When Erick Castro first went to a vegan restaurant in 2015, he wasn't impressed.
The East New York local was being bugged by a friend — the only person he knew who was vegan — to take up the lifestyle, but he was far from convinced.
To stop his friend's hassling he went pescatarian. But after feeling the benefits of ditching meat almost immediately, he decided to give plant based a go for a month. The rest is history.
"I just remember waking up the first week and rushing out my door to my roommate to say, 'my skin feels amazing, I feel so good, I have so much energy,' it was weird to say that cause I'd never thought about those things, like how can skin feel good?" Castro smiled.
How to be vegan in the hood
Growing up in East New York, Castro said the only people he knew who didn't eat meat did so for religious reason.
"Aside from my one buddy Kelvin no-one knew about plant based or veganism, or understood why someone would even want to do that," he said.
When he first made the move, Castro would just eat French fries and drink beer when he went out with friends because weren't many other options. Those friends stopped inviting him out for meals because of his restrictions.
But by himself, Castro was whipping up all sorts of mouth-watering vegan dishes and checking out spots in the city that already had plant-based menus.
To show his friends it wasn't all doom and gloom, he started the Instagram page How to Be Vegan in the Hood in 2017.
"I started the Instagram to show my friends I'm not just eating salad, dirt and bread and drinking water," he said. "I made it so I could show my friends what I'm eating and maybe other people in the hood wanted to see what I'm eating too."
Today the page, filled with burgers, milkshakes, fried "chicken" and everything that goes against conventional vegan imagery, has attracted almost 40,000 followers.
And there's no questioning why: Castro cooks comfort food that we all know and love.
Unlike what most people think of veganism, Castro is all about opening the diet to as many people as possible and not making it a restrictive lifestyle.
"You don't have to give up certain recipes, certain recipes come with memories -- my grandmother used to make this stew for me and I don't want to stop eating it because when i eat it it reminds me of her," he said.
"You just have to change some of the ingredients, keep the same flavors, find similar textures, and you can keep eating it and keep the culture moving forward."
Chopped cheese, but make it vegan
With his recipes and ideas, Castro started working in restaurants helping design vegan menus and even opening two vegan concept restaurants.
But recently, he's turned his focus to food justice and getting vegan options into the hands of those who may not know about their benefits -- or even existence.
That mission is behind Castro's and his team at Food Fighters latest initiative, Eat Plantega.
Eat Plantega has partnered with three New York City bodegas, two in Brooklyn and one in the Bronx, to get plant-based products on shelves and deli menus so locals can enjoy their favorites — albeit without their most traditional ingredients.
Think a sausage, egg and cheese without actual sausage, egg or cheese -- but it still looks the same, and tastes great.
"The aim is to provide the convenience, not to make any changes," Castro said.
"We say 'Hey, this is already what you come to your bodega for, we're just going to make everything plant-based' so we're not pushing salads in your face, we're not telling you to stop eating a sausage egg and cheese no more, we're just making the plant-based version so you can continue living your life just having these options."
The two Brooklyn bodegas are Don Polo Meat Market at 3143 Fulton St in East New York and Gourmet Deli at 114 Wyckoff Ave in Bushwick. The third is My Deli at 1201 Castle Hill. "The bodegas in New York City are like home base for a lot of people," Castro said.
"Where I grew up I was able to grab products and pay tomorrow, I was able to rely on coming here if I was locked or anything, the bodega is like the big uncle he takes care of everyone in the community."
He said the bodegas were chosen to increase access and affordability for communities typically underserved with healthy food, and the program was designed to be a win-win for those bodegas, the surrounding local businesses and, of course, for customers.
The more than 30 vegan products are being sold at the lowest amount they can retail for, or below, Castro said.
Castro said for now the team at Eat Plantega was making sure everything went smoothly with the three month pilot before they launched into plans for the future. But of course, he said, the plan would always remain to get vegan products out there to as many folks as possible.