So, you’re curious about vegan food and the plant-based lifestyle. That’s natural. Plant-based foods and vegan products are more popular now than ever. Beyond all the ethical issues of factory farming, meat production has been linked as a major cause of our current climate crisis.
With the rise of Beyond and Impossible burgers, finding a plant-based plate has become easier and more popular than ever. Still, it’s pretty intimidating to make such a big lifestyle switch or even adopt it a few days a week, and that’s where Erika Hazel can help.
Born in Berkeley, CA., and raised in Vallejo, Hazel works as a professor at the University of San Francisco and serves as a full-time school counselor and mental health therapist for grade-school kids from kindergarten to eight grade. She’s also well-known among the vegan community as The Bizerkeley Vegan, running a blog by the same name and sharing restaurant reviews, dish suggestions and advice for the plant-based curious to more than 8,000 followers on Instagram.
Hazel made the jump to veganism five years ago, after a stint with pescetarianism and a flash of the flexitarian lifestyle.
“I know cold turkey vegans,” she says. “I couldn't do it—that's kind of funny, ‘cold turkey.’”
Ultimately, a Netflix documentary called Vegucated—which follows six hardcore meat and cheese lovers in NYC who agree to go vegan for six weeks—inspired her to adopt the plant-based lifestyle and never look back.
“I don't wake up on the wrong side of bed anymore. My body just feels so much better overall,” she says. “I am high risk for breast cancer genetically, so it was a huge push to adopt a more plant-based lifestyle because of that, as well as for the animals … I really do make that connection as a black woman. If we can do this to animals, we can do it to humans. I think once we are more compassionate to the sentient beings on this planet who can't stand up for themselves verbally, we'll be kinder to one another.”
She started the Bizerkely Vegan IG account around the same time and has been spreading the good word ever since. Earlier this month, she organized Berkeley’s first-ever vegan festival to great success. The Bizerkeley Vegan Food Festival sold out to welcome more than 600 customers, introducing them all to the best plant-based food, beverages and products the Bay Area and greater California has to offer.
The Bizerkeley Food Festival is set to return as an annual event in 2022, with plans to grow even larger and maybe even take over a whole street. Wherever you are, Hazel encourages you to give plant-based living a try, even if it’s just one step at a time, and she’s got a few easy tips to help you start.
Pick a place where you want to be plant-based or vegan
“My apartment in West Berkeley that I first moved into was vegan, but when I would work or go out with friends, go to my parents house, I'd eat whatever,” she says. “I just started making my home vegan, and then I branched out from there.”
“I utilize Yelp like nobody's business,” Hazel laughs, adding that Yelp was a sponsor of the Bizerkely Vegan Food Festival. “The reason why I tapped in with Yelp is because I use Yelp every day as a vegan, because they have this icon for ‘vegan options’ on the restaurant page. You can search [restaurant] reviews and type in ‘vegan’ to see what other people have said about the vegan options at that place. I would search ‘vegan’ in a restaurant page and it would be like, ‘oh, make sure you omit the fish sauce and it'll be vegan.’ Other vegan Yelpers, we help each other out in the review section.”
Go to Vegan Food Festivals to Learn What’s Out There—And What’s Possible
“Facebook and Instagram helped me find Oakland Veg Fest, San Francisco Veg Fest and all these different places,” Hazel says. “RIP to Vegan Republic in downtown Berkeley. They're an animal sanctuary up in Grass Valley, but they had a vegan store on University near Out of the Closet, and they have pop ups there every weekend, so you could try a different chef who didn't have their own brick and mortar. I got introduced to a lot of folks, pre their glow up right now.”
Get the Vegan Entree at Your Favorite Restaurant
“Try the vegan entree at the places that you already know are good if you're a little more hesitant about eating out at a brand new place where you don't know if you'll like their style of cooking,” Hazel says. “There's so many places that already have an option. My go to restaurant is 900 Grayson here in Berkeley, and I get their vegan entree every time I go, but you could get that plus whatever else you would normally get.”
Use Instagram, TikTok and YouTube
“I had so many sage gurus on Instagram and Facebook who really helped me transition to veganism,” Hazel says. “They put me on to the tips … I built my community for Bizerkeley vegan there, just following all these other cool people that taught me what I know now. I really am honored to be that person for the next wave of new-plant based folks or flexitarian, whoever they are!”
Photography by: Anna Pelzer / Unsplash