Writer: Karla Walsh
Photographer: Duane Tinkey
On the same day in 2017 when 14,000 people were devouring 10,000 pounds of bacon at the annual Blue Ribbon Bacon Festival at the Iowa Events Center, a much smaller, if no less mighty, group was holding its own food fest at First Unitarian Church. Branded “VeganFest,” the event’s goal was to showcase an alternative culinary choice to pork-a-palooza.
“We expected 150 people and were shocked when 750 showed up,” says Amy Luebbert (pictured above), president of VegLife Des Moines, the host organization. That unexpected success led VegLife to become a 501(c)(3) so it could take donations and grow. And grown it has: Despite a blizzard swinging through town the weekend of 2018’s VeganFest, 2,500 people attended the daylong event at Valley Community Center in West Des Moines. The fest featured speakers and food samples from dozens of local vendors.
Luebbert credits some of that growth to a 20-restaurant tour the group organized leading up to VeganFest. “We partnered with 14 local restaurants to highlight vegan selections for one night,” says the 36-year-old Luebbert. Participants noshed on, for example, seitan masa fries from Tacopocalypse, lentil barbacoa at Table 128 and beet carpaccio at HoQ.
Far from embracing a vegan lifestyle, Luebbert spent her first two decades living a meat-and-potatoes existence. “Food was never something I gave much thought to, and honestly, I didn’t even look at a nutrition label until I was 20,” says Luebbert, who grew up in Charleston, Illinois, and Cedar Rapids.
All that changed in 2002 when she met a vegan and environmentalist who shared a compelling argument about her earth-friendly beliefs. “I went home and immediately Googled ‘veganism,’ and learned more than I ever could have imagined about industrial agriculture and how it impacted the well-being of our planet,” Luebbert says.
The next day, she went vegan. It was a massive and quick change, “but I considered this a choice I could make three times a day to not contribute to suffering,” she says.
Enrolled at the University of Iowa at the time, Luebbert eventually settled on a degree focusing on geography, anthropology and environmentalism. For the first seven years of her career, she worked a corporate gig at Principal in Des Moines that she felt competent and successful doing, but was never passionate about. So in 2013 Luebbert enrolled in Energy Corps, an initiative with a mission to promote energy conservation, and moved to Cedar Rapids for a year.
Settling back in Des Moines in 2014, she now works as an outreach associate for an energy company. She and five friends started VegLife Des Moines as a way to offer resources—such as a restaurant guide and cooking classes—for everyone from veteran vegans to those who are simply interested in learning more about veganism.
Inspired by the success of VeganFest and the positive response from the restaurant tour, Luebbert predicts VegLife will continue to grow: “We’re planning more supermarket tours, community garden volunteering and working with restaurants to make their vegan offerings easier to spot.”
“I admire Amy’s relentless commitment to create a just world for all the earth’s inhabitants,” says Paola Perez Sackett, Ph.D., an adjunct faculty member at Des Moines Area Community College who serves on the VegLife board. “Amy is a vivid example of someone who really ‘walks the talk.’ She lives her life with integrity.”
Still, Luebbert doesn’t expect everyone to steer completely clear of steak. “I know it can be daunting to go vegan overnight,” Luebbert says. “Some people find it helpful to try the ‘vegan before 6 p.m.’ concept or adding one more meatless meal a week. Every bit helps.”