lauren Ornelas on chocolate, slavery, food deserts, state of the movement

By on February 19, 2014

lauren_ornelaslauren Ornelas is F.E.P.’s founder and serves as the group’s executive director. She is also the former executive director of Viva!USA, a national nonprofit vegan advocacy organization. lauren has been active in the animal rights movement for more than 25 years. After spending four years as national campaign coordinator for In Defense of Animals, lauren was asked by Viva!UK to start and run Viva!USA in 1999. In cooperation with activists across the country, she worked and achieved corporate changes within Whole Foods Market, Trader Joe’s, and Pier 1 Imports, among others. She served as campaign director with the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition for six years and founded Food Empowerment Project in 2006.

Although I’ve been aware of the organization for years, I was very taken by lauren’s recent TEDx talk (link), and wanted to ask her further questions about ethical food choices.

How did you become vegan, and what does veganism mean to you?

I first went vegetarian after asking my mom “what” the chicken was that I was eating, and found out it was a chicken. I was vegetarian in elementary school, but given some financial issues, I wasn’t able to stick with it consistently. When I was in high school, I decided I was going to do it one way or another because I didn’t want to eat animals anymore. I had already stopped buying leather, but I was unaware of the cruelty in the egg and milk industries. When I was in high school, I learned about the local animal rights group and when I attended their meetings I learned about veganism and saw documentaries such as The Animals’ Film. The image of the chicks having the tips of their beaks burned off is still seared into my mind.

To me veganism is a way for us to take a stand against one form of injustice by trying to lessen some of the suffering in the world. There are so many injustices in the world that make my heart hurt, and animals killed for food is just one of them. One of the ways I have been able to help these animals is to just stop eating them.

Many vegans say they eat “cruelty free” diets. This annoys me, because most of us have no idea how our fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, grains, beans and legumes arrive at our plate, not unlike non-vegans not knowing or considering how animal body parts and secretions arrive on their plate. Can you talk a bit about the idea of cruelty-free foods? Are workers picking fruits and vegetables treated any better than say slaughterhouse or factory farm workers?

First of all, thank you for getting it. Yeah, I completely understand. I get frustrated too when vegans who should know better still use the term “cruelty free” to describe veganism. When it comes to new vegans, it is easier to be sympathetic, so I try to inform them because the whole concept is pretty new to them and they have just started to think about, and deal with, not thinking of animals as food.

However, many vegans – who stay informed on food issues and who are familiar with Food Empowerment Project’s work – concern me because they use “cruelty free” as a blanket term for veganism, which does nothing for us as a movement.

I think we all strive to eat truly cruelty free, but for most of us who do not grow all of the food we eat, it is not that easy; however, I am thrilled that many want to try to see this as a move beyond veganism – a move to live a more compassionate life.

When you take a look at the different ways that factory farm and slaughterhouse workers are treated, except for a couple of areas, they are treated very much the same. Many workers in these areas are undocumented, and are people of color threatened with deportation or loss of employment if they complain about conditions. They are forced to work in hazardous conditions, have physical problems due to repetitive motions, and they use dangerous equipment. Women are sexually harassed and sometimes raped.

They work long hours and make low wages. Low wages mean that many workers live in substandard conditions and, in the case of California farm workers, many live in migrant labor camps and are forced to leave them when the picking seasons is over.

Farm workers and surrounding communities are also exposed to agricultural chemicals, which can cause cancer, birth defects, and are endocrine disruptors. And, of course, slaughterhouse workers have the unbearable job of killing all day. That is something that I do not think can be overlooked: how that can impact a person’s mind, body, and soul (and, of course, the animal’s life).

You describe Food Empowerment Project as a vegan food justice organization. What do you mean by food justice?

What we mean by food justice is that we look to see if there are ways we can help make sure that food in the entire supply chain (grown, picked, and distributed) is fair and that healthy food is accessible to everyone in all communities, and that also means affordable. And we are also a vegan organization as we take the non-human animals into consideration as well. We want justice and equity for all. We do not feel one life has to be sacrificed for another. These issues are all connected.

We seem to have moved further away from veganism as a social justice issue to a more mainstream, conservative movement. There is a great deal of focus on celebrities, eating a “plant-based diet,” and campaigns that are pro-corporation (such as Chipotle and Subway). Do you agree with this assessment and how can we keep advocating for veganism as a social justice issue?

To some degree I do. When I first got involved, the focus was pretty squarely on the animals. Maybe because there were not many celebrities or big corporations pushing veganism? I am not sure. But I do think we have become more conservative as well as over the top in promoting corporations that are still responsible for and profiting from the deaths of animals as well as exploiting workers and the environment.

And, unfortunately, by trying to get into the world of politics, some conservative politicians have been endorsed by animal organizations. When you have vegan groups and publications working with and promoting anything coming out of the mouth of racist people like Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona, it is as if we are saying “by any means necessary.” I do not think we should compromise our values, our principles, our sense of decency, or that we should seek to make progress at the expense of other victims of abusive systems.

I completely understand the strategy behind getting more vegan options carried (lack of convenience does seem to deter people from going vegan) by challenging places to offer more vegan foods. However, I do not think that we need to promote fast food and large corporations (for the most part they are selling more non-vegan items than vegan).

It seems our time and voices are better spent strategically advocating for animals and not promoting corporations with deep marketing pockets.

The vulnerable, those without power and a voice, are the most exploited by the corporate food system, and as you’ve pointed out, this is true for human and nonhuman animals. Do you connect capitalism to this exploitation?

Absolutely! Capitalism is indeed a connecting thread. Clearly, not the only one, but look at what motivates many of these industries: profit at any expense.

Another issue F.E.P. takes on is environmental racism. How is this connected to food choices?

I should start by saying that one of the reasons we talk about environmental racism is because many in the US are not aware that communities of color are more impacted by pollution (from oil refineries, toxics, dumps) than white communities (except for maybe those in Appalachia).

This is also true for factory farms. On our website we cite information about pig farms in North Carolina being located in primarily Black neighborhoods and dairy farms in California in primarily Latino neighborhoods. Living near these facilities means that residents live with health problems such as headaches, nosebleeds, respiratory problems, and other issues such as depression (when you can’t open your windows because of the smell and flies, to name an obvious example) and lower property values.

What are food deserts? What advice do you have for someone in a low-income community who wants to go vegan, but doesn’t have access to a variety of foods or fresh fruits and vegetables?

Food deserts can be described as geographic areas where residents’ access to affordable, healthy food options (especially fresh fruits and vegetables) is restricted or nonexistent due to the absence of grocery stores within convenient travelling distance. For our work, F.E.P. describes what we do as working on access to healthy foods in communities of color and low-income communities.

Before I offer this advice, there is a distinction I want to make. There are plenty of vegans who have a low income, and there are many resources available for them about how to eat vegan on a limited budget.

However, there are many people who do not have access to healthy foods in their communities and are not only time poor but also cash poor. And we are not necessarily talking about people who are working jobs that they love and working behind a desk all day. Many people are working service jobs (fast food, grocery stores, hotels, etc.) and are absolutely worn out and exhausted when they get home and, of course, some work more than one job to help make ends meet.

These are complicated issues and people being paid a living wage would certainly help everyone to be able to afford healthier foods.

Unfortunately, many in the vegan community have very little understanding about those in the latter group – feeling that if they are dedicated enough they should be able to go and stay vegan.

My advice would be for those individuals to contact us to determine how we can work on this issue in their community. This work should be in the community with community groups who are located in these areas.

What issues do you identify in the animal rights community that might or do alienate people of color? It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that veganism is still a largely white, middle-class movement. What are the problems that need to be solved to create a more inclusive and representative community?

I think the answer I give above is one example of how vegans alienate people of color who live in these communities, acting as if it is really just simply a matter of dedication without understanding life circumstances.

Also, animal rights groups that promote, support, and use racists, conservatives, and even homophobes to endorse the rights of animals only seek to push sympathetic folks away.

I think animal rights groups really need to re-think the fact that many of them do not pay a living wage and/or give benefits to their employees. Creating a system where only people who don’t need a living wage can work for an animal group is certainly going to mean you only have certain, well, privileged people who can work for these groups. People who can ask family for money to help make ends meet or family who can buy them the things they need is not the case for many of us. I didn’t finish paying off my student loans from college until I was in my mid-30s. Many of us give money to our parents to help them make ends meet and that only leads to us getting into financial debt. This does not mean we are less committed to the cause, just that our circumstances might be something many don’t think of.

Why don’t you want me to eat chocolate? But seriously, F.E.P. has put significant resources into evaluating vegan chocolate, and I don’t mean taste tests, I mean ensuring that the chocolate isn’t the product of child slavery. What don’t vegans know about the chocolate industry? How can we know if the chocolate we buy is truly slavery-free?

Because I want YOU to suffer! Haha.

Admittedly F.E.P.’s focus on chocolate is because of a BBC segment I saw back in 2001 or so in which they exposed the issue of slavery taking place in the industry. I was horrified that slavery was still taking place today for something like chocolate. They interviewed a former slave who had escaped and when he was asked what he would say to Westerners who eat chocolate, he said, “When you eat chocolate you are eating my flesh.” As many vegans would, I realized this is exactly what a non-human animal might say.

When I started F.E.P., I knew this had to be focal point of our work. There are a number of injustices that we humans inflict on other beings for profit.

Chocolate is a luxury, and the idea of enslaving anyone for it just pains my heart.

A majority of chocolate comes from Western Africa where children are victims of the worst forms of child labor, including slavery. In fact, according to one report, there are about 1.8 million children in Ghana and the Ivory Coast alone. Children are forced to carry heavy cacao pods and if they do not move fast enough they are beaten. The children come to the plantations in variety of ways – some are stolen, some are sold and others go into it thinking they will be able to help provide some income for their families – whom many will never see again.

Some children are locked in overnight and if they try to escape are beaten or killed.

This is why we created our chocolate list (available on our website and in app form): so that people can buy chocolate that is not sourced from areas where the worst forms of child labor are the most prevalent. And since we are a vegan organization, to be on our list, they have to make at least one vegan chocolate.

How can The Thinking Vegan readers learn more about F.E.P.’s work and how can they support you?

Thanks so much for this. We truly appreciate you helping us get the word out about these issues and our work!

We ask people to support our campaign asking Clif Bar to disclose where they source their cacao:

As a small, primarily volunteer organization that is looking to eventually hire staff, donations are always appreciated:

And anyone interested can learn loads more on our website, where we cover a lot of issues:

They can also check out our website:

We have leaflets that discuss many of these issues, and people can order these to help distribute, as well as check out our volunteer page:

To learn more about the organization please visit



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