January 20, 2021
In 2010, Vinny DePaul was at rock bottom. He’d spent the last decade developing a successful t-shirt brand and had proceeded to make millions of dollars through sales. “I went on tour with rappers, rock stars, celebrities. I was in the club every night partying, popping bottles,” says Vinny. “Sex, money, drugs, violence. And that came to a halt in 2010 when I lost everything: my businesses, all my money, all my cars, all my ventures. I became broke financially, spiritually, mentally, physically.”
At some point, a stranger handed him his first fresh-pressed, organic juice—it was orange-carrot—and everything changed. Vinny describes what he went through next as a “profound awakening,” in which he decided to detoxify both his mind and body. His journey led him to both veganism and a newfound relationship with god. “I went from partying with drug dealers and rappers to going on hikes and eating kale salads and going to Café Gratitude,” Vinny recalls. “But I didn’t want to be too kumbaya, so I was like what if we collide the two worlds and we make Gangster Vegan?”
So Vinny went back to what he knew, designing and printing thousands of “Gangster Vegan” t-shirts that sold immediately. But this time around it would be different—for every t-shirt sale, Vinny decided to make a hot, organic meal for a child living in the inner city. In addition to feeding students in about 70 different schools, community centers, after-school programs, and sports programs in the United States, Vinny also taught the kids how to make the meals. Afterwards, they all ate together.
In 2014, Vinny opened the first Gangster Vegan brick-and-mortar location in his hometown, Norristown, Pennsylvania. He describes Norristown as a “food desert,” desperately in need of healthy, fresh food. “We can get alcohol and liquor and drugs and three-piece fried chicken before we can get organic food,” explains Vinny. “Organic doesn’t exist in my neighborhood. We’re planting the seeds so someone can be inspired to do the same thing and transform their neighborhood.” Since then, Vinny has also opened two locations in Maryland, and placed a Gangster Vegan food trailer in North Carolina.
When the pandemic hit last March, Vinny was in California for the Natural Products Expo West food show, which was canceled. Sensing an opportunity, he reached out to other would-be attendees and asked them to donate their samples and products to help him serve hot vegan meals at Skid Row in downtown LA. From there, Gangster Vegan’s Feed the Block initiative was born, with a mission to provide “free, flavorful, plant-based meals and bags of fresh produce to communities in need.”
Follow Your Heart, Foodies, Hippeas, and Vegan Rob’s are among the many plant-based vendors that have collectively donated thousands of products to fuel the initiative. The Restaurant Store has donated to-go containers, and many others have given money to the cause. So far, Feed the Block has served more than 100,000 free meals and given over 2,000 bags of fresh produce. “A lot of people have been coming together,” says Vinny. “It’s kind of like a food ministry. We’re taking to the streets and bringing love and joy and giving.”