The Activist Behind Berkeley’s Only Vegan Food Festival

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a group of young adults happily standing in front of a banner that says "The Bizerkeley Food Festival"
A group of local teenagers volunteer their time at the first annual Bizerkeley Food Fest (Jeffrey Litman)

In the 1960s, as Berkeley became a hotbed of anti-war and “hippie” countercultural thinking, Oakland was cooking up something with a slightly different flavor: the Black Panther Party, most famous for its revolutionary politics, which also offered a free breakfast program for local youth

Erika Hazel, a Berkeley-born and Vallejo-raised vegan advocate, is inspired by these traditions when she thinks about food and health awareness in 2022. As a K-12 school therapist in Oakland, adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco and vegan food blogger, Hazel—better known as “The Bizerkeley Vegan”—has set out to ensure food and health education remain accessible for those who have systemically been excluded from the conversation.

“Demystifying veganism is key to our future,” says Hazel, noting that she wasn’t exposed to the vegan lifestyle at all growing up in Vallejo. She initially became interested in veganism for her personal health, noting a history of cancer in her family that she hoped to reduce with a plant-based diet.

"Big meat factory farming is bad for our environment. We’re a meat-dependent society and it's not good for us, especially for folks of color. My school is predominantly Black and Latinx, and seeing what they eat, it's adding to the bigger equation of unhealthy habits.”

Hazel’s work is in line with a long legacy of food justice in the Bay Area. Aside from the Black Panther Party’s efforts, the Edible Schoolyard project brought gardening and food justice concepts to Berkeley middle-schoolers in a program that has since been replicated in New York and elsewhere. Nowadays, this lineage has continued with the recent efforts of local orgs fighting for Berkeley to become the first city in the country to commit to vegan options.

Erika Hazel, who is the founder of the Bizerkeley Food Festival, stands in front of her festival's banner while smiling
Erika Hazel shines at the first annual Bizerkeley Food Festival she organized in 2021 (Jeffrey Litman)

In this light, you can’t dismiss the ongoing journey of a homegrown proponent like Hazel, who shares her love for being vegan beyond her family’s dinner table. For her, the revolution doesn’t begin with what happens in Washington D.C.; it begins with what happens in our bodies, and the foods we choose to eat. 

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Since fully committing to veganism in 2016, The Bizerkeley Vegan has been getting to the plant of the matter by sharing her knowledge about vegan lifestyles with the public. Her biggest feat? Organizing the Bizerkeley Food Festival in 2021—Berkeley’s first and only vegan food festival.

Originally slated to debut in May 2020, Hazel was forced to pause her plans until the following year, when she received sponsorship from Berkeley to launch the city’s first-ever vegan fest to a crowd of over 1,000 attendees in the parking lot of Sports Basement. The event featured local vegan vendors, family activities, and educational resources for community members of all ages. Now in its second year, Hazel looks forward to expanding its radius to include more vendors in order to benefit more folks.

But the success she’s now seeing wasn’t cooked up overnight—and it wasn’t a solo effort, either, thanks to her family and community members who have “wrapped around (her dietary choices) instead of rejecting (them).”

“My dad used to eat Burger King and McDonalds, and now he’s super mindful of meat consumption,” Hazel tells me. “I tell him, do you want to meet your grandchildren? You have to eat right. Illnesses like diabetes often run in families because of certain eating habits.  You gotta have something green on your plate. Eat your steak, but eat more plants, too.”

For the past eight years, she has been volunteering, observing and connecting with vegan restaurants, festivals, and organizations around the country to to create a vegan food festival full of “culinary wizardry.” She owes a lot, she says, to the Vallejo Healthy Food Festival, as well as to organizations like the Food Empowerment Project in San Jose.

“I've been inspired by the hustlers out here,” she says. "I first met the Vegan Hood Chefs in their early days when they just had a table at Bay Area pop-ups. Now they have their own food truck, catering business, and are featured on VICE. Seeing them grow, and coming from our communities, that made me appreciate the spirit of hustling that makes our vegan scene so dope.”

Watching other Black women like Vegan Hood Chefs gain national recognition through their Southern-style cooking and independent grit and appreciating fellow Vallejo entrepreneurs like E-40 for his contributions to food culture, her passion now is sharing how the Bay is a world-class destination for any vegan.

a food vendor serves a vegan dish to a customer at the Bizerkeley Food Festival
Supporting local vegan businesses like Vegan Heat is a priority for Hazel (Jeffrey Litman)

At holiday events and cook outs, she tests recipes like buffalo cauliflower instead of chicken wings, or adapts Filipino dishes from her neighbors to make vegan sisig. In meat-dependent and fast food-saturated environments that impact many low-income, East Bay communities, Hazel is cooking up ways to rethink how everyone can benefit from vegan practices.

“There are so many ways to be vegan and healthy,” Hazel says. “It’s not an unattainable, white hippie thing. I want to take the whiteness out of veganism, because it’s really for everyone.” 

Working with organizations like the Food Empowerment Project in Petaluma and coordinating the Vallejo Healthy Food Festival from 2019 to 2021, Hazel has been joyfully marinating in the Bay Area’s diverse vegan community and sharing what she has learned with others. 

She might be a self-proclaimed “tree hugger,” but Hazel isn’t overly idealistic about her approach to changing eating habits for those living in her neighborhood. Currently, she is working on a cookbook with her mom that provides alternatives for dishes that are commonly enjoyed in her household, such as black-eyed peas. She is also collaborating with small businesses in the region, including Doctor Hop’s Real Hard Kombucha, Liquified Juicery, Eclipse Ice Cream, and Nixta Pupusas to “put on for the underdogs.” 

For anyone skeptical of veganism’s practicality, The Bizerkeley Vegan has a simple reminder: “Anything you can eat, I can eat vegan.”

Catch Erika serving more news about Bay Area vegan culture on her website, or watch as she recommends her favorite vegan pizza joint in San Francisco on an episode of KQED’s “Check, Please!”.

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The 2022 Bizerkeley Food Festival, originally scheduled for July, has been rescheduled until Sunday, Sep. 4. Tickets $15-20, children under age 12 free. 11am–5pm. Sports Basement, 2727 Milvia Street, Berkeley.