Raidirys Rivas McCray defines herself as “a borderline activist, but cute.”
Dressed in a fashionable cream sweatsuit with pink shoes, she warmly greets everyone she comes across at the Andrew Freedman Home – a massive and historic artist hub in the Bronx’s Concourse neighborhood.
On Wednesday nights, the grand space is filled with stomach-tempting scents from the Caribbean, China and the American South, all coming together for one reason – to make vegan cuisine accessible in the Bronx.
Rivas McCray started the Bronx Vegan Bazaar in 2020, just a few blocks away from where she was raised on 176th and Concourse.
Her life changed drastically when she began to study at Manhattan’s Institute of Culinary Education, discovering how consuming fresh food everyday boosted her mental capacity.
“I noticed a difference in my ability to have conversations and my ability to think and my ability to discern,” Rivas McCray recalled. “We don’t have that awareness in the Bronx.”
She quickly became “spiritually driven” to spread awareness about healthy living, from practicing veganism and yoga in her own life to founding Bronx Vegan Bazaar – the Bronx’s first vegan expo – to promote plant-based food.
Rivas McCray also yearned to boost her neighbor’s immune systems during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The news was just giving us one option, which was the vaccine,” she said. “We were all for it, but we also know that what you put in your mouth is important. You’ve got two options – poison or medicine.”
Originally set on the front lawn of the Andrew Freeman Home, the Bronx Vegan Bazaar is now housed inside, creating an intimate space for both chefs and food lovers.
Dez Mears, founder of Who Made the Kale?, is a staple of the Bazaar. His recipes are heavenly to the senses, including small plates featuring scallion mac and cheese with coconut rice, peas, curry cabbage and smoked jerk jackfruit. He also offers szechuan jackfruit with broccoli, fried rice and ackee – a Caribbean plant that mimics eggs.
“I wouldn’t sell anything I wouldn’t eat,” Mears proudly proclaimed. “It’s about putting love in the food.”
Mears’ plates range from $20-25. More affordable options are also available from chefs like Thomas Hong, who cooks up vegan spring rolls filled with noodles and succulent veggies. With a side of duck sauce, three of Hong’s spring rolls will only set you back $5. Hong also has a brand of vegan mushroom jerky called Vegky, which he sells at Bronx Vegan Bazaar and online.
But Bronx Vegan Bazaar doesn’t just offer healthier substitutes for food. Venus Hilton sells a health-conscious line of candles – Ethereal Aura – made from soy wax and clean fragrance oil.
“Our mission is to bring awareness to people about the dangers of paraffin wax,” Hilton explained. “Candles that are lit with paraffin wax release carcinogens into the air, those fumes are compared to those from your car engine.”
The Bronx is the most food insecure borough in New York City and one of the most food insecure areas in the United States. Additionally, the South Bronx has roughly 18-25 bodegas per one supermarket, which means access to fresh produce is limited.
Bronx Vegan Bazaar has received public support from Mayor Eric Adams, who has strived to increase access to healthy food across New York City. The Andrew Freeman Home also remains in Bronx Vegan Bazaar’s corner as a continued partner.
“We’ve been very happy with the Bronx Vegan Bazaar,” said Andrew Freeman Home event planner Rhonda James. “If Bronx Vegan Bazaar wants to continue here in 2024, they have a home.”
“We want to stay here long term,” said Rivas McCray. “We don’t want to be just a pop-up or an event, we want to be an installation that the community can come to every Wednesday.”
The Bronx Vegan Bazaar will be held each Wednesday at the Andrew Freeman Home at 1125 Grand Concourse from 4-9 p.m. until Dec. 27. For more information and to keep up with future events, head over to the Bronx Vegan Bazaar’s official website.