Concerned about issues of justice from a young age, lauren Ornelas started her first group — an animal rights organization — in high school. lauren has since worked for justice-related organizations such as In Defense of Animals, Viva! USA, and the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (where lauren currently works as the Campaign Director). While giving a speech about the various impacts of factory farming at a conference in Venezuela, lauren realized that she could pursue her passion for justice for all through the interconnected issues surrounding our food choices. She started the Food Empowerment Project in 2006. We talked with lauren about F.E.P. and the power of our food choices to create a better world.

IHE: You launched the Food Empowerment Project in 2006 in order to spotlight the power of our food choices to create a just, sustainable world for people, animals and the earth. Tell us about why you chose to focus on food and its interconnections as a vehicle for positive social change.

LO: Yes, our goal is to connect issues of oppression and empower people to be a force for positive change. In 2006 I was in Caracas, Venezuela, speaking at the World Social Forum on the issue of corporate exploitation of animals, workers, and the environment, when I realized that many of the issues I care about, and where I know individuals can easily make a difference, were related to food choices. After dedicating over 20 years to the animal rights movement and advocating on behalf of many social justice issues, I felt it was time to promote their interconnection.

IHE: What are some of F.E.P.’s featured projects and what kinds of successes and challenges are you having with them?

LO: Promoting a concept that connects a variety of issues presents challenges, as we are asking people to look beyond the issues that they are passionate about and possibly make changes in their lives. We are excited by the amount of enthusiasm we have received from young people—it’s inspirational, as they seem to understand the importance of connecting these issues, but like many organizations, our lack of financial resources has a great impact on our work.

Being an all-volunteer organization, we’ve been spending a lot of time working on a new website and putting together a series of newsletters that aim to help people go vegan or stay vegan. The newsletters will provide information about industrial animal factories and their impacts on the animals, people and the environment, the importance of recognizing the plight of farm workers, and also other injustices related to food.

We’re also working on addressing the issue of food deserts, starting with Santa Clara County, where volunteers spent hours surveying grocery, liquor and convenience stores to determine the degree of availability of healthy foods in both low and high-income areas. Our goal is to eventually work with the local communities and the city government in order to eliminate what we know to be inequities in lower-income neighborhoods.

IHE: In your work with F.E.P., you not only focus on the plight of farmed animals and the environment, but you focus a great deal on reaching out to low-income residents and on building bridges with organizations that help farm workers. Tell us about that work. Why do you think so few organizations highlight the interconnectedness of people-animals-earth in our food choices?

LO: We deliberately worked to include all of these issues as part of the mission of our organization, because food is our central focus. There are not enough people working on all of these issues and we feel that those organizations with the plight of animals as their focus should keep it their focus, as it is a huge and important issue, and the same goes for those working on the issues of farm workers, etc.

We wanted to specifically highlight these issues and want to be seen as credible because we are not trying to use one issue to benefit the other—our organization’s mission is to bring these issues together and fight for them at the same time.

Promoting a vegan diet means an increased consumption of fruits and vegetables — it is therefore imperative that the forms of oppression committed against farm workers is also addressed in our work since they are the ones who help make these veggies and fruits available for the consumers.

Then again, there’s the issue of which consumers actually have access to this food. It’s important to recognize and help others understand that there are many people who don’t have access to fresh vegetables and fruits in their communities — typically low-income communities and communities of color.

And overall, we aim to look at food justice issues in a more specific sense, such as encouraging people not to eat chocolate that comes from Côte d’Ivoire, where the slave trade is a part of this industry.

IHE: Part of your mission is to specifically empower those with the fewest resources. Why that focus, and how is that manifesting?

LO: There is a serious problem of a lack of healthy foods in low-income communities and communities of color. This is a form of injustice related to food that we felt we should tackle in an all-encompassing way. Eating healthy should be a right and not a privilege. Many people of color are lactose intolerant, and regardless of income level, more and more people — especially young people — are interested in eating in a more compassionate way: free of animal products. We knew it was vital to address the fact that for many healthy foods are not easily accessible.

We are in the first stage of working in this area right now. Our pro bono social marketing researcher is crunching the data from our surveying. As I mentioned earlier, volunteers from F.E.P. surveyed over 120 grocery, liquor, and convenient stores in Santa Clara County in both high and low-income communities on access to fresh, frozen and canned fruits and vegetables, as well as access to meat and cheese alternatives.

We already know that an inequity exists, but we wanted to get the data to make our case. We will release a report with the data and make recommendations to policy makers. From there, we hope to go back into the lower income communities (primarily communities of color) to find out how we can assist them in making healthier food options available in their neighborhoods.

IHE: What has led you to the path of educating and empowering others in creating a better world for people, animals and the planet?

LO: I think the desire to fight injustices has been with me since high school. The inequities in our world can be so overwhelming, and empowering others to help make a difference seems the only way that change will come about.

IHE: What do you see happening in the world that gives you hope for a more just, compassionate, sustainable future?

LO: Young activists give me hope — and I mean that in terms of their age, as well as those who might be older but are new to activism.

Also, looking back at some of my heroes and all that they accomplished — with so few resources and so little hope— while striving to create a better world for their people gives me hope that we can do the same.

IHE: What are the biggest challenges in creating a humane world?

LO: I think people are very sympathetic to issues impacting both human and non-human animals and our environment, but unfortunately, the biggest challenge comes about when these issues involve making personal changes. Most corporations in the U.S. and in the rest of the western world make a just society almost impossible. Their sole focus on the bottom line, or making a profit, typically comes at the expense of workers, animals, communities and the environment.

IHE: What advice do you have for aspiring changemakers?

LO: I think my advice would be what most people have already heard—simply, never give up and keep fighting. Of course I know that this is easier said than done, but when justice is on your side, giving up is not an option. Also, it’s important to not to let your ego or the egos of others get in the way of the bigger message — we must keep our eyes on the prize, and that is working towards a world where oppression and exploitation are things of the past.

Lastly, I would say it is vital to listen to yourself. I know that on more than one occasion (and Food Empowerment Project is a good example of this), I have strived to do something that seemed unpopular and was still not generally appreciated or accepted, but I knew in my heart that I was doing the “just” thing. As one of my heroes, Henry David Thoreau said, “When were the good and the brave ever in a majority?” (in his plea for John Brown).

Find out more about the Food Empowerment Project. See lauren’s other website: Vegan Mexican Food.

~ Marsha

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