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Charlotte VegFest vendor Lee Rathers talks animal agriculture, more 

Be meatless in Midwood on May 16

Charlotte's got a handful of amazing women in Charlotte who own vegan businesses: Juliana Luna of Luna's Living Kitchen, Kiersten Tristman of Novel Sweets and Julia Simon of Nourish are just a few. Their mission? Help nourish (pun intended) folks who choose not to consume animal products.

They are also vendors at the fourth annual Charlotte VegFest, an all-afternoon celebration of compassion and respect for animals, happening in Plaza Midwood. The pro-vegetarian event is thanks to the work of Marley Claridge, owner of Eco-Licous, another vegan, eco-friendly business. In 2014, an estimated 3,000 people came out, and organizers hope more will this year to check out the speakers (like The Humane League's Andrea Gunn), cooking demonstrations (such as that of the Vegan Black Metal Chef) and other exhibits. So far, more than 40 vendors are slated to showcase their vegan foods and goods.

Lee Rathers, owner of The Greener Apple (a vegan, eco-friendly shop inside Book Buyers on The Plaza) is a volunteer coordinator for the May 16 event and another vendor on Saturday's roster. We chatted with her about her journey to becoming a vegan, animal agriculture and more.

On why she went vegetarian and then vegan.

For me, it all started with animal rights. I think that's what's really kept it going for me. Because it's an emotional level. There's an emotional component to it. Do I think I could kill this animal and eat it? No, I couldn't. So why should I rely on somebody else to do it for me?

On the importance of knowing where your food comes from.

I'm hoping people are becoming more aware of the animal agriculture and how it's really devastating for our environment and for the animals. We've become disconnected from what we eat. Everything's all packaged and ready to go and you don't really realize what it is because you didn't see where it came from. You didn't pick the corn, you didn't grow it yourself. You didn't kill the hog or the chicken yourself. There are so many layers to this whole agri-business.

On why Charlotte has seemingly become more receptive to vegan/vegetarian lifestyles.

I guess because we have a lot of people that are from other places, especially up north. I think maybe this influx of people from all over is sort of influencing [the shift]. When you think of Southern cooking, you don't think of vegan. You don't even think of vegetarians, really. I'm from Alabama. I went to the University of Alabama, and I had just became a vegetarian; it was really rough. I really just lived off peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I had a dining card, [but] even the green beans had ham in them. I thought, "Oh my god, what have I done. Is it too late to come back?" I think people are just becoming more aware of eating healthy.

On how she tries to educate people about veganism.

I think if you're eating a lot of the processed and animal-based foods, you're probably consuming all of that suffering they went through. When you think about it, it's rough. From a business standpoint, I'm not really pushing the animal rights. I have it sitting out for people to see, the flyers from Humane League, Mercy for Animals or PETA. The information is there and I have it, but I'm more like, "Oh, try this coconut bacon. It's coconut that tastes like bacon." I'm just trying to break down the walls a little bit.

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