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Peoria’s first ‘plant-based’ expo aims to emphasize the fun around a growing interest in veganism

Ann Schreifels, left, of the Peoria Riverfront Market stand Jar d'Ann, and Riley Greenwood, of Riley's Vegan Sweets and Eats, show off some of their plant-based products. Schreifels and Greenwood are participating in the first Plant-Based Peoria Expo on July 29 at the Peoria Civic Center.
Joe Deacon
Ann Schreifels, left, of the Peoria Riverfront Market stand Jar d'Ann, and Riley Greenwood, of Riley's Vegan Sweets and Eats, show off some of their plant-based products. Schreifels and Greenwood are participating in the first Plant-Based Peoria Expo on July 29 at the Peoria Civic Center.

An upcoming event making its debut at the Peoria Civic Center aims to celebrate and build on an increased interest in veganism across the area.

Around 25 vendors and other activities are lined up for the first Plant-Based Peoria Expo on July 29. The event is being organized by Riley Greenwood, owner of Riley’s Vegan Sweets and Eats.

“My purpose in this is to help create the word ‘fun’ around plant-based and veganism,” Greenwood said. “A lot of people feel like they have to let things go or replace certain things in their life, and I'm here to show them that when you're replacing the meat with something else, that it is a fun experience. I want to show you how we can continue learning about that together and you don't feel like you're in the transition by yourself.”

Ann Schreifels, founder of the Jar d’Ann stand at the Peoria RiverFront Market, is among the sponsors of the expo.

“Typically, these are events that happen in the big city; Chicago has had them for years, other big cities. But to have reached the point where Peoria can host something like this is absolutely fantastic,” Schreifels said. “People these days are interested in the plant-based lifestyle for a lot of reasons, be it health, animal cruelty, the environment, social justice. There's so many reasons that a plant-based lifestyle makes a lot of sense, so this festival is going to showcase what central Illinois has to offer.”

Greenwood said she’s seen a growth in people around Peoria adopting or contemplating a vegan lifestyle.

“I hear a lot of people saying that they're interested, and what they need is just that friendly, gentle push into it,” Greenwood said. “A lot of people, they've never had a vegan dessert before or they've never had a vegan burger before. So whenever you have those opportunities and they present themselves, give it a try. Make sure that you stay open-minded about it because it could be the best burger and the best cookie you've ever had in your life.”

Schreifels said vegan dining options have become increasingly available in Peoria and throughout Illinois.

“Right now, there's three or four vegan businesses in the area that specialize in food or cooking. But the number of restaurants in the area with vegan options has absolutely exploded,” Schreifels said. “It's on a lot of menus just as they hand the menu to you.

“But the other thing that I've noticed is that restaurants with chefs are more than happy to make a vegan creation. It doesn't work in some chain restaurants that have cooks, but if a restaurant actually has a talented chef and you say, ‘I'd like to make reservations. Can you do vegan?,’ they're more than happy to make something and it's usually spectacular.”

Schreifels said she grew up on a farm and developed a fondness for the animals that initially led her to becoming a vegetarian and eventually progressed to a vegan lifestyle.

“I was vegetarian for about 25 years, and then with the advent of the internet I guess, I started doing more reading and more understanding of other options and realized there's no nutritional need to eat dairy or eggs either. So I stopped,” Schreifels said.

Greenwood said she describes herself as “practicing” a vegan lifestyle.

“I don't like to call myself ‘a vegan,’ as I am still in the process of learning,” Greenwood said. “I also feel that once a lot of people classify themselves as vegan, when they're in the beginning stages it's very easy for them to feel defeated if they feel themselves backtracking or emotional eating. Not everybody's perfect, so I think that by calling it ‘a practice,’ you can only get better at it and I learn more every day.”

Greenwood said her introduction to vegan alternatives came directly from Schreifels.

“She walked into my cupcake shop after I had already opened up in March 2017,” Greenwood said. “I think I met Ann maybe three months in; she came in and she asked me, ‘Do you offer any vegan options?’ At that time, I didn't offer any, didn't have any idea what eating vegan baking even was. And I just thought, ‘well, I'll make sure that I have something for you if you're going to be one of my customers that keeps coming back.'"

“It started with one dairy-free option; I just called them ‘dairy-free’ and ‘eggless’ in the beginning, as I was learning. They even helped me along the way with a lot of the substitutes and kind of getting that education. But it was more of a learning aspect for me as I was wanting to deep dive into it – because she wanted that product, I wanted to know how to do that for her. So I started teaching myself how to recreate my mom's recipes from SweetCakes by Rachael and learn how to create them as Riley's, without dairy or eggs.”

Schreifels said her switch from a vegetarian diet to veganism came about after a doctor told her husband that his eating habits resulted in high cholesterol and pre-diabetes and could shorten his life.

“He went from a full-on, standard American, hamburger/cheeseburger diet to vegan overnight, which is amazing because that's a difficult thing to do. But he was very motivated,” she said. “Six months later, he had his bloodwork done again – totally perfect; no markers for diabetes, cholesterol was totally normal. So people always think that I'm the one that turned him into the vegan, but in reality it was the other way around.”

Greenwood said the expo will provide an opportunity for vegan teens to meet and befriend other like-minded teens. She said they’ll also have a kids’ zone with a slide, face-painting and tricycle races.

“We've got some animal sanctuaries coming out to talk about what they do as far as the animal service, what they need and how we can contribute to them,” Greenwood said. “We've got some local businesses that are not even vegan businesses, but they offer a vegan option or a plant-based option. So they decided to bring that out and to showcase that, so we know who in the area are these businesses that we can go to for the dairy-free or for the eggless option.”

Schreifels said the expo will emphasize the benefits of plant-based diets.

“People, myself included, have grown up in the traditional American diet, and that's very much focused on meat, vegetable, starch on your plate and then a dessert that's typically made with eggs and milk,” she said. “All of that can be veganized, but it takes a shift in thinking. But with Pinterest (and) with Google, there's no reason there's anything can't be veganized these days.”

Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.