Since you’re reading this blog, I’m assuming you’re aware of animal issues and why veganism can help to prevent animal suffering and cruelty.
When I learned about the amazing Food Empowerment Project, a non-profit organization in the Bay Area, California, I realized that my food choices have more power and can have far-reaching impacts on many many levels, not just the animals or the environment, but the people who are producing our food every single day. The Food Empowerment Project is striving to bridge animal and non-animal issues to fight for justice!
Please read my interview with the incredible lauren Ornelas, the founder and Director of F.E.P., who I’m lucky enough to work with while volunteering to support her great work.
She’s one of my personal heroes and an amazing woman! If you ever have the chance to see her talking, don’t miss it. Her extensive view and knowledge of the many food-related issues happening worldwide are just stunning.
Me: When did you found F.E.P. and what made you found an organization like that?
lauren: I have been actively fighting for animals for more than 25 years, and I came up with the concept of Food Empowerment Project in 2006 after speaking at the World Social Forum (WSF) in Caracas, Venezuela. I spoke about the connection of industrialized animal factories and their impact on animals, workers, the environment, and the worldwide impacts these corporations are having on the Global South. Prior to speaking in Caracas, my activism had focused on human and non-human rights as separate issues. After the WSF, I realized that if I focused on food, I could combine my passions, because to me these issues are very much connected. To connect them helps to strike a blow at exploitation and oppression of living beings. I wanted to create an organization where people could use their food choices to help create positive change for human and non-human animals alike.
Me: Many people link F.E.P. with their famous Chocolate list, could you please briefly explain why chocolate production is such a big deal and why it seems that slavery is so common especially with the production of this product?
lauren: I am glad that people are aware of our chocolate list.
Given the title of your blog, I do not need to explain the importance of why our chocolate list only includes companies that make vegan chocolates. 🙂
In West Africa, more than 1.8 million children are victims of the worst forms of child labor, including slavery, for the chocolate industry.
They have children using machetes and carrying heavy cacao pods, and worse. Many are locked in at night and are beaten and killed if they try to escape.
Me: But F.E.P. is more than doing research on chocolate. Would you please explain briefly what other projects F.E.P. is currently working on?
lauren: Soon, we will be launching our Food Chain newsletter, which has been created to encourage people to go and stay vegan.
We also work to assess the availability of healthy foods in communities of color and low-income communities and work with community groups. http://www.foodispower.org/access-to-healthy-food/ In mid-November we will begin training people to help us continue our work in Vallejo, CA. We also currently have an effort to get Clif Bar to disclose the country of origin for their chocolate. We have a petition we are asking people to sign. http://www.thepetitionsite.com/takeaction/229/288/148/ And we are always looking for ways to help with the rights of farm workers – including supporting legislation, regulations and corporate campaigns. Earlier this year we organized a school supply drive for the children of farm workers, and we plan on doing one again next year.
Me: F.E.P. is also advocating a vegan diet. Many people think that vegans choose to be vegans just because of the animals. But why does a vegan diet also prevent injustices against people? How is this correlated with the effects on the environment?
lauren: Food Empowerment Project encourages veganism for ethical reasons and indeed the suffering of animals and the fact that their lives are taken from them.
However, there is certainly evidence that factory farms contribute to forms of environmental racism. Communities of color are negatively impacted because of these farms, from North Carolina, where the stench from pig farms keeps people indoors, causes headaches, noise bleeds, and decreases their property value, to the Central Valley in California, where dairies contribute to some of the highest rates of asthma in the state.
Me: One of your main goals is to help consumers to make informed food choices to prevent cruelty and injustice on many levels. A visit to a supermarket can be quite a challenge though, what do you recommend is the best way to make better choices on a shopping tour? Are there any labels you would recommend to look for, such as ‘Fair Trade’, or is it crucial to look for the country of origin?
lauren: Veganism aside, we recommend looking for organic and for the union label. However, we know that the union label is sometimes hard to find. And although organic does not mean the farm workers are treated better, it at least means it is kinder to the environment and is one less bad thing happening to the workers. Seeing more veganic products is making that a more exciting possibility! For chocolate, yes, we think it is imperative that people know the country of origin. And although fair trade has its issues, other than for chocolate, we do think people should consider supporting it – but it is important to know which entity is behind it as there are number of them floating around. Also, avoiding products that contain palm oil is something everyone should strive to do.
Me: Why do you think healthy food is not a right for all in this country? What do you think needs to change and how can people take action? For example, are there any community projects that help low-income families to get access to healthier food?
lauren: The reason for the lack of access to healthy foods in communities of color and low-income communities is a very complicated issue. For the most part, it comes down to racism and discrimination and systems that are in place that benefit corporations over individuals. Low wages and immigration status and ableism are factors, too. So privilege over what should be a right prevails here and unfortunately in many countries. It helps to speak out when people aren’t seeing the full picture of why certain communities have higher rates of dietary disease – that things like the lack of access could be a contributing factor.
If people are interested in taking action in the Bay Area, we encourage them to join in our work. For others areas, people should donate to or offer to volunteer for community groups working on the issue.
Me: How can I be sure that the food I’m buying is not coming from a farm that mistreats their workers?
lauren: Honestly, I am not sure there is a way, other than growing your own food, sorry to say. Though there is a domestic program starting up that holds some promise of a certification with high standards.
Me: How can people support F.E.P.?
lauren: Thanks for asking this!We are currently working to be able to hire people to do the work we are doing. Being all volunteer sometimes means that our projects are slower to get out and definitely limits our ability to do more. So donations would certainly help.
But we also appreciate people liking us on Facebook and following us on Twitter. It goes a long way to promoting our work. And of course, signing and spread the word about our Clif Bar petition. People can sign up to our monthly email list so they can stay informed on what we are working on and ways they can get involved. http://www.foodispower.org/sign-up-for-f-e-p-alerts/ We gladly accept easy-to-make recipes for our website (where we give the contributor credit) as well as recipes for our site www.veganmexicanfood.com.
Me: THANK YOU SO MUCH, LAUREN!! You are amazing!! 🙂
lauren: Thank you, Simone, for allowing our voice to get out there and for volunteering your time with us! We are very lucky to have you!!
Please also consider watching lauren’s talk at the International Animal Rights Conference 2013 in Luxembourg: