By Wanda Hellmund
Heather Mills won millions in her bitter divorce from Paul McCartney, but the tabloid did direct damage to her public image. Now, she’s using some of that money to create good will and good health in the South Bronx by opening a vegan take-out cafe in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the country, Hunts Point.
But so far, free food seems to be the big draw at VBites, which opened in October. The vegan message seems to be secondary.
“Can I get hot dogs and chicken please?” said Amparo Espinosa, 25, as she stepped up to the counter. Her meal doesn’t sound vegan, but it is. The “hot dogs” and “chicken” are actually made with meat-free soy substitutes.
The cafe is handing out free take-away vegan food every Wednesday to local residents in need through a $1 million food donation by Mills. Jenny Cantarero, a 35-year old mother of two, comes frequently. “The kids love it and it’s healthy,” she said. Her six-year old son Ronal is looking over the counter to see what they get this time. “I love it,” he said. “I wanna get more.”
Getting people to enjoy vegan food was one of the goals of Mills when she opened the VBites cafe, which is named after her vegan food brand based in the UK. “We want to get children off fast food,” said Mills. But instead of expecting them to switch from a burger to plain vegetarian food, Mills proposed to replace “like for like,” meat-free versions of fast food favorites like hot dogs and burgers. “People can eat exactly what they like already,” Mills said, “but it’s much better for them and their family.”
The take-out cafe is located in the main building of the Hunts Point Alliance for Children (HPAC). The project was born two years ago when Mills met James Costa, executive member on HPAC’s board, in Los Angeles. “She was talking about a food line,” said Costa. “And we were thinking about how to bring healthy food into the neighborhood and we just brought those ideas together.”
Mills became convinced that the idea had potential after running a pilot version of VBites for the last year. The project, called the NoBeef Cafe, is located in the non-profit organization The Point and prepares free vegan meals as well. It will remain in operation.
On last week’s menu: chicken curry and beef stew prepared by chef Kelston Bascom with Mills’ products. “People like it,” Bascom said. “In the beginning, only two kids showed up.” Now, every seat is packed and Bascom said the cafe usuallydraws 45 to 60 people every Thursday.
With the NoBeef Cafe running, Mills was ready to open the VBites Cafe. “We certainly wanted to make sure that having a free vegan cafe is actually something people would enjoy – and they do,” said Mills. She said she beame a vegan after she was hit by a police motorcycle in 1993, and part of a leg. Vegan food made her healthy again, she said, and that is why she wants to make it more accessible.
Mills hopes that VBites Cafe in Hunts Point is going to encourage families to start eating vegan and then demanding vegan food in their local supermarkets and fast food chains. That is a huge challenge. Even though Hunts Point residents live next to the huge wholesale food market, they have little access to fresh produce in their local grocery stores.
But even if kids and their parents start to like vegan food, it is not guaranteed that they can afford to buy it on a regular basis in an area like Hunts Point, where 45.5 percent of residents live below the poverty line. VBite’s burgers sell for an equivalent of $2 per slice on their online store while a complete hamburger at McDonalds costs $1. This applies just to VBite products, which are so far only available for purchase in the UK. If a family starts to switch to a vegan diet, there are many extra expenses. A gallon of cow’s milk is certainly cheaper than vegan alternatives such as soy or rice milk. And while VBite products are easy to cook – simply microwave – many Bronx residents will not know how to prepare vegan meals from scratch at home.
Vegan cooking classes at the non-profit organization Project Hope helped residents incorporate vegan cuisine in their routine. Cantarero said they explained how to use soy and other vegan ingredients and now she is teaching her friends how to cook vegan.
Mills is not planning on expanding VBites anywhere else in the Bronx for now, while she keeps her main focus on the British market, where she just opened her first vegan fast-food restaurant.
The profit made from the UK restaurant and the online shop are supposed to help fund projects like the VBites Cafe. The HPAC hopes to find new donors to support it after the money from Mills runs out in about five years, but so far nothing has been set up yet.
For now, VBites Cafe brings healthy and free food onto tables of many families who could not afford it otherwise. It might not change Hunts Point into a vegan neighborhood, but it seems to have an effect on kids. “I try to eat more healthily but it is difficult,” said Anacelia Gomez, 16, a student at Jane Addams High School. “We have little to no healthy food in our school cafeteria”. Although she still has to get used to the taste, she could imagine having vegan food in her school cafeteria soon. Nine-year old Angelique Taveras could not believe that what she was eating was vegan. “It’s really good,” she said. “When I found out its soy it was even better because I wasn’t eating an animal.”