The leader of Central Florida’s vegan movement lives right here in Sanford, and she’s helping local vegans connect with each other and the vegan-friendly restaurants around them.
“I’m here to tell you that you can still eat your pizza, you can still eat your sushi, and you can still enjoy delicious food,” says Nikki Namdar, Sanford resident and founder of Orlando Vegans.
The popular food blog and meetup group boasts more than 13,000 Instagram followers and aims to bring together and educate vegans, aspiring vegans, and those curious about the lifestyle change.
Nikki’s own journey to becoming a vegan started at the age of 14 after watching a disturbing video about how animals are slaughtered for food.
“I decided I was never eating meat again,” Nikki recalls. “I started out vegetarian. As a first-generation Iranian American from New York, my family didn’t get it. I mean, Iranians will eat almost every organ in an animal’s body! But now my parents will eat the vegan food I cook, and they’re supportive of what I believe in.”
After going all-in on veganism in 2011, Nikki created Orlando Vegans two years later as a school project while at UCF. Over time, the passion project took on a life of its own, developing into a social group and platform to connect like-minded individuals and keep them informed about where to find vegan food in Central Florida.
“When I first decided to become vegan, I knew a lot of people who couldn’t relate to my new lifestyle,” says Nikki. “Orlando Vegans was a great way for me to make new friends, and I also began building relationships with restaurants. I found a way to put all my passions together: helping businesses, connecting people, and helping animals. Becoming vegan changed my life.”
But what, exactly, does veganism look like? In a nutshell, a vegan does not eat or use any animal products, which means no meat, no dairy, no eggs, and most importantly no exploitation of and cruelty to animals. Veganism is more than just a change in diet. It’s a conscious decision often made for ethical, environmental, and health reasons.
“People think by becoming a vegan they are giving up a lot, but they’re actually gaining so much,” Nikki says. “You live a more compassionate lifestyle towards animals, there are amazing health benefits to following a plant-based diet, and you’re helping the environment. These things are good for your overall well-being. Once you make the leap, you’ll never look back.”
So, how is it possible to still enjoy that pizza and sushi Nikki mentioned?
“There’s an alternative for everything, and it’s just as yummy,” says Nikki.
From vegan cheese to faux chicken to tofu, where there’s a will there’s a way, and vegans will find a way. Scrambled eggs are swapped for scrambled tofu; honey is exchanged with plant-based sweeteners like molasses; and beans, whole grains, fruits, and veggies become your best friends.
Nikki says that, nowadays, most major stores have a variety of options like vegan meats, fortified plant milks, and even vegan desserts.
“I’ve taken a few Orlando Vegan friends on grocery shopping tours to show them how to navigate and find vegan products,” Nikki says.
Central Florida restaurants are also providing more and more food options for vegans, and Orlando Vegans is constantly sharing updates on new menu items and relevant news for the vegan community. The online community regularly meets offline and in-person at local restaurants and events.
The group has made a real difference in the lives of others, like longtime Orlando Vegans member and Sanford resident Kristen Kelley.
“When I moved to Orlando, I didn’t know anybody, and I wanted to meet other vegans and enjoy good food,” Kristen says. “I’d only had one other real-life vegan friend before. I came across the Orlando Vegans Instagram account, and after the first potluck get together, Nikki became my second-ever real-life vegan friend. I have really enjoyed sharing vegan food and good conversation with new people and the old friends that I’ve made since joining in 2014. It’s a great way to make connections, professionally and personally, and I just really love the friends I’ve made.”
“Orlando Vegans is a really great resource, as well,” adds Rae Dixon, who joined two years ago. “It’s constantly updating us about the newest restaurants, menu changes, and new items in vegan and non-vegan establishments. It’s a great way to see how the movement is really growing.”
Orlando Vegans also hosts frequent online contests and giveaways and is a sponsor at Central Florida Earth Day in April and Central Florida Veg Fest in October, where Nikki volunteers as a food coordinator. The group is also coming out with an app this year to connect vegans with local restaurants and interesting content.
“Becoming vegan forces you to look at the world around you and understand where things come from and what is harmful for you, for the Earth, and for the animals,” says Nikki. “It all goes hand-in-hand, and Orlando Vegans wants to spread that message and show what veganism looks like right here in Orlando.”
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Central Florida Earth Day
The 14th annual Central Florida Earth Day is on Saturday, April 20, from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. at Lake Eola Park in downtown Orlando. It is a free, vegan event and features educational exhibits and activities. Central Florida Earth Day is also a family-friendly, dog-friendly, alcohol-free, and smoke-free event.