Interview With Worldwide Vegan Bake Sale Founder,Gary Loewenthal

By Susan Sedlazek — April 11, 2013

 

The Worldwide Vegan Bake Sale (WVBS) is an international event that began in 2009. In its first year, it was named Veg Event of the Year by Veg News Magazine and has since received media coverage from all over the world, including CNN Living.

Recently Global Looking Glass Magazein has a chance to chatted with Gary Loewenthal, who founded the WVBS five years ago and continues to direct the event for A-Well-Fed-World. Gary is also the co-founder and current President of Compassion for Animals, Director of the PB&J Campaign, and author of several works, including “Why Cats Need Claws” and “I’m a Life, Not an ‘Easter Bunny’.” His writing has appeared in The Animals Voice, Herbivore, and The Whole Cat Journal. He is also the former host of the About.com Cats Forum. Gary volunteers with Friends of Rabbits and Poplar Spring Animal Sanctuary. He’s been vegetarian since 2002 and vegan since 2004.

 

What is the Worldwide Vegan Bake Sale (WVBS) and how does it work?

It’s very simple, which is one of the keys to its success. Over a week’s period each year, groups or individuals around the world have vegan bake sales, and they can do whatever they want with the proceeds. All you need to do to participate in the WVBS is have the vegan bake sale and let us know. If you’re a commercial establishment there are a couple more little rules, but the vast majority of the bake sales are not by commercial establishments.

We don’t impose any structure, we don’t have any themes, and that gives the participants maximum autonomy and creativity. We kind of keep our hands off it and just try to promote it and add value to their bake sales without getting in their way. After it’s all done, we show the highlights, we cheer and high five, and then we try to leave them alone until the next year.

And this year it’s April 20th-28th?

Right. And I should add that if you want to participate and you cannot do it during that timeframe, it’s okay. As close as possible is good enough.

You came up with the idea for the WVBS at the end of 2008 when you were brainstorming ideas for outreach activities with folks from another organization you co-founded, Compassion for Animals (CfA). How did it become the international phenomenon it is today?

One of the other CfA co-founders, Lisa Qualls, suggested doing a vegan bake sale, and I loved that idea. I’d actually seen a vegan bake sale in a grocery store parking lot a year or two before that, but I didn’t have any experience at holding one. So I went online to search for tips—what to price things at, what you need, what to bake, how to get bakers—and I came across , which is something that goes on every year. It’s sponsored by a couple of sugar companies, and the proceeds go to a hunger fighting effort. I liked that idea, and I thought, what if we just did it vegan? Shortly after that I thought, I don’t want to be handling funds, and I don’t want to tell participants where the funds have to go, so we’ll just let each participating group do whatever they want to with the proceeds. That would give them more flexibility and make it more attractive.

Then I thought, we should include Canada also, so we’ll make it the Great North American Vegan Bake Sale. Then I realized that would include Mexico too, so I ran the idea by Lisa, and the more we talked, the more countries we wanted to be involved. I think she was the one who came up with the name Worldwide Vegan Bake Sale. The rest of the group liked it and the name stuck.

I created a website somewhere around the beginning of 2009, just bare bones. Then I thought, let me email some groups and just started Googling. I started with grassroots vegan outreach groups that did advocacy things like tabling and food sampling, so that a bake sale would not necessarily be that different from what they already did.

Within three days I got a response from the Toronto Vegetarian Association, which by the way has been a participant all five years. They said, we really like your idea, we mentioned it on our podcast, and they said they wanted to interview me. And I thought, it’s going to happen. This thing is already international.

I still wasn’t sure how many groups were going to sign up. I was hoping for ten. At one point, I actually asked Erica Meier, the head of Compassion Over Killing (COK), if they wouldn’t mind too terribly much having a vegan bake sale. It was quite a bold request, but she was very gracious and said yes. And they have participated the past four years. At the time I thought I’d have to individually ask some people to make sure we had at least five groups. But sign-ups started coming in. I think the first official sign-up was from New Zealand, and that group just signed up a couple of days ago for this year’s bake sale.

How did the folks in New Zealand first hear about the WVBS?

The first few sign-ups were the result of direct emails from me to them. Then somebody suggested that we make a Facebook page, so I created a Facebook page.  As you know, you’ve got to have one, and it’s helped a lot. Shortly after that we set up a Twitter account.

I also have to give a shout-out to a guy named Louie b. Free, a long-time vegan and rabbit rescuer who has a radio show in Youngstown, Ohio. Morning Drive Time. Huge audience. He asked if I wouldn’t mind doing an interview on the radio. So I did. There was also the podcast interview for the Toronto Vegetarian Association, as well as one with another group based in North Hampton, Massachusetts, called the Vegan Bus. The thing just kept on snowballing, and as this was happening, I found that I was ill prepared for success. I was ready for failure—that I could handle—but success I wasn’t ready for.

It took some time—I didn’t have much of an infrastructure—to add everyone to the schedule, find out more information from them so the schedule would be accurate, confirm the information, answer questions, etc. By the time the official date hit, we had over 80 sign-ups, and I think we had a few more after that. So it was close to 90 the first year.

It’s amazing. And since then, it’s spread to six continents and how many countries?

All told, I don’t know, maybe 50. This year the new countries so far are Wales and France…and I might be leaving out one. Which reminds me that I need to give a shout-out to the entire country of Germany. The first three years we didn’t have any bake sales in Germany. Last year we had 15. Word got out. They have a big vegan advocacy movement there, and all of a sudden something ignited. We’ve got a few sign-ups this year from Germany also.

So when are you going to get something going on Antarctica?

About three years ago, there was someone who I happened to just come across on Facebook who was in Antarctica. I said, I know this is a long shot, but if you can have any kind of vegan bake sale there…of any sort—it can be small, it can be just a bake-in where you give it away—that would be quite a coup. But she wasn’t going to be there at the time period of the official bake sale, and it didn’t work out. It’s always a possibility, though, and we wouldn’t have to worry about frosting melting.

Let us know if that ever happens.

There’s the space station also, if we want to go outside the terrestrial bounds.

I read somewhere that you’ve raised upwards of $200,000 over the past four years.

I try to estimate conservatively because we don’t require that people tell us what they made. Most of them do, but the ones that don’t, I think I can estimate based on the size, what I know about the bake sale, how many people baked and that sort of stuff. It’s probably over $200,000, but officially I’m saying it’s approaching that. It’s about $50,000 a year now.

Besides raising money for animal advocacy, what other types of things do the proceeds tend to go toward?

We’ve had some bake sales that were just friends or families raising money to donate to some cause that’s in the spirit of the bake sale. Some have gone to community gardens.  Anti-discrimination programs. There’s one this year which is going to feeding the homeless and giving them clothes. We’ve had a number of health-related ones. One person raised money for her Avon three-day cancer walk. So, there’s a variety of causes that proceeds go to. We do have a lot of them go to animal rescue groups and sanctuaries. And a lot of the nonprofits do it as a fundraiser.

Speaking of the three-day cancer walk, the creator of the Susan G. Komen 3-Day event, Dan Pallotta, scoffs a bit at the old bake sale model as a fundraiser. But you see it as more than just a means to raise money, true?

One of the nice things about a vegan bake sale is that it’s multiple things, and it also pairs well with even more things. The fact that it’s vegan means it’s vegan outreach. If you’re into vegan advocacy, you run into people who fear having to give up their chocolate chip cookies and cakes and pies and favorite desserts. They realize they can have a good kale salad, but when you show them that you can make these baked goods, including savory ones like biscuits and breads that are every bit as good if not better than the ones they’re used to, that allays their fears and it kick starts all kinds of conversations, including ones that have nothing to do with baking, and maybe not much to do with food.

The fact that it’s about baked goods almost forces the issue of dairy and eggs. Again, if you’re in vegan advocacy, most people understand that animals are killed for meat, but they don’t realize the way they’re killed and otherwise exploited for dairy and eggs. So it’s good for that.

If you are in vegan advocacy, a lot of the activities you do may be stressful, such as protesting, letter-writing campaigns. For some people leafleting is stressful. But a bake sale is a very upbeat and friendly event, and you will get people who don’t do any other type of activism, but they will come to a bake sale. And sometimes after that, they’ll do some other things with the group. So in a way it’s a little bit of a recruiting device. It also can be a fundraiser, and in fact often is.

At a small bake sale, you might only get $50, $80. But we’ve had some vegan bake sales which have cleared $3,000. That’s no small potatoes. And you’re doing it in a way that’s fun and energizing.

Are there any favorite bake sale anecdotes?

In a sense it’s a tough question, because they’re all awesome. The bake sale that was the kick-off this year in terms of schedule was the one in Worcester, Massachusetts, and they had a great story two years ago. They did a combination bake sale and karaoke, and there’s an example of how you can creatively pair a bake sale with something else. We’ve had bake sales paired up with various competitions and trivia contests, craft shows, music shows.

Anyway, the Worcester authorities broke up the bake sale in the middle because it was illegal under the city ordinance. By the way, in most places, especially here, the rules on bake sales are pretty lenient because they’ve gone on for many, many years. Church groups have done them, and they’re sort of established, kind of grandfathered in. So the bake sale organizers went to the City Council, and they got the rule changed. Bake sales are now legal in Worcester, Massachusetts.

We’ve had some cookbook authors get involved in the bake sales.  One year, I think, Isa Moskowitz was involved in two of them. Joni Marie Newman is the author of several cookbooks. One of them is one that I picked up last year just on veggie burgers, and I saw at the back where she included a few side dishes and desserts that she mentioned the WVBS. Last year she also hosted one in California. We’ve had Carla Kelly in British Columbia who actually wrote a cookbook called Quick and Easy Vegan Bake Sale, which also mentions the WVBS. She helped out last year with a bake sale up there.

We’ve had bake sales with just a couple of brothers on the front porch, and we’ve had large ones that wrap around the street corner.

You’re obviously a very creative thinker, which brings to mind one of the cool byproducts of the WVBSthe incredible artwork that’s been generated to promote it.

We started a t-shirt design contest last year. This is like the people’s event and we wanted anyone to be able to come up with the design. We’ve had some great ones, even the ones that didn’t win, because we wanted to limit it to two winners a year. They’re always very creative.

Then there are the posters. I had no idea that there would even be creative posters, and they blew me away the first year, and every year. Some of them could be hanging up in museums. I still have this idea of making a collage or mosaic with all of the bake sale posters from each year and having that become an exhibit somewhere.

They’ve really set the bar pretty high.

Yeah. Our poster is basically a glorified Word doc, and I look at some of these, and they’re stunning.

What is it about this event that inspires such creativity? 

It’s sort of a little bit mysterious, like a cat’s purr. Do we want to know everything about it, or do we want to enjoy the mystery? It might be that it’s familiar enough so that you’ve got something that feels like home, but it’s different enough so that you can go to town on it. And I think the fact that everyone is doing it around the world makes it more fun and exciting. You’ve got this comradery, and seeing what everyone else is doing spurs your own creativity. And I think the fact that it’s once a year—I’m reminded of that old country song, How Can I Miss You If You Won’t Go Away?—I really do try to keep it pretty mellow and low after were done for the year, so when it comes back around again the next year, it’s fresh.

Last year A-Well-Fed-World (AWFW) took over as the official sponsor of the WVBS, though you still direct the campaign for them. How has their involvement affected the event?

I think it’s enabled it to continue. It’s not quite self-sustaining yet and takes quite a bit of time. I tell people it’s a series of a thousand five minute tasks in a row, and it just adds up. It’s great work and I love it, but you can’t do too much else while the WVBS is ramping up, and I’ve just got to buy groceries. So AWFW is helping out. I really don’t think I would have been able to do it this year if it wasn’t for AWFW.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to hold a vegan bake sale?

I would say get a good location, start on that early, and the rest is not that hard. The WVBS website, veganbakesale.org, has more tips than probably anywhere in the world on all aspects of a bake sale, vegan or not, including ideas about where you might get a good location. You can always find some place. In some cities it might be a little tougher because of regulations, but there’s always a way to get a decent location. Once you have that, the rest of the tasks are not too bad, because a bake sale of any size will work.

Above all else, go for taste. It is a vegan bake sale, and people are going to come there and not know what vegan baked goods taste like or they’ll be skeptical. Have it taste awesome.  Have it taste so mouth-wateringly stupendous that it opens their eyes and changes their perception. Then you can talk about anything else—it might be protein or free range or egg substitutes—but you get them on taste.

If you can do those two things, I think you’re home free.

You mentioned the website veganbakesale.org.  It provides a wealth of resources, including recipe links and a comprehensive checklist that covers things you may not even think about. 

Like bring a couple of chairs because you’re going to want to sit down, and so might the people who come up there to eat. Also bring weird things like rubber bands and pens.  Scissors—you’ll use them.

I read that people holding vegan bake sales can now apply for a grant from AWFW to help cover expenses?

That’s right. You’ll find information about that on the “What It Is” page of the website, accessible from the main menu.

Do you have a favorite bake sale treat?

Year after year, it’s chocolate chip cookies. But, variety is the spice of life, so it’s hard to say that there’s one best one. You probably wouldn’t want a bake sale of only chocolate chip cookies. On the other hand, wouldn’t that be an interesting twist?

Anything you want to add?

It’s still not too late to participate. Get online or on the phone and get that location secured. If you have to do it a little bit late, that’s okay. You can be part of this meaningfully fun world party.

Groups interested in being part of the WVBS or finding a bake sale in their area should visit the website.

 

 Image Courtesy of  Chris Carlson  www.sacveganchallenge.com

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