NYC - Interview with lauren Ornelas of Food Empowerment Project
Soon after the Mercy for Animals interview with Eddie Garza he was nice enough to introduce me to lauren Ornelas, the executive director of Food Empowerment Project. She was gracious enough to agree to do an interview with XVO, and we couldn’t be more excited. Food Empowerment Project (FEP) addresses many issues including food accessibility in low-income communities and communities of color, as well as the intersection between environmental racism, veganism and the living conditions of workers laboring for big agriculture.
The resources provided by FEP are invaluable to the vegan community and the community at large. They illustrate that food accessibility and the lack of resources, when it comes to healthy food as well as the working conditions of immigrant workers, is most certainly a vegan issue. One can directly impact these issues by intelligently supporting a lifestyle that stands against violence affecting human and non-human animals alike in the availability, consumption and production of food and products.
With race and class impacting all movements, issues and resources; I challenge every person involved in the vegan community to analyze the current state of the movement through an anti-racist lens. You should be doing this anyway, however it is more common than not, that anti-racist analysis of the movement is much rarer that it should be.
I highly recommend looking at the food availability study before reading the interview. http://www.foodispower.org/scc_study.htm
How was Food Empowerment Project started?
The concept of Food Empowerment Project (F.E.P.) came to me when I was speaking at the World Social Forum in Caracas, Venezuela. There were speakers from Bolivia talking about the fight against Bechtel and water privatization; there were talks about immigration (why are goods able to cross borders so freely but people can’t?); there were talks about workers; and, of course, there were talks about the environment. I gave a talk on corporate animal factories and how they impacted the animals, workers and the environment. I was impressed with the global interest from people in Cuba, Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil and even some from the US; however, I did not know of any international groups working on all of the issues I addressed. This was one of the first things that prompted me to start thinking of a more global approach to food issues.
The other piece of the puzzle was realizing that all of the issues I feel passionately about are related to food. And luckily for everyone, this is an area where we all have the ability to make choices.
Could you talk a little about the Food Availability Study?
This is a project about the lack of access to healthy foods in communities of color and low-income communities that I am very excited about and proud of, and yet many people in the vegan community don’t seem to quite understand its value. And this lack of understanding reflects one of the challenges facing an organization like ours: by connecting these issues, we don’t gain the financial support of groups that are working solely on veganism or groups working on other forms of food justice.
The reason why I chose to do the food access survey was because I wanted to see how prevalent the problem of accessing healthy food really is. I have read reports and studies from Chicago, Detroit, parts of New York and North Carolina, but after moving to Santa Clara County, I wondered how it fared compared to other big cities. The Silicon Valley is now known for its high-tech industry and loads of wealth, but its history is one of orchards, canneries and the work of Cesar Chavez.
Being unable to hire anyone full-time, we were very lucky to have the assistance of volunteers for the creation of our survey and the actual footwork to complete it. We had over a dozen volunteers from all over the Bay Area go into grocery stores, liquor stores, convenience and specialty stores to access the availability of the following:
Fruits (fresh, frozen, canned + organic)
Vegetables (fresh, frozen, canned + organic)
We also took note if locations that took EBT cards (for foods stamps), if they carried cigarettes, what types of alcoholic beverages were available, and determined if they provided information on lactose intolerance and vegetarianism or veganism, along with addressing a host of other questions.
You can read our full report online:
With racism playing a part in the accessibility of food as well as the treatment of the workers in the production of food, could you talk about your view of the role of veganism in that fight?
As a vegan organization we promote a diet that consists mainly of fruits, vegetables and grains of some sort. By doing so we feel quite strongly that we need to lend our voices to the farm workers — whether that be through legislation or purchasing power — since these are the workers who make it possible for us to put fruits and vegetables on our tables. Our website goes more in depth regarding the terrible working conditions and poor treatment of workers involved in the production of our food.
The study shows that poor food options contribute to the high levels of type 2 diabetes and obesity in communities of color. The health impact on communities of color, due to racism’s impact on food access, seems to be one way that society is controlling the minority population by keeping people of color sick and without resources to heal themselves. Could you speak on the role of veganism and the health impact on communities of color based on food access a bit?
Clearly one of the causes of high rates of type 2 diabetes and obesity in communities of color and low-income communities is the lack of access to healthy foods. Our survey addressed not only fruits and vegetables but also “meat” and dairy alternatives. We realized that not only do these communities have access to the stuff that isn’t good for them, but they also have more options of foods to make them sick. Take milk, for example: most of the convenience stores sold milk, but rarely did any sell soymilk. When you take into consideration that in the US (and probably the rest of the world) 95% of Asians, 60 to 80% of African Americans and 50 to 80% of Latinos are lactose intolerant, this smacks of an incredibly unjust food system.
It seems that a prevalent stereotype and criticism of veganism is that it is something that privileged white folks take part in. If healthy, cruelty-free food is something only the privileged have access to, that definitely reinforces the need for food accessibility to be a vegan issue. It seems ironic that in many other countries, like China (as pointed out in the Exporting Factory Farms section on the FEP website) a sign of privilege and wealth is consuming meat. Could you speak a bit on privilege, the vegan stereotype and the role veganism could play in communities of color to fight against racism?
Unfortunately, I do think it is a fairly true stereotype. Sure, people can point to me and other people of color and say we are vegan, but the VAST majority of people in the US who are vegan are white. And although I grew up without a lot of money (with my single mom raising me and my two sisters), I was still privileged enough to work on animal rights issues and not have to work on fighting against toxic chemicals in my community, or dodging bullets in my neighborhood, or having friends or family members victims of such violence.
Many of us, as vegans, have chosen this lifestyle as we empathize with the suffering of animals and want to fight this injustice, though I am often saddened that there are many vegans who do not have that same empathy for humans.
I can’t tell you how offended I am when people comment that it’s easy to eat vegan and it isn’t expensive. Well, for some that might be the case, but for others they might have access issues, not only because of what is not available in their neighborhoods, but they might not have a car, they might not have the stamina to eat the same thing every day if all they have access to is rice and beans, or they might be working two or three jobs with little time to prepare healthy meals
Honestly, besides there being many other factors, I think how veganism can affect change in communities of color depends on each individual vegan.
**If you only take away one thing from this article, it should be what lauren has spoken about above. Privilege is something that many vegans tend to forget. As pointed out in the Food Availability study by Adam Drewnoski, Director of the Center for Public Health at the University of Washington in Seattle, many people in low-income communities are not just cash poor but time poor. Think about this alongside what lauren pointed out above. When one compounds food access issues, with being time poor (due to working several jobs or other various reasons), transportation challenges and the many other challenges found in low income communities related to violence, it requires the largely white middle class vegan population to put down its privilege and think about how the movement includes communities of color and low income communities.
If the education put forth by a movement can only be put into action by those with the privilege to do so, that movement is not anti-racist or anti-classist. It therefore requires those that identify as anti-racist vegans to put food access and environmental racism on the same level as freeing enslaved and tortured animals. This must happen alongside exposing factory farming and big agriculture, in general, for what it is; a racist murderous industry based on the exploitation of human and non-human animals alike to which society uses access to these tainted resources to control and many times destroy communities. While reinforcing anti-racist analysis in the vegan community requires much more space and time than this blog has room for, you can look forward to a future feature focusing on anti-racism and veganism.**
In the Food Availability study that FEP put out, lactose intolerance is addressed as it relates to having a genetic component as follows:
From the US Department of Health via the FEP Food Availability Study:
“The pattern of primary lactose intolerance appears to have a genetic component, and specific populations show high levels of intolerance, including approximately: 95 percent of Asians, 60 percent to 80 percent of African Americans and Ashkenazi Jews, 80 percent to 100 percent of American Indians, and 50 percent to 80 percent of Hispanics. Lactose intolerance is least common among people of northern European origin, who have a lactose intolerance prevalence of only about 2 percent.”
This is a startling statistic. I wonder if the prevalence of dairy products in the US is a symptom of the overriding and dangerous mindset of “If it’s good for white folks, it must be good for the rest of the population.” Could you speak on this a bit?
Sure, and I apologize that I covered it a bit earlier. I would probably add that it is mostly white men that we seem to base many things on in this country. Additionally, however, it is important to note that the dairy industry is extremely powerful, with an incredible amount of money to spend to continually persuade people that dairy is good for you, even if you are lactose intolerant!
FEP has great resources on Environmental Racism especially as it relates to big agriculture and its impact on communities of color and low-income communities. Could you talk a bit about what Environmental Racism is for those readers who may not be familiar with the term and how FEP raises awareness about it?
Environmental racism is a term that every social activist should know about. It refers to how communities of color are disproportionately impacted by certain pollutants, whether it be diesel exhaust, oil refineries or factory farms. For example, in North Carolina a majority of the pig farms are located primarily in communities of color. Here the people suffer from respiratory problems and headaches, not to mention the decrease in the value of their properties. I have investigated a number of factory farms, and of all of those that I investigated, pig farms by far had the most pervasive smell. And of course, this only adds to the suffering of the pigs who also suffer respiratory illnesses.
FEP did a project relating to chocolate and slave labor. Could you talk about what you found, with regard to slave labor and chocolate production?
I first became familiar with the chocolate slavery issues in 2002 when the BBC did a piece on it. I was horrified to learn that slavery was still taking place, where the workers were locked in at night and were beaten or killed if they tried to escape.
We at Food Empowerment Project decided to make this a main issue we focus on. Because we, like many vegans, chose this diet so as to not be a part of the injustice and suffering of animals, why would we feel any differently about human animals? Oppression is oppression in whatever form it takes.
Therefore, we decided to create a list of companies that make vegan products with chocolate that are not connected with slavery.
As child slavery was found at one fair trade co-operative in Ghana, we have chosen, at this time, to not recommend any chocolate that comes from the Ivory Coast or Ghana. To the cooperative’s credit, as soon as the children were found they were removed and placed in school.
Unfortunately, many vegan companies did not respond to our request for information. We encourage people to contact these and let them know it matters to them!
Here is a link to F.E.P.’s chocolate list:
Thank you for doing this interview! In closing are there any resources, issues, people etc. in addition to what we talked about, that you would like the readers to know about?
Everyone can make a difference with their food choices and make sure these choices reflect their values. As most vegans make the choice to be vegan due to ethical reasons, we believe that more than not, many can understand our message and take part in helping to end the other injustices in our food system.
We encourage people to check out our website www.foodispower.org and check out our recipes (as well as donate some) at www.veganmexicanfood.com. We are also on Facebook and Twitter.
The FEP website has become one of my favorite vegan resources. Thank you lauren for taking the time to do this interview and for all of your incredible work. Follow FEP on twitter, follow the blog and check the website often!