welcomed by complimentary scoops of coconut milk-based FoMu ice cream. I refused to choose between the lemony marshmallow pie flavor and one called “Candy Bar,” demanding that the scoopers put together a half-and-half combo for me. Not that I was unfamiliar with FoMu; in fact, it’s my favorite creamery in Boston, vegan or not. What I didn’t know, however, was that FoMu was founded by Boston local Deena Jala, who had no culinary experience prior to opening shop. I got to hear Jala tell her story at the conference during a panel about vegan entrepreneurship.
Some of the other highlights of the conference included a presentation by Cass Sunstein, JD, Harvard Law School professor and author of the best-selling book Nudge, about behavioral economics and “choice architecture.” This is interesting when considering the creation of dining spaces—the undergraduate dining halls, for example, have a variety of features programmed into them in order to “nudge” eaters towards more healthful options. For example, something as simple as putting vegetables before the meat entrees can cause meat consumption to decline.
There was a preview of an upcoming movie, as well, called Eating Animals. Adapted from Jonathan Safran Foer’s book with the same title, the film provides a Food, Inc.-esque glimpse into the inhumane conditions feedlot animals are often subjected to. Farm Forward CEO and Divinity School alum Aaron Gross, who contributed to the film’s production, provided commentary on several movie clips and spoke about the production of the film.
Along with animal rights and welfare, the other two major themes of the iV Conference were nutrition and sustainability. The Saturday conference schedule began with an entrepreneurship panel including Allen Campbell, who was once the personal chef of the NFL’s Tom Brady; FoMu’s Deena Jala; and Pankaj Pradhan, owner and chef of the Watertown vegan/vegetarian restaurant Red Lentil. Later in the conference was a presentation from Andy Levitt, founder and CEO of Purple Carrot, a Blue Apron-style meal kit service specializing in plant-based foods.
Interestingly, many of the speakers at the conference weren’t actually vegan, including many of those entrepreneurs who have made names for themselves in the world of vegetarianism/veganism. Purple Carrot’s Andy Levitt calls himself, and even his target audience, “balanceataraians,” meaning that they use whole, plant-based foods to find balance in a diet that doesn’t categorically exclude animal products. This approach to diet was more popular than many stereotypes about veganism might have you think. Rather than promoting extremism, many of the nutrition speakers and panelists on Sunday spoke about a need for variety, flexibility, and balance. The health and sustainability values of dietary choices exist as sliding scales, not black and white options.
Food provided during the conference wasn’t the typical conference fare; no bulk pastry basket for breakfast, no box lunch sandwich and potato chips combo here. Each morning during the conference, chef Kristin Sinavage cooked up some delicious scrambled “eggs” for conference attendees. The scramble was made from a chickpea base, and didn’t really taste anything like eggs, but it was yellow and very tasty. Plus, it went well with the wide array of toppings provided, from roasted cherry tomatoes to sautéed kale to seaweed “bacon” and Tofurky breakfast sausage. Also provided was avocado toast (of course), almond butter toast, chia seed pudding, and mashed sweet potatoes with cocoa nib toppings.
To tide us over until lunch, Juice Press provided us with some snack food in the form of dried mangoes, macaroon-like cookies, date-based granola bars, and dark chocolate. Whole Foods catered lunch with vegan wraps and salads. Truth be told, the ticket price for non-Harvard conference-goers (it was free for Harvard students) may have been worth it just for the excellent food provided. The iV Conference certainly left me feeling nourished, with a full belly and a renewed interest in the crossroads between health, nutrition, animal welfare, and sustainability. And a bag full of Juice Press coconut vanilla cookies that will probably be gone within a day or so.