Food is a complicated affair. As vegans know, getting other humans to examine their food choices and (more importantly) change them can feel like trying to pick up the Earth and move it a few planets farther out.
Part of the urgency we feel with food arises from the reality that it has so many ramifications on our planet, beyond whether or not we are eating other animals. This means every choice counts…and that achieving justice involves much more than going vegan. Factors ranging from treatment of workers, to environmental impact, to access to food, and much more are all crucial considerations we have to make if we truly care about just food.
Far too few vegans and “animal rights” activists venture outside of the ethics of eating (and otherwise using) animal products, but lauren Ornelas, founder of Food Empowerment Project, is an outspoken advocate for true food justice and against exploitation in all its forms. I first corresponded with lauren after writing about the influence growing up poor had on me as a vegan, and I have been awed by her work and Food Empowerment Project’s growing presence since then…
I went vegetarian when I was about five years old when my mom told me that the chicken I was eating was, well, a chicken. It wasn’t until I was 16 that I was able to stick with that decision (for a variety of reasons), but I had already stopping buying leather products. However, when I was 17 I was connected with an animal rights group in my area and learned about factory farming—it was then that I went vegan. I think, overall, the biggest factor for me when I was five was not wanting to break up families or being responsible for their separation. This April will be my 27-year vegan anniversary.
What motivated you to start Food Empowerment Project, and how did you build it up into the organization it is today?
One of my motivations for starting Food Empowerment Project was my frustration with animal rights activists who did not like me talking about the suffering of human animals in various industries, including chocolate, when I was asked by interviewers if animal rights people only cared about the suffering of non-human animals.
My passions were also stirred when I went to speak at the World Social Forum in Caracas, Venezuela, and realized so many issues that I also cared about, such as workers, the environment, indigenous rights, immigration, etc., were all related to food.
I wanted to have an organization that strove for justice in all of these areas.
What have been some of your biggest victories so far? What issues are a priority for you moving forward?
To me the biggest victory has been the evolution of people understanding our work. Not that all vegans understand it, but many seem to be understanding (or at least being less hostile) to our desire to connect these issues. Food Empowerment Project has been around since 2007, but only recently does it seem as if our work is being sincerely recognized.
Getting people to understand the connections of oppression and our ability to work together (and not be separated by specific focus or being an expert) is a huge victory in my eyes. Although in a more tangible form, our work over several years to get Clif Bar to disclose the country of origin for their chocolate was a big victory.
Our priorities continue to be hindered by our slow rate of growth in funding (an area which shows that people are only just now starting to understand the importance of our work, but funding is not pouring in).
Fortunately, with a great group of volunteers we will continue to work promoting the issues of ethical veganism, fight for justice for farm workers, discourage people from buying chocolate from areas where the worst forms of child labor are taking place and get companies to be transparent on their sourcing, and continue our work with communities on the lack of access to healthy foods.
There is some criticism in the vegan movement of “single-issue campaigns.” Would you consider FEP’s actions—e.g., targeting Clif Bar for their chocolate sourcing—to be single-issue campaigns? How do you respond to that sort of criticism, if you encounter it?
Campaigns have to be single issue in a sense if you want concrete change versus general outreach. For example, you can have a long-term goal to get all animals out of marine parks, to abolish marine parks, but perhaps your smaller goal is to shut one of them down. I am a campaigner, and I like concrete goals in order to know if I am having an impact versus just hoping or assuming I am.
When it comes to Clif Bar, I don’t find it to be a single issue as we were targeting a company that makes primarily vegan products. Our goal was to get them to be transparent. We want all companies that make vegan products to be transparent, but we can’t just tell them all that and think we can get somewhere. In an ideal world, sure. But the reality is that corporations aren’t going to make changes for the good unless we demand it from them and we’re specific about what we are asking of them.
Along with your work with FEP, you do a lot of speaking about activism and intersectionality. What are some of your priorities as an activist?
Yes, I do talk about how issues are connected. My priorities as an activist change and they evolve. Currently, I would say they are in a constant struggle to block out the noise of those who are not doing strategic work and to make sure that F.E.P. works in a way that is consistent with our ethics. It is tough to juggle, but we do our best. And also as an individual I want to be sure to keep active with strategic campaigns and outreach efforts for both animal liberation and human justice.
More importantly, what do you feel the vegan movement needs to do in the context of other social justice movements? What have we done well, and what do we need to do better?
I think the vegan movement should not sell out other social justice issues that are also advocating for those who are being exploited, marginalized, abused, and killed. I don’t ask for vegans to give up their good, just, and necessary fight for non-human animals, but to work to be consistent by not supporting chocolate that comes from child labor and to be educated about using incorrect statements such as, “Anyone can be vegan if they really want to be.”
We need to do better about truly connecting the issues. Connecting issues does not mean you only talk about other social justice issues as a pretext for getting others to go vegan. It means truly understanding how these issues are connected and work with others to stop them. It’s important to remind yourself that you might be an expert when it comes to animal issues, but perhaps you’re not with other issues, so there is a time to lead and a time to follow.
I am particularly interested to get your perspective on how to make (ethical) veganism less of a phenomenon of the privileged—despite the historic associations between animal rights and white supremacy—and more about enabling everyone be able to make healthy, sustainable, just food and lifestyle choices. What can individual vegans do, and what has to be changed on a larger socio-economic scale?
I think vegans can and need to be honest. If they are creating recipes, let’s not pretend that anyone can make it because it is made from scratch and from whole foods. That is great for many, many people, but not everyone. Be honest and acknowledge that your meal ideas and recipes are very important and can help people go vegan, but let’s not kid ourselves into thinking it is easy for everyone. It won’t work for people who only have access to tomato sauce, and for whom fresh produce is a potato and onion on an irregular basis, or for people who live in shelters or motels. They might care, but they might not have an option right now.
We all need to work for living wages. Living wages for everyone will mean they will have more access to healthy foods—including fruits and vegetables.
Are you optimistic that the vegan movement can grow out of its largely consumerist phase and actually make a difference in the lives of humans and non-humans everywhere? Why or why not? Do you have any suggestions for making veganism a real force for social justice?
I do think we can as long as we keep the issue at heart as the focal point. Look, unfortunately, capitalism is to blame for much of the ills in the world. And by using consumer campaigns we have to work to force corporations to make changes. But if we are dishonest about our goals, I believe we lose credibility. It’s important to keep the focus on the animals, and the reason why many of us do the work we do is because we do not want non-human animals to suffer, be abused, exploited, and killed. This way we keep the heart of the matter front and center and do not allow the dollar to be the focus.
It is important to remember that with a diet based primarily of fruits and vegetables, what we eat (and encourage others to eat) also comes from an abusive and exploitative industry. Farm workers in the US face some of the worst abuses in the food industry. They are not paid living wages (many get paid based on how much they pick), do not get benefits, they work in extreme environments (some collapse from heat exhaustion and die in the fields), are exposed to hazardous chemicals, and many of the women are victims of sexual abuse. These are issues vegans need to address.
Eating a cruelty-free diet will require that the rights of the farm workers are also met.
Thanks so much for speaking with me!
Thank you for wanting to cover our work!