By Elizabeth Thompson 

Every year, our editor goes to the North Carolina State Fair to set out on a seemingly impossible task — to find healthy food. This year, I went in her place.

The first time I went to the state fair was my freshman year of college, in 2016. I had just moved to the Tar Heel State from Long Island, N.Y., and I didn’t really know what to expect. My cousin and her then-fiance insisted that I had to go to appreciate just how many things you can put in a deep fryer.

It may seem unheard of to look for something healthy in the land of deep-fried oreos and candy bars and bacon smothered in, well, God-knows-what. 

You may be thinking: “This is a once-a-year thing, and I want to go all out!” But for some people who have dietary restrictions, such as vegans, vegetarians and people who are gluten free or have diabetes, finding something to eat can be daunting. 

For others who are just trying to enjoy a trip to the fair without putting a range of fried foods in their bodies, it can be a real challenge. But it is possible.

UNC Health Talk recommended fairgoers split high-calorie food with their group, eat breakfast beforehand, stay well-hydrated and plan their food in advance.

The fair runs until Oct. 24, so you still have time to try out these options.

Veg at the fair

Mary Beth Shirzadi was inspired to provide a healthy fair option when she went to a fair with her niece, a stage four cancer survivor who couldn’t find anything to eat. That’s how Sassy’s Sweet Potatoes booth was born.

Shirzadi said she chose sweet potatoes because that’s what her niece could eat. She came down from Massachusetts to bring her sweet spuds.

A stall at the NC state fair reading Sassy's Sweet Potatoes. Baked Sweet Potatoes and Sooo Much More. This Spud's for you.
Sassy’s Sweet Potatoes stall at the NC State Fair. Photo Credit: Anne Ehlers

“We couldn’t believe that there has not been a sweet potato booth at the North Carolina State Fair,” Shirzadi said. “You’re the sweet potato capital of the world!”

Fairgoers can get everything from a simple roasted sweet or russet potato, to sweet potato tacos or loaded sweet potatoes at Sassy’s Sweet Potatoes.

Another vendor that puts vegetables front and center is Island Noodles NC, based in Forest City, N.C. Using all different kinds of vegetables from squash to bok choy and a more than 80-year-old family recipe for its Hawaiian secret sauce, Island Noodles offers both a vegan-friendly noodle bowl option and noodles with chicken.

A man cute a yellow vegetable over a wok containing bell pepper and all different kinds of vegetables.
Dewey Skidmore cuts vegetables over the wok at Island Noodles. Photo Credit: Anne Ehlers

“There’s like 20 different types of vegetables,” said employee Lucia Sargent, “You’ve got squash, zucchini, sweet potato, carrots, broccoli, napa cabbage, cabbage, bok choy,

red peppers, spinach, garlic…. There’s a lot of vegetables. It’s really healthy for you.”

Dewey Skidmore, the owner of Island Noodles NC, said it’s all about the sauce, which the national owner brought from his native Hawaii. Sometimes Skidmore says he sees skeptical couples come up and try one bowl, then come back to buy another.

“The secrets are in the sauce, just like barbecue in the South,” Skidmore said

Putting vegan food front and center

Tonga Ramseur was a chemistry teacher in Greensboro before she put her knowledge of science to the test in the kitchen. Now, as the owner of Ethio-Indi Alkaline Cuisine, she makes tasty vegan food influenced by her Indian and Ethiopian heritage.

A woman wearing a yellow hat and yellow shirt and a blue mask is seen from inside a food truck.
Tonga Ramseur, owner of Ethio-Indi. Photo Credit: Anne Ehlers

Her goal? That “people can say ‘OK, I’m eating vegan, but all of this is tasty. It’s not nasty,’” Ramseur said.

Ramseur has been vegan for over 35 years. She makes all of her own sauces and cooks with vegetables such as mushrooms, onions, red peppers, roma tomatoes and tops her plant-based burgers with vegan cheese.

Ramsuer’s menu also conforms to an alkaline diet, which promotes more plant-based foods.

“I’m trying to explain to people that you can eat healthy, but it can still be tasty,” Ramseur said. “It doesn’t have to be bland.”

Fruit smoothies for a sweet finish

Walking around the state fair, you will find a variety of smoothie stalls. One of them is Jungle Juice Smoothies.

A woman stands behind a smoothie stand with multiple blenders going. There are many bananas and pineapple in a container.
Fruits used in Jungle Juice’s smoothies. Photo Credit: Anne Ehlers

Its owner, Amy Brick, was inspired to sell her smoothies, made with real fruit, by her grandparents’ farm in Connecticut, where they used to grow peaches, pear, plums and nectarines.

“I just like fruit,” Brick said. “Real fruit.”

Brick’s smoothies are made out of a variety of fruit, from mangos and strawberries to coconut and banana. If customers want, they also add a splash of flavored syrup.

Jungle Juice also offers half-priced refills for customers, and you don’t have to get the same flavor you first ordered.

Healthy at the fair — pandemic style

Staying healthy at the state fair this year looked a little different than in past years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Masking up and vaccination were both optional for fairgoers and vendors, but both were encouraged.

“NCDHHS advises those who are not yet fully vaccinated for COVID-19 and those who are immunocompromised to carefully consider their exposure,” a press release from the state fair said. “This also includes a recommendation that everyone, regardless of vaccination status, should wear a face covering in indoor public spaces and in crowded outdoor settings in areas with high or substantial transmission.”

Fairgoers who are not vaccinated are encouraged to get their shot, and they can even do so at the fair. The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services is administering COVID-19 vaccines at the health booth.

Otherwise, fairgoers are advised to make the best choice for themselves and their families. Choose a day and time that might be less crowded to mitigate risk, and when all else fails, maintain your distance and wash your hands. If you don’t feel well or are experiencing any symptoms of COVID-19, stay home, and if you’re not vaccinated, get tested three to five days after your visit.

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Elizabeth Thompson

Elizabeth Thompson is our Report for America corps member who covers gender health and prison health topics. Thompson is a UNC Chapel Hill graduate...