This week I had the opportunity to chat with Lauren Ornelas, founder of the Food Empowerment Project, located in Cotati, CA. A long time vegan, animal right activist, and supporter of environmental justice initiatives, Lauren started FEP with the goal of taking change beyond individual food choices, working for the global empowerment and protection of all beings. She and her staff of volunteers have worked to influence corporations away from using child slavery produced West African chocolate, set up school supply drives for children of farm workers in California, and support the efforts of numerous other organizations to fight against injustice. I also was excited to discover early on in our conversation that Lauren is a fellow native Texan, having grown up San Antonio. Here is part of our conversation:
Me: Can you talk about how you became interested in veganism and advocacy?
Lauren: I went vegetarian when I was young. At a certain point, I was like, I’m just not going to eat animals anymore. I got in touch with an animal rights group when I was in high school and that’s when I learned about veganism. I learned what happens in the pig, egg and cow industries, and I just decided I didn’t want to participate in that anymore. During that time I was also involved in the anti-apartheid movement, and I did animal rights for a long time.
Me: Where did you get the idea for the Food Empowerment Program?
Lauren: When I spoke at the World Social Forum in Caracus, Venezuela, I realized I wanted to run a group where all the issues were combined….where I could talk about human issues and animal issues together.
Me: What was the process involved for starting FEP?
Lauren: I had already established myself in the animal movement from 1987 until I started the group in 2006. The Food Empowerment Project got started with the chocolate issue, saying what we heard from everyone else, which was basically eat fair-trade or organic chocolate, and you’re not supporting what’s happening in Western Africa. But we had to do our own research on everything we worked on, and we found out we couldn’t recommend [those guidelines] anymore. There were already problems in those industries and we ended up having to create our own list and standard to try to make sure you’re not supporting what’s happening there.
In the beginning, all we did was support other groups. By learning from these groups, we were able to start some of our own efforts, like the school supply drive that we did for the children of farm workers. It took time; I knew what to do as far as veganism and farm animals, but the other issues had to develop as I learned so I could do things better and try to be more effective.
Me: For veganism and protecting farm animals, how are your efforts focused? Grassroots efforts? Lobbying?
Lauren: For veganism, it’s three-pronged in a sense – all of the information we have, all of the talks I give, everything we do, talks about animals, sentient beings, and individuals who feel pain. In terms of on-hands work, we are out every month in front of a slaughterhouse that kills chickens, doing general outreach. We also have newsletter called Food Chain, which we mail out to people who are interested in going vegan or who have just gone vegan. Every issues contains information about animals being raised and killed for food, labor issues, environmental issues, recipes, support Q & A, and additional information.
Me: OK, let’s continue on with you telling us some of the other things FEP is doing.
Lauren: For the chocolate issues, again, general outreach, but we also have a list of chocolates we do and don’t recommend based on where [the companies] source their chocolate. People can use this as a tool to help them shop. We contact companies and update the list once a month. We also had a campaign to get Clif Bar to disclose the country of origin for their chocolates…it took us about three years. We want people to use their ethics when they buy chocolate, but we also want to make sure that we’re nudging the corporation. We’ve had corporations change suppliers and make sure they’re not sourcing from West Africa.
FEP is small, so we have to pick and choose what corporate campaign targets we do at one time. We will eventually pick another company that is not being transparent about where they are sourcing their chocolate, and then go after that one.
For our farmworkers, we support corporate campaigns, legislation, regulatory changes. We are also part of a coalition to change what is called the 50 Mile Rule in California, which forces farm workers who were living in labor camps to move out of the labor camp when the picking season is over and move fifty miles away which prevents their children from finishing their year of school. We’ve done the school supply drives, and a food drive for farm workers. After delivering over three hundred backpacks and thousands of school supplies this year, we’ve heard back that these supplies were really needed. So from here on out, we’ll probably just being doing the school supply drives.
In communities of color and low income communities, we go out to survey access to healthy foods, fruits and vegetables, frozen, canned, and fresh, as well as meat and dairy alternatives. We make an assessment on the area’s availability and compare high income and low income communities to see if there’s a difference. In San Jose, we did focus groups to find out what the community wanted, to determine what the community’s needs were.
We’re continuing our work in Vallejo, where we have found a corporation that has been detrimental to the health of the community. We are currently in communication with the corporation, and will decide soon if we need to start some type of corporate campaign against them.
Me: On FEP’s website, you talk about negligent companies pushing low quality foods into low income areas. Can you talk about this? How are these companies “pushing?”
Lauren: Well, a couple of ways. First, fast food and liquor stores are more prevalent in lower income communities. Fast food is known for their commercials trying to entice children. But they’ve also been reaching out more to communities of color and doing specific commercials geared toward these communities, like on Univision. That’s what we’re talking about, where they are deliberately pushing themselves into these communities.
In East LA, they’ve tried to put a moratorium on fast food, [the companies] fight those. In San Jose, they put a moratorium on some of the liquor stores. The companies try to fight these efforts…sometimes they’re successful and sometimes they’re not.
Me: FEP supports higher living wages for farm workers. What do you do to help create this change?
Lauren: We support living wage campaigns to bring wages up to $15/hr. In terms of social media, we will always try to support every living wage campaign. We support the Coalition of Immokalee workers who are trying to get Wendy’s and Publix to pay a penny more per pound for the tomatoes that they pick. Recently we also helped the Sakuma farm workers in Washington who were trying to get Driscoll Berries to pay them and give them their wages, to give them breaks. We were out in front of Costco trying to get their customers to encourage Costco to take a stand for the farmworkers. We help take the lead of any group that is being organized by farmworkers rather than start our own group.
Me: What about FEP makes you really proud?
Lauren: Because of our work, people are so much more aware now looking at their food choices. We hear from small businesses saying that people asked them about chocolate they sell. Or companies contacting us saying ‘Hi, one of our customers asked us to reach out to you. How do we get on your chocolate list?’
During the school supply drive of 2013 we collected about 41 backpacks. This year we collected 367.
The word of our work is growing, the importance of these issues is growing, and it is a pretty direct correlation between our work and how we’ve grown and how we’re able to spread the word. In terms of a tangible victory, getting Clif Bar to disclose country of origin was huge, because it took us three years to get there. I used the tools I know as a campaigns person on how to get them to do it. That was really rewarding.
To have accomplished all we have with volunteers is impressive and shows how many people really care about these issues and want to plug in with an organization where they can work on it.
Me: What are your big picture ideas for branching out in the future?
Lauren: I think that we want to reach out to the Latino population more specifically, the Chicano population on healthier eating, and veganism. As well, to take a look at other farming industries, non-animal agriculture, and try and create substantial changes there.
Me: You talk about sentient beings. Is there a spiritual foundation for your work?
Lauren: Everything for me is about justice, about innocent beings who don’t have to die. I’m not religious, but St.Francis and St. Clare of Assissi are probably two people that I have an immense amount of respect for. St.Francis is the animal saint, and St. Clare was focused most on helping the poor. They are two individuals that explain best if you are for compassion and justice you look out for others, both human and non-human.
Me: Is there anything else you want people to know about the Food Empowerment Project?
Lauren: We strongly believe that people’s choices can make a difference. Their individual actions can be made to represent their ethics and individual beliefs. To use their food choices as a tool for change, but not forget that we need their collective voices to join in with other campaigns. So that change isn’t just individual change, but change on a global scale. To make sure that everyone in the food industry is treated with dignity and respect, and are paid what they deserve.
Me: What do you tell the person who feels like they are only one person, and don’t know where to start on this path?
Lauren: I try to encourage people to look at these things as an opportunity to help create positive change in the world. We eat several times a day, so we have that ability to create positive change and make a difference several times a day. Going vegan is obviously a big thing, but also making sure if they are buying chocolate or whatever foods that they are buying isn’t coming from slavery. Its 2015 and we’re still worrying about slavery and child labor? It’s obscene! There are some things that people just really need to act immediately on. If people saw it, and knew what was going on, I just have a hard time believing that they would be OK with it.
The FEP is trying to reach those people who really are serious about looking at their food choices as a tool to create change and want to do more beyond what they are putting in their grocery bag, making sure they are carrying out a sense of justice in a more wide way.
Listen to Lauren speak at TEDx or check out the Food Empowerment Project Website for more information and opportunities to get involved!