Lauren Ornelas and the Food Empowerment Project

lauren ornelasThis 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!

Maybe We Are All A Little Insane. After All, We’re Human.

There is a popular saying that drives me a little bonkers:

“Insanity-doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Albert Einstein is attributed with this quote, and while it is an incredibly overused cliche, there seems to be little evidence that he actually ever said it.

I get annoyed by this saying because it assumes that we are intentionally choosing to repeat our behaviors rather than pursuing new options. Sometimes, yes, we push in the same direction, knowing full well what end we will arrive at. However, human beings are complicated creatures, influenced by a myriad of factors, so this reductionary label is useless. We cannot assume that a person who makes choice A under X circumstances is completely free and capable of making choice B under those same circumstances.

The fact is, we all have certain behaviors we do repetitively, hoping that the results might be different. But despite our frustration or disliking of the outcome, we try the same route once more.

How much change are we really capable of? Sure, there are small changes in life we can make that stick – deciding to drink only one brand of coffee over another, driving new routes to school and work, finally learning how to separate our colors from whites when we do the laundry. But in the grand scheme of things, even if we wanted to change major issues in our lives, do we all have unlimited capability to do so?

A friend of mine suggests that we are all dealt a metaphorical deck of cards when we are born. We have some agency in what order we play each card, but in the end, we can’t play cards that we don’t have, and the order our cards are played dramatically affects our outcomes.

On one hand, scientists have found that our brains can be incredibly moldable, a flexibility referred to as neural plasticity. This happens when nerve cells and pathways in the brain change because of behaviors, emotions, beliefs, thoughts, and environment.

On the other hand, brains tend to use the neuronal pathways that are already engraved and have existed for a long time. It’s alot easier to travel down a road with defined ruts rather than forge a new one. Hence, the idea of people “getting stuck in their ways.” When you behave and react the same ways with perpetuated beliefs over the long haul, turning around and going another direction can require a big shakeup in your mind, literally or metaphorically.

In many people, real lasting positive change occurs following a major life event – a catastrophe, illness, a huge failure – something big and out of the ordinary. It’s as though these types of events can “wake” people up into more self-awareness. On the flip side, these events could also lead to trauma, which effectively have the potential to shut people down emotionally, stunting growth and change rather than encouraging it.

Research has shown that people can literally change their brain structure by changing the way they think…or don’t think. By intentionally replacing negative thoughts with positive ones, or through practices like mindfulness and meditation, many people feel less compelled to respond in reactionary ways to whatever they encounter, both externally or internally. But these methods are hard work, and require a person practicing them to have some level of insight to begin with, some measure of self awareness.

If a person responds in the only way they know how, because of the way they were raised, their environment, and their cognitive and emotional intelligence, are they really insane if they don’t KNOW to try something different?

I think perhaps our cliche needs to be reworded, and we should all attempt to muster up a little more compassion for each other. My preference: Ignorance or lack of wakefulness or…simply being human…causes people to do something again and again, expecting different results.

Learning to Sit With Suffering

loneliness is such a sad affair
The Suffering That Comes With Mental Illness
I was listening the other day to Rob Bell’s latest podcast episode. If you haven’t subscribed to it, I recommend you check out the Robcast . He’s got a lot of good stuff to say, and behind his words you can hear many of the great mystics and thinkers.
This particular podcast episode was about making room for the immensities, specifically the immensity of suffering. His goal was to talk about how to really feel suffering, how you make room for it, and then how you transcend it. The podcast referred to suffering in general, but Rob’s words really helped me articulate a lot of what I’ve been thinking about suffering in the presence of mental illness.
By God’s grace, the fight against mental illness related stigma is gaining strength. There is still much, much work to be done, however. And I’ve realized that there some American principles at play in the way we address mental illness in our country that people need to evaluate.
There are obviously a lot of really great things about the American ethic. I think overall, we value hard work, integrity, and taking responsibility. Nevertheless, these values, in the absence of a true wisdom narrative in our culture, can also be very myopic when it comes to dealing with and treating people who have brain disease.
Our culture is one of quick fixes, instant gratification, black and white thinking. Especially in recent decades, our understanding of suffering is quite different than in years past. But most importantly, we as a country have not been taught how to properly deal with suffering. Rather, we are shown techniques how to distract ourselves, work harder, rely on our willpower, and refuse any meaningful avenues for help in favor of maintaining our individualism.
In our dualistic thinking, we believe suffering is just bad, to be avoided at all costs. Being uncomfortable, feeling at a loss, being weak….these are not believed to promote any good. And so, these beliefs are passed on into the addressing and treatment of mental illness.
How does this play out in real life? I’m going to offer some generalizations that I’ve observed and also experienced. Of course, these aren’t true in every single circumstance, but I believe they are still very common.
1. A person is suspected by another to have a mental disorder. Family members/friends then urge, cajole, I daresay PESTER the person to go to the doctor and get on meds or just go get some therapy.
2. When a person has begun taking medication, yet life doesn’t get better quickly, loved ones and those around the person tend to get irritated and impatient. There is a real stigma that occurs here, that patients and loved ones are not warned about, that I will talk more about in another post.
3. People tend to lose interest in helping a patient through the long haul of mental illness, or they resign a person to be on medication for the rest of their life.
4. Brain disease is complicated. Some people try to reduce mental illness to problems of the abstract mind, while others try to reduce it to mere neurology. Like in other areas of life, I’m becoming convinced that our brain/mind is a paradox, and “both, and” scenario. This kind of thing drives us nuts, when two seemingly opposed things can be true at once. Most of us don’t have the patience or discipline to sit within this tension and be OK with the confusing nature of the stuff north of our necks.
Based on these thoughts, how then do we approach mental illness? I could give a lot of superficial answers, but I really think what it comes down to is that we need to learn, as Rob Bell says, to make room for suffering. We need to learn to sit with our suffering without involuntarily reacting to it by rushing off trying to fix everything NOW. Certainly there are acute psychological and neurological conditions that need to be dealt with, but so much of mental illness can be approached more calmly.
A reality in life is that people don’t grow spiritually or emotionally without suffering. We don’t like it, but it’s true. We can fly around like maniacs trying to avoid our suffering, but it’s pretty clear what happens when a nation does that. America is obese for this very reason of trying to avoid pain. This is a contributing factor to so many addictions, from electronic devices to alcoholism to over spending, etc. In the same way, trying to avoid the unpleasant symptoms by just running straight to pharmaceuticals hoping that they will suddenly make everything better….everyone involved here is set up for failure.
So let me be clear here: I am not anti-medicaton AT ALL, nor am I anti-therapy, or anti anything else. Rather, I’m saying let’s make room in mental illness to not have to have everything figured out right away, to stop the reflex action of just frantically trying to get rid of the disorder, and learn to sit with our reality, not judging it as good or bad, but as something that just IS.

How To Hire a House Cleaner When You’re Mental


I finally broke down and hired a cleaning service to clean my house every couple of weeks.
I’m feeling really relieved, not just because my house is cleaner without me having to try and get all the work done around everything else going on, but because I was finally able to make the decision to actually hire them.

The downside to having an introspective, melancholic, ADD personality is that it’s really hard to make decisions without considering every possible effect. Who would have thought the ramifications of hiring a cleaning service would be so potentially dire? Not sure how I’m getting there? Here, allow me to lay out my thought process and why it took me a couple of months to finally pull the trigger.

Like all moms, I love a clean house. But there are two issues here: I’m not one of those people who gets joy out of cleaning. Those people have bizarre genetic mutations or something. Two, my goal in life was never to be a domestic housekeeper. Not that they are bad, it’s just not for me. However, with three boys and homeschooling, my house can get ravaged in only a few minutes. So, do I continue to despise cleaning and just fit it in here and there when I can, or hire someone to help me?

But, if I hire someone, does that mean I’m implying that menial labor is beneath me? I certainly don’t feel condescending towards that kind of work. If I work from home and stay at home to educate my kids, am I obligated by some unseen directive to personally clean my house since I’m the one in it most of the time? Hey, but wait a second! I’m a feminist! Just because I’m a female and happen to be in my house alot does NOT mean that I’m solely responsible for it’s upkeep. Hints of 1950s housewife guilt try to creep in and I keep slapping them away. I am in an egalitarian marriage, I insist to myself. We divide labor according to ability and fairness, not according to traditional gender roles.

OK, but what about the money it costs to hire a biweekly cleaning service. There are people starving around the world who attempt to live on less than a couple dollars a day yet I want to spend several hundred dollars a month so that I don’t have to do the house cleaning. Is that really selfish? Should I not pay for services that I can afford out of solidarity for those who can’t? Does that mean I should only eat a handful of rice everyday since that’s all that some people have? But wait a second. The money I spend on house cleaning isn’t vanishing off into some void. It’s going into someone’s pocket as an income. Meaning they can eat, and live, and do all the things they want with their money. So, I’m really just contributing my money back to boost the economy.

I only have so much time during the day. I have so many other things I want to spend that precious time on than scrubbing my toilets. Oh, but now I’m hearing voices in my head telling me that I should use practices like scrubbing the toilet to become more mindful, and live in the present moment. But I want to live in the present moment doing something more interesting. Am I lazy? Or to shallow? Elitist?

Oh, but geez…what about the global impact of me having someone clean my house? People have to drive to my house to clean it, which obviously affects their carbon footprint. Is that drive to my house every two weeks a significant addition to greenhouse gases? Am I being environmentally irresponsible by using resources to outsource what I could typically do myself? Oh, and so much for sustainability and self sufficient living. Those homesteaders in Vermont that Mike and I admire aren’t hiring maid services. Crap! I’m just buying into the system!

By now my brain is exhausted, because with my ADD, I’ve cycled through these thoughts again and again. And, my house is still messy because I wasted alot of time trying to make a decision. I finally decided to hire the house cleaner. Not even so much for the cleanliness of my house, but for my own mental sanity.

You Just Can’t Hate Your Mother!

Episode 3 of the Crazy Sacred video podcast, where I expound a bit on some of the best advice I’ve ever received…

How Counseling Can Be A Transformative Tool In Your Life

Video Podcast #1: The Start of My Mental Wholeness Journey

How Trustworthy Is Medical Science?

YIP Day 7 - Pharmacy
How much do you trust the medical research that influences what treatment plans and pharmaceuticals your doctor prescribes for you?

When you read or hear about the latest medical finding do you immediately jump on its bandwagon or do your own background digging to find out if the message is exaggerated or perhaps ludicrous?

A study released two days ago found that light alcohol consumption in people over sixty increased episodic memory.   The headline for this news:  “If You’re Over 60, Drink Up; Alcohol Associated With Better Memory.”  The paper does state that cognitive ability and executive function don’t seem to improve with alcohol intake, and reminds us that five or more drinks in one sitting can be harmful to the brain.  However, the title blurb is so misleading that a lazy or rushed reader would simply take away a license to drink more without feeling guilty.

How many Americans actually pay much attention to more than these kinds of headlines, or the short fillers that appear in the side columns of magazines telling us that including some vitamin or exotic food into our diet will radically change our lives and decrease our chances of getting numerous diseases?   Do we blindly put our faith in the authors of such material, and the medical science behind them?  More importantly, are we harming ourselves  by taking headlines and medical highlights at face value?

A reality of living in a capitalist society that presents some downsides is that industry and deep pocketed individuals fund scientific research.   Obviously, there is going to be some inevitable bias.  A big pharmaceutical company who is banking on their newest drug will work hard to secure research that shows positive benefits .  In an article printed in The Atlantic titled “Lies, Damn Lies, and Medical Science”,long time medical research sleuth and debunker John Ioaniddis was profiled and questioned about the credibility of the science found in scholarly journals that physicians rely on to treat their patients.

Besides the financial conflicts of interest that are bound to occur in medical research, Ioaniddis claims that many other factors can contribute to the unreliability of study results.    Scientists who are seeking tenure in their employment are often pressured to publish in the well known respected journals.  If they have committed long careers to a particular line of research, they will be more reluctant to stop publishing articles on their work just to start all over again in a new line of research.

Other points of concern come from the potential for patients to inaccurately fill out surveys or inappropriately convey their health histories, the incorrect use of complex statistical analysis methods by researchers, and the fact that by nature one’s health is such a complex system that it is often unlikely that by only altering one component that person’s entire outlook will change.  Finally, there is the unfortunate but real problem of outright fraud and data fudging.

So, why should this matter?  I think it matters on several levels, which I will attempt to outline.

1.  For quite a long while now, we have been a ‘pop a pill’ society.  If something ails you, well, there’s a pharmaceutical for that.  We tend to either forget or ignore that our bodies have an amazing innate ability to heal themselves given the right conditions.  Instead,  in our pleasure and gratification seeking, we try to force our bodies to recover with suboptimal conditions and hope a drug will give us what we want without us having to put in much effort.

2. As a mental health advocate and biochemist, I have always pushed people to get their information from reliable sources, especially when it comes to health.  Scholarly, peer reviewed journals have always been my gold standard; I trusted the research and often went straight from the introduction to the conclusions and discussion sections, skipping over the experimental methods and statistical analyses.  However, after hearing the claims of Ioaniddis, who is incredibly well respected across the medical world,  I’m concerned that perhaps my gold standard needs to be reevaluated.  Maybe I should dig into those research methods a little bit more.

3.  I’ve taken ALOT of psychiatric drugs over the years.  I trusted that my doctors were working off good information.  Some of those meds seemed to work well, others were marginal, and there were a few that seemed to be an absolute waste of money.  I take seriously any medicine that affects one’s brain and mind, especially when dealing with illnesses that carry strong stigma.   There is already enough self stigma that people struggle with just for taking psychotropic medications themselves, and great percentages of people that need treatment but are too ashamed to seek it out    They certainly don’t need insult added to injury by being prescribed quack drugs that don’t do what the scientific literature promised they could.

So, what’s the take away from this?  First, own your health and take control of it.  You may not be a scientist or health expert, but you can learn and ask questions. Don’t just blindly take medicines or eat certain things just because someone told you to. Take the time to research mental health treatments and not just settle for the current fad of the time.   Remember, a big company is paying for that drug commercial on TV because it’s a business; they aren’t just doing it out of the sole goodness of their hearts.

Second, be discerning. For example, don’t read a headline claiming that taking a certain supplement is going to radically change your life and swallow it hook, line, and sinker. Make sure the magazine writer got the facts straight.   But don’t stop there.  Read up on the primary sources that inspired the article, and determine whether other research has reached similar conclusions or is in complete disagreement.

Finally, recall the old adage;  If something sounds too good to be true……it needs to be verified repeatedly using unbiased methods.

Seeking to fully live,


The Nobel Peace Prize and World Mental Health Day: What Do They Have In Common?

Malala Yousafzai at the Global Education First Initiative anniversary eventCE - Comissão de Educação, Cultura e Esporte

As you may have heard, this year’s Nobel Peace Prize was awarded jointly to two people, Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan, and Kailash Satyarthi  of India.  A Muslim, and a Hindu, who fight for the rights of those who have no voice, those who are exploited and denied the right to a basic education.  (Read more here).

And today, October 10, 2014, is World Mental Health Day.  The Day is dedicated to and focused on raising awareness about those who suffer from schizophrenia.  Schizophrenia has long been misunderstood by the masses,  In fact, as I talked about recently a post , stigma towards this kind of illness has not subsided in recent years, but actually increased.


What we often fail to realize, or think much about, is how much a problem mental illness is in the developing world.  Just as child trafficking and exploitation run rampant and in so many parts of the world women are still treated as property, so are people of all ages struggling with mental illness who have little access to support and treatment.

Stereotypes prevail that say people stay stuck in their poverty because they are lazy or have sub par character and morals, and others along the same line.  If they just had more ambition, I’ve heard people say, they can get out of their current position in life.    There are obviously numerous complex factors that influence the cyclical nature of poverty, but a huge component is the triggering and exacerbation of mental illness in such environments.

Chronic stress, poor nutrition, abuse, lack of prospects, all of these and more contribute greatly to the numbers of mentally ill among those in poverty stricken situations and the developing countries.  Even when treatment options are available, they are often culturally inappropriate or not far reaching enough to provide adequate help.

What this all comes down to is a matter of education.  We need more Malalas and Kailashes in the world to fight for those who don’t have voices.  We need to stop putting on blinders that help us avoid what makes us uncomfortable and become very aware of the desperate inequalities still going on throughout our world, even just a few blocks away.

So, may I encourage you, do your part….learn more about mental illness, and help pass on the facts to others.  Challenge the stereotypes and myths….and, help erase the words “If they only tried harder…” from the minds of more Americans and those economically fortunate in the world,

Seeking to fully live,


Ever Been Here? Yeah, Me Too.


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