- Associated Press - Sunday, October 30, 2016

MIAMI (AP) - Alison Burgos realized things were dire when she needed a wheelchair.

For years, the pain had been building. In her hands, her wrists, her ankles, and especially in her knees. First, the newly diagnosed rheumatoid arthritis made it difficult to walk. Then impossible. Some days, just getting out of bed sent lightning bolts through her joints. Eventually, she needed a right knee replacement.

She was 41.

“Parts of her body just stopped working,” said Burgos‘ wife, Michelle Gaber. “It was scary for her.”

Scary enough that Burgos made a drastic change. Overweight most of her life, a Latina raised on a Latin diet, Burgos started with a three-month cleanse, a supervised diet of strictly fruits and vegetables, and transitioned into a full vegan diet.

She lost more than 60 pounds. She got out of the wheelchair. She got off four of the five medications she was prescribed for her disease. She is even able to keep pace with their 2-year-old son on the soccer field. And when she decided to propose to Gaber, she got down on bended, surgically replaced knee, captured in a YouTube video that still makes both of them cry.

“You can either feed the disease or cure the disease, and diet is a big part of that,” Burgos said. “I felt I had to tell this story.”

That lifestyle shift is the reason, three years ago, she and Gaber started the SEED Food and Wine Festival, which runs Nov. 2-7. The event highlights the benefits of a plant-based diet, with everything from a chefs’ battle to see who can make the most delicious plant-based burger (meat-eating clarion Sef Gonzalez, aka Burger Beast, is among the judges) to swank cocktail parties and farm-to-table dinners, culminating in a SoBe-style grand tasting Nov. 5.

They expect attendance to more than double, to 9,000, from when they started in 2014.

“We’re trying to transform the community,” Gaber said. “We’re trying to leave a nicer place for our son.”

But arriving at this new way of eating, of living, took a mental shift, especially for someone raised in a Latin household who learned to eat everything on her plate.

At first, the thought of leaving behind meat altogether felt like a rebuke to her culture. But soon Burgos started experimenting. She’s learned to replace items in dishes she loved. She makes a killer Arroz Con No Pollo, a chicken and rice in which roasted veggies replace the chicken, but the rest of the dish is traditional down to the saz√≥n.

Today, she wears a baseball shirt with a simple slogan instead of a logo on the front: “Eat Plants.”

“I realized what I was mourning, I could still have,” she said.

For SEED, the couple brings in some of the top vegan and vegetarian chefs from around the country to make that point - and even Whole Foods Market has been a founding sponsor.

They brought in arguably the country’s hottest vegan chefs, Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby, who own V Street and Vedge restaurants in Philadelphia. Landau was a James Beard Award finalist for his plant-based cuisine.

Miami is quickly responding. The plant-based restaurant Plant Food & Wine in Wynwood has elevated the vegan and raw-food game in South Florida, thanks to James Beard Award-winning chef Matthew Kenney. It received a perfect, four-star Miami Herald review in April.

It’s a lesson that cuisine without animal products can hit heights that even some meat-based restaurants can’t touch.

“I felt like I could have a real culinary experience,” Burgos said. “That was transformational for me.”

Burgos is still on that journey. She loves the occasional junk food (Oreos, by the way, are vegan) and spoils herself with soda. And she still has a way to go to reach her ideal weight, healthfully, over time.

“I don’t look like the poster child for a healthy lifestyle. I was definitely intimidated by that,” she said. “But we don’t make judgments. It’s about making better choices.”

Those who know her point to her as an example, especially for mobilizing and gathering the vegan, vegetarian and plant-based chefs and tastemakers in South Florida. SEED recently received a $40,000 grant from the Miami Beach Visitor and Convention Authority for the attention the festival brings to South Florida.

Some of South Florida’s top chefs even began a health program three months ago, in partnership with SEED, to work out three times a week and eat a plant-based meal at least once a week. They will have their final weigh-in at the festival on Nov. 5.

Burgos, an event coordinator who founded Aqua Girl, the spring festival that benefits Aqua Foundation for Women and South Florida’s LBT community, knows how to make an idea into a movement.

“Her story can touch people and make them feel they’re not alone,” Gaber said, “that even a little change can make a difference.”

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Information from: The Miami Herald, https://www.herald.com

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