Naperville's Veggie Fest started out as an experiment, something organizers thought they'd try out, unsure if it would succeed.
The Science of Spirituality Meditation Center, which sponsors the festival, held roughly 30 classes a month teaching the community about all aspects of spirituality and vegetarianism.
It naturally progressed from there that organizers wanted some way to pull all of the lessons into a single event -- and so the Veggie Fest was born.
The experiment turned out better than organizers hoped. Now in its seventh year, the festival draws more than 20,000 people over its two days, making it the largest vegetarian food festival in the country.
"It was very small and then, all of a sudden, it just grew," event coordinator Jonathan Kruger said. "It surpassed our expectations."
Veggie Fest will run this year from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 11 and 12, on the grounds of the Science of Spirituality Meditation Center in Naperville.
Attendees can watch food demonstrations from restaurant and commercial chefs and cookbook authors and coaches. An international food court will feature roughly 30 different selections of vegetarian cuisine from around the world, and 100 vendor booths will provide information, products and services related to vegetarianism and an all-around healthy lifestyle.
Arjan Stephens, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Nature's Path, will be at Veggie Fest with the company started by his parents in 1985 that has turned into the largest organic cereal brand in the country. Nature's Path will hand out free samples and representatives will talk with attendees about the company's products.
"At Nature's Path, we firmly believe in a vegetarian diet," Stephens said. "It's the healthiest diet you can eat. We only market and launch products that are vegetarian because we believe in that philosophy."
Kruger said there was a greater effort this year to ensure vendor booths were related to the vegetarian way of life.
"We're just raising the awareness," he said. "Many people have become vegetarian; many people have changed their diets."
One of those ways to introduce people to the vegetarian lifestyle is through the Vegetarian Challenge, where festival-goers are asked to try out a vegetarian diet for a week. Participants receive a goodie bag, tips, restaurant lists and recipes.
In the past, roughly 2,000 people have taken on the challenge, and many have gone on to continue vegetarianism after the two weeks, organizers said.
Twenty-one speakers also will give presentations both days of the festival. The speakers include vendor representatives, health professionals and holistic doctors who will give healthy diet tips and talk about organic food, green living and spirituality.
"Some of the speakers will discuss spirituality and the ethical reasons for being vegetarian," Kruger said.
The keynote speaker both days will be Sant Rajinder Singh Ji Maharaj, a scientist who specializes in meditation and spiritual living.
"He's an internationally renowned teacher of spiritual meditation," Kruger said. "He'll speak on the benefits of being a vegetarian from the point of view of spirituality. He's very respected around the world."
James Gruft has been practicing medicine as a pain specialist for more than 20 years and currently practices in Oakbrook Terrace. At Veggie Fest, he will speak about the anti-aging effects of a vegetarian diet.
"Anti-aging is all about preventing illness," he said. "When you look at vegetarians, on the average, they look five to 10 years younger than the average person."
Gruft approaches medicine from a functional standpoint, meaning that instead of simply making a diagnosis and treating the disease, he also goes deeper to find what biological system is in a state of dysfunction. Why does the person have the disease? What is the underlying system of dysfunction?
"Food is medicine," Gruft said. "It's a very simple concept that is very powerful because the nutrients in food can actually treat chronic illness in ways medicine can't."
A plant-based diet gives the most nutrients, minerals and antioxidants needed for health, Gruft said. Ninety percent of the patients he sees have serious deficiencies in these nutrients.
"I find there's a lot of work to do to get them back into balance, and there's no question that the nutrients found in plants are very potent to correct those deficiencies," he said.
Gruft said new nutrients undoubtedly will be found. And in the past, he said, newly discovered healthful substances have always come from plants.
"I can assure you they are not going to come from a hunk of cow," he said. "When you eat a very plant-based diet, you're going to be introduced to those nutrients more readily, both the ones that have been identified and the ones that have yet to be."
Kruger said organizers also believe a vegetarian diet is healthier, but the importance of a vegetarian lifestyle extends beyond its health benefits.
"We also believe the vegetarian lifestyle, which promotes a compassionate lifestyle, is important for the world," he said. "The very foundation of spirituality is love, and having compassion for all living beings, including animals, is a key to life."
The festival is not intended to force people into vegetarianism, but simply to show them the benefits that can result from it.
"We purposely have stayed away from some of the organizations that are aggressive," Kruger said. "We're not there to push people. We're there to present a warm atmosphere for people to learn about the vegetarian lifestyle."