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I apologise as I’m used to a very U.S.-centric audience. So hopefully I’ve adjusted it for y’all being more progressive types here, so thank you for that. It feels like family already. I am going to ask everybody to keep an open mind to the things that I’m talking about because when I’m talking about all this stuff. I’m not asking activists of anything that you’re working on, to give up your passion. If you’re an animal rights activist and you’re working on anti-vivisection work, what I’m talking about here, I’m not saying: “Oh, you shouldn’t be working on that.” What I’m asking for, is for us to try to be a little more consistent and more aware of the choices that we make in our lives and the things that we say as activists, that we need to be aware of how they impact others and other social justice movements that are taking place.
So, as we all know, there is a common link between all oppressions: It is the vulnerable who get oppressed, whether it’s animals, women, workers or people of colour. It’s those who are seen without power, or without a voice, that are the ones that get oppressed. Most of us can figure out one of the biggest incentives for oppression: and that’s profit and that’s capitalism. That, too often, we think things that normally wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny somehow get passed because it’s for profit. Because the capitalist system has created a situation where it’s okay to oppress, kill and exploit other living beings, and somehow it’s okay because it’s for money.
Food Empowerment Project encourages everybody to extend their circle of compassion. As animal activists we often ask people who are not activists in the animal realm to extend their circle of compassion. What we like to ask animal activists to do, is extend your circle of compassion to human animals, and think about how human animals are treated. More specifically, for Food Empowerment Project, for the food that you eat. As vegans, we often talk a lot about “we have the most compassionate lifestyle”, “we eat in the most compassionate way possible”, and that’s not necessarily the case. I don’t have time to go into a lot of environmental justice issues here. So what I am going to talk about are some areas that we focus on in our work, more specifically and tangibly. One of is that: how we talk about how our diet is very compassionate, is cruelty free, and yet our diet is based on fruits and vegetables that are picked at the hands of farm workers.
Farm workers, who the vast majority – even the produce that comes to Canada, in fact – locally comes from the state of California, which is where I live. Farm workers who are dying in the fields because of heat. There are approximately 3 – sorry, I always get this number mixed up – 3 million farm workers in the US. Approximately 400,000 of those farm workers are children. We’re talking children as young as 5 years old, picking blueberries. They work long hours. They don’t have benefits that other workers would have – even in the US system, which we don’t have a lot of rights for our workers. They work 8-14 hours a day. They are exposed to agricultural chemicals – chemicals that not only impact the workers as they’re working, but pesticide drift that then impacts the kids when they’re at their bus stops; when they’re at school; it contaminates their water supply. We have labour camps in California, where about 12% of the population of farm workers live. These are located, at least the ones I’ve been to, is what I call an environmental injustice area, which is located between a correctional facility and a dump.
These people pick our foods. Especially if you’re a vegan, they pick our foods. And yet, they have none of the basic rights. They don’t have access to the fruits and vegetables that they’re picking themselves. And this is a serious problem, this is – you know, there is downright slavery taking place in the United States. Hopefully, a lot of you are familiar with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers – all they are trying to get is a penny more, per pound, for the tomatoes that they pick. A penny more – that’s all that they’re asking for. In California, we struggle to get rights for the workers who live in the labour camps. Where they live, there is no grocery store nearby, there’s no buses nearby. Their kids are forced to leave the labour camps when they’re not in picking season, and if they want to stay in school, they can’t, because in order to live in that labour camp, when they’re not in season, they have to live 60 miles away, from where that camp is.
So, what we try and do is ask people to be more aware when you talk about these things, and be more aware of where your food comes from too. If you’re vegan, we don’t get a pass. Sure, we get a pass when we’re talking about non-human animals, absolutely. And that’s fantastic. That’s what we should be encouraging everyone to strive for. But let’s look at the whole picture of all of our food supply. How many times have people seen publications in the vegan realm that say “cruelty-free chocolate”? Or, you know, somehow there’s this belief system that because it’s vegan, it equals cruelty-free.
There are 1.8 million children, in Ghana and the Ivory Coast, that are victims of the worst forms of child labour, all while picking cocoa for the chocolate industry. West Africa is entrenched in slavery all for chocolate. You have children who are locked in at night, who are beaten, or killed if they try to escape. They carry heavy cacao pods, and if they don’t move fast enough while carrying these, they’re beaten. These children get to these, these “plantations” from a variety of ways. Worse, they come from very poor countries such as Mali and Burkina Faso, which is nearby. And they get there from either, maybe – you know, very poor communities, right? So you have the fact that these people believe that their children are going to get paid, so the children go off to work in these cocoa fields thinking they’re going to get paid, and what happens is that some of them don’t come back. Worse, they’re not paid at all. Or you know, for the money to go back to the families, for the sacrifice that they’ve made. Other children are, maybe sold by a family member into it, thinking that, you know, they’re going to get some money. You have children who are stolen from market places in these areas. Human trafficking for chocolate. For an absolute and utter luxury that nobody needs to survive. Children – and actually even some older adults – are victims of this type of treatment.
What our organisation did on this, is that we’ve created a list of chocolates that we do and don’t recommend based on where they’re sourcing their cacao, based on where they’re sourcing their chocolate from. As a vegan organization, our list is pretty much made up of any company on our list, you can be guaranteed they have to make something that’s vegan. What’s sad is that a lot of companies that haven’t responded to us are vegan companies, who don’t want to tell us where their chocolate’s coming from. We have a campaign right now against CLIF Bar, because they won’t disclose where their chocolate’s coming from. If you’re a social justice activist, you know from Nike to Apple, one of the best ways we were to get these corporations to change the conditions for their workers – although neither one of them is perfect, absolutely not – was by transparency. And yet CLIF Bar is denying us that transparency to find out where they’re sourcing from. They think they are above us. We have a petition on our website, over a 1000 people have asked this question. They don’t feel they need to tell us. Somehow they think that slavery, that children for chocolate, is important enough that they don’t need to respond to us. Well, if you’re an activist like me: fuck that. [Applause] We have an app as well, and I don’t have a little smartphone, but it only works on two of the kinds of smartphones.
So, underlying all of this is that: oppression pretty much always goes with race and class. And as much as we’d like to say that in the United States – and I don’t know how it is in Canada – we like to say that racism doesn’t exist anymore, which is absolute ludicrous, and I can’t even tell you how many activists – animal rights activists – told me that. And continue to tell me that. And likely we’ll all hear Breeze later, because she’s not one of them. And I know that it’s not that different in Canada. And one of the other things that we work on, which pattrice talked about, and I apologize if this is U.S.-centred and so you know way more than I do about this for here.
But, this intersectionality concept and how Food Empowerment Project has worked on this in this particular area is … I am going to back up a little bit. Many of you may or not heard – this is very common in the U.S. – to say: “Veganism is really easy, anybody can do it. It’s not hard.” And, they also act as if it’s only a matter about being able to access the food, without understanding that it’s a matter of access, but it’s also a matter of where these communities and where these peoples, and what their lives are like. You can’t just say “I’m going to try this thing, of eating vegan on food stamps”, or something like that, without understanding people who maybe work 2-3 jobs, so maybe buying in bulk seems really great for those of us, seems really cost efficient. But if you’re working 2-3 jobs, do you have that much time to cook for dinner?
Food Empowerment Project works on access to healthy foods in communities of colour and low-income communities. And we do this, as pattrice was saying, as an intersectional way of fighting two problems, right? You have that access to healthy foods is a privilege in the United States, and I’ve looked enough at Canada to know that the First Nations People, the indigenous people – it is a privilege, as well. That these communities, indigenous communities, people of colour in the United States, don’t have the same access. It’s not a right. Healthy food is not a right for us, as it should be. So what we do is, we go to communities of colour and we assess … the availability of healthy foods, and we don’t go into communities who don’t want us.
We go to communities that want us to do this work. We go in and we assess for availability of fresh fruit, produce. Canned, frozen. As well as mock-meats, and dairy alternatives. As an ethically-based organization, we do this first and foremost for every talk, for every outreach that we do, is that we promote veganism. Because animals should not have to die, period. But we can’t deny the benefits of a vegan diet. I don’t try to, but we don’t. We talk about the fact that everybody knows an increase in fruits and vegetables is better for your health. So these communities should be able to have access to fresh fruits and vegetables, and also alternatives. That if they choose to eat more ethically, to eat their ethics, then they should have access to these meat and dairy alternatives.
You add on top of that that the majority of people of colour: we’re lactose intolerant. So why don’t our communities have dairy alternatives? Why, in fact, do we have more dairy in our communities than non-dairy alternatives? They’re trying to make us sick, frankly. We consider this a form of food apartheid, right? They’re deliberately putting foods in our communities that are going to make us sick. So we work on this: we’re just starting a new project in Rialto, California, which is not too far from San Francisco. And when we did our work in Santa Clara county – if you’re familiar with Santa Clara, it’s where Apple’s based, it’s known as the Silicon Valley, it’s where Google is based – we found that communities of colour had 50% more liquor stores and meat stores than white, higher income communities. They also had 14x more access to frozen vegetables than our communities did.
Having people grow their own food – which I know is quite frankly not available for everybody, as well as for our communities is not available. Growing your own food to me is the ideal, because then we’re off that system. We’re off a system that never worked for us to begin with. It’s not a broken system: it never worked for people like me.
The other thing from that – I’m learning that I got to be more positive about everything, not just sit here and go “Oh my god, everything is so horrible!” But you know, cooperatives as well, in our communities, if we can have cooperatives that are worker based, it gives back to our communities. There’s this big push about Wal-mart moving into our communities, and selling more fruits and vegetables, and “Isn’t that a good thing?” Well no, it’s not. Poverty follows Wal-mart, for one thing. For another thing, that money leaves our communities. We need the money to stay in our communities so we can take care of ourselves. We can do it fine in a system that’s made for equality for us.
So, part of the solution talks from having an empathy and an understanding. Speaking out against all forms of oppression. Racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. If you’re like me, when I got involved in animal rights, and the work that I did in Silicon Valley toxic spill, when I learned about us dumping our electronic waste on developing countries. There’s this burning sensation that I get, “Oh my god, we have to stop this injustice now!” And with your food, and with some of the things I’ve talked about, there is a way we can do that. And we have to join together and fight to strive for justice.
One of the things that I know, I say a lot, so I apologise if everybody gets sick of me saying this. I know pattrice and Mark are. But we need to shake the foundations of the establishments that have this type of perceived “power” over us. And one of the great leaders that we see, people think of in the United States, is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Who most people are aware of his work in terms of the Civil Rights movement, and the great strides – “yah!” [laughter] – the great strides he made in the Civil Rights Era. But what’s not talked about as much, and I quite frankly, I think this is done on purpose, is that what’s not talked about a lot is his connections to other issues. That he was a vocal opponent against the Vietnam War. He was a vocal supporter of workers rights. I mean, he spoke for the janitors, he was out on a campaign for Janitors for Justice.
But these intersections of what he talked – why would they want to promote that he talked about these other issues? It doesn’t serve their purpose. It serves their purpose – the powers that be – just to talk about him as the Civil Rights movement. But when you look at what he did, he brought all of these issues together. And why? Because there’s strength. When we combine our forces, when we recognize that all of this is absolutely together, we can not only shake these foundations that work to oppress, we can break them down.
Full video with closed captioning available here
lauren Ornelas is the founder/director of the all-volunteer Food Empowerment Project, a vegan food justice nonprofit seeking to create a more just world by helping consumers recognize the power of their food choices. F.E.P. works in solidarity with farm workers, advocates for slave-free chocolate and focuses on access to healthy foods in communities of color and low-income communities. When lauren was head of Viva!USA she investigated factory farms and ran consumer campaigns. In cooperation with activists across the country, lauren persuaded Trader Joe’s to stop selling all duck meat and was the spark that got the founder of Whole Foods Market to become a vegan. She also helped halt the construction of an industrial dairy operation in California. She served as campaign director with the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition for six years.