‘Tis the season for giving as several companies host massive giveaways around the holidays. But while some hold off until the final months to give back, a new start-up aims to give year-round.
Plants on Wheels has been feeding the hungry and homeless since July with free vegan meals while raising awareness for helping others through compassion, empathy and gratitude. Founded by vegan couple, Lawrence Katz and Cybill Validum from Staten Island, the non-profit was out celebrating their inaugural annual holiday party in Washington Square Park on Saturday, Dec. 23, offering a buffet of tasty vegan dishes, goodie bags and donated clothing to anyone in need, free of charge.
“We noticed an extreme lack of healthy food options to help nourish people living on the streets surrounding the park and in the park,” Plants On Wheels wrote in an email. “We began our nonprofit Plants On Wheels to help make vegan food more accessible to the community and bring awareness to helping others who are less fortunate.”
Plants on Wheels partners with dozens of vendors such as Lily’s Vegan Pantry, JUST Egg, Good Planet Foods and Neat Burger which allows them to continue their mission of feeding the hungry with an eye on sustainability and healthy eating.
“In my opinion, all of the health problems that people have are directly related to what they eat,” said Katz who has been vegetarian for 40 years and vegan for the last 15.
In 2017, the National Institutes of Health published, “How dietary factors influence disease risk” and found that “eating too much processed meat, sugar-sweetened beverages and unprocessed red meat also raised the risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes-related deaths.”
The genesis of Plants on Wheels stems from an unfortunate incident Katz suffered when he was a little boy. He was nine years old out riding his bike when some older kids knocked him off of it and ran off with the bicycle. Katz ran home crying and told himself, “I’m never going to let anybody take anything from me again and I’m never going to let anyone do something to somebody when I’m around,” he told amNY.
The occurrence inspired Katz to get his black belt in karate when he was 13 years old and soon thereafter, he began teaching self-defense and became an unofficial motivational speaker to the youth in his hometown of Staten Island.
“And I got a feeling of wanting to give back, wanting to help people,” Katz added. And so, he did.
Prior to creating their non-profit this summer, Katz and Validum were giving back in their own way.
“Whenever we would see someone outside collecting bottles, cans, looking in the garbage, we would throw them a few bucks,” said Validum. “And it would really get us upset — it kills us to know there are people outside in the freezing cold.”
Plants On Wheels also wants people to know that vegan eating isn’t just salads and that it can also be quite tasty.
“It’s delicious,” said Gabriel Frilando who was eating a big plate of food with a little bit of everything – lasagna, macaroni and cheese, rice and beans, tater tots, pigs in a blanket and all of it vegan. Frilando was in the NYC shelter system before finding his apartment in Harlem and spent a lot of time in Washington Square Park to find community when he needed it most.
“I come here to heal,” he said. “Cultivate — be a good person.”
Others in attendance said they heard about the event from following the Instagram page of @veganbodegacat which has more than 73,000 followers. Run by Brooklyn native, Rebecca, who withheld her last name, @veganbodegacat’s choice to help promote Plants On Wheels’ holiday event was personal.
“I’m Palestinian. It’s been really hard watching all of the destruction going on and I felt kind of helpless like I couldn’t do anything,” said Rebecca. “One of the things that I started to try to do in the past few months is to give back to my community as much as possible and this was one way to do that.”
Rebecca has been vegan for about nine years and said that her decision was initially due to fitness reasons, but when she learned about the environmental impacts of animal farming on the Earth, “that’s what made me stick vegan,” she added.
A 2021 report by Blue Horizon and Boston Consulting Group titled “Food For Thought,” studied these effects and found that if people continue to adapt a meat-free diet, “by 2035, the transition away from animal agriculture will save 39 billion cubic meters of water – enough to supply the city of London for 40 years.”
Rebecca helped Plants on Wheels partner with the New York City branch of Neat Burger – a London-based burger company backed by actor, Leonardo DiCaprio, which creates sustainably delicious dishes that put the planet first, according to their mission statement.
Neat Burger donated several gift cards which were given to the volunteers of Saturday’s event along with goodie bags filled with vegan treats and coupons. And while this is the second food and clothing giveaway Plants On Wheels has done at the park, the first being on Thanksgiving, the non-profit feeds the hungry vegan meals every weekend in Staten Island where they estimate feeding upwards of 50 people each time.
Plants On Wheels will be hosting a Valentine’s Day-themed brunch on Saturday, Feb. 10th from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. in Washington Square Park and is accepting donations to help sustain their mission. You can also volunteer by contacting them at Plantsonwheels.net.