lauren Ornelas has been active in the animal rights movement from a young age. Growing up with an understanding of farm worker’s struggles for justice, she founded the Food Empowerment Project in 2007 to connect veganism, access to healthy foods and farm worker rights.
In this interview she talks about her activism journey and how it led her to start the Food Empowerment Project, as well as farm worker justice issues, the importance of access to healthy foods, and why it is imperative for a holistic veganism to support these struggles for justice.
Q: Hi lauren, thank you so much for this interview. Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your activism journey? Where and how did you start and where are you now?
I went vegetarian when I was in elementary school in the ‘70s because I didn’t want to hurt animals, and this was around the same time my parents got divorced, so I was thinking about how I didn’t want to participate in the separation of a family. However, due to financial situations, I was not able to stick with it, but I went vegetarian again when I was a teenager. I had never heard of veganism until I got connected with a local animal rights group. My mom raised me with an understanding of the grape boycott called by farm workers to demand their rights. I therefore had that narrative going into high school when I learned about the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, so I made sure not to buy any products that movement was asking us to boycott. Then in the 1980s, when I learned about the exploitation of non-human animals, I went vegan and began to work on animal rights issues.
My activist journey is a constant one – I continue to learn and figure out ways I, as an individual, can use my choices to make an impact as well as how I can join my voice with others to create systemic changes.
Q: You founded the Food Empowerment Project (F.E.P.) in 2007. What inspired you to start the project?
After many years of focusing on animal rights and having my attempts at connecting these issues of injustice to other issues not fully understood or appreciated, I knew that I needed to do something. In 2006 I had the opportunity to speak at the World Social Forum in Caracas, Venezuela. It was refreshing to learn even more about so many of the issues I cared about. That is when I knew I had to start an organization that focused on food justice where I could connect many of those issues I really cared about—an organization to help create change and empower people with their food choices!
Q: How are the main areas of the F.E.P.’s work – veganism, access to healthy foods and farm worker rights – connected?
These three areas are connected in a variety of ways in the sense that the absence of any one of them is a form of injustice.
As someone who has done investigations of factory farms and slaughterhouses, I have seen a pig die in front of me in a farm from a large ulceration on his stomach; hens in battery cages on the bottom level covered in excrement from the birds in the cages on top of them – all with feathers missing, toes missing; a friend and I helped save a turkey from a slaughterhouse who was covered in blood with her toes cut so far back she could barely keep her balance and her beak cut so far back she had trouble eating and drinking; and I have seen so much more.
Many farm workers who pick our food are those who are termed the “working poor”. They work and yet are not paid enough for the work they do and are not provided many benefits that most people take for granted, from paid sick time to taking a break. Many cannot put a roof over their heads and are living in crowded conditions. They are exposed to agricultural chemicals, are sometimes paid by how much they pick, and the women are often victims of sexual assault on the job.
Black, Indigenous, and Brown people who live in areas where they lack access to healthy food (or what are also called areas of food apartheid) suffer from higher rates of a variety of diet-related diseases compared to whiter and more affluent communities. Racism and discrimination create these areas. Lack of living wages, poor transportation, and corporate greed contribute to these communities lacking food that is good for them.
In terms of our work, we look at it this way:
In order to lessen the suffering of non-human animals we want to encourage people to go vegan.
By encouraging people to eat more produce we are encouraging them to depend on a system that causes harm to farm workers. We advocate for the rights of farm workers not only because what is taking place in the fields is a form of injustice that everyone should want to work to make right, but also because we want to lessen the suffering of all and work towards justice.
Just like what happens to farm workers is a form of injustice that needs to be exposed and therefore changed, so is the lack of access to healthy foods. If we want equity and for all people to be able to live healthy lives, they need to be able to access fresh fruits and veggies as well as non-animal milk.
If we want to lessen the suffering of non-human animals and have more people go vegan, they need to be able to access the food.
Q: What is wrong with the narrative of vegan food being cruelty free?
It is absolutely correct that vegan food does not involve the suffering of non-human animals. However, when you look at our produce and other commodity products (such as chocolate) even though it does not contain the suffering of non-human animals and is vegan, if it still involves the suffering of human animals – whether they be adults, children, or someone who’s enslaved – it cannot be called cruelty-free. To list vegan recipes or products as cruelty-free is not correct. We should care about these other injustices and not want to contribute to the additional suffering of any animal – human or non-human. Also, those who are aware of these other abuses should know better when vegans call something cruelty-free when there is human suffering involved. I believe acknowledging this and being more accurate doesn’t harm the cause for non-human animals.
(Editor's note: Check out the F.E.P.s chocolate list to find out more about the precarious working conditions in the chocolate industry)
Q: A lot of the F.E.P. work focusses on access to healthy foods in black, brown, indigenous and low-income communities. What are some of the issues regarding food access in these communities and how does your work help to address them?
This form of injustice is complicated and has many moving parts: it involves, among other things, where and how people work, the responsibilities they have to juggle, and the importance of a living wage. And, while policy makers and communities need to work together to address inequitable food access, communities need to be the ones making the ultimate decisions.
We therefore work with community members to survey healthy food availability and conduct focus groups with local organizations in the impacted areas. We also work to inform public officials of our findings and encourage policy changes. We also have a national campaign against the Albertsons/Safeway (and affiliate companies) as they have been preventing grocery stores from opening up in communities that lack access to healthy foods through restrictive deeds.
Q: F.E.P. also shares vegan recipes such as veganism on a budget, vegan Mexican food, vegan Filipino food, and provides information on the impact of colonization on food and eating habits. How has colonialism affected – is still affecting – food choices?
Colonization of the Americas forever changed the diets and lives of many – including the Indigenous peoples in Mexico. On their voyages to the “New World”, the Spanish and English brought farmed animals, including cows and goats, and they consumed the milk from these animals. Today, many Indigenous, Black, and Brown people are particularly prone to digestive ailments when consuming non-human animal milk. This explains why drinking milk gives many people of Chicanx and Latinx descent stomach pains and other health problems. Since it is not natural to digest milk from another species, we consider this to be lactose normal.
(Editor's note: For more information read the article "Colonization, Food, and the Practice of Eating" on the F.E.P.'s webpage)
Q: Which advice would you give to people who want to help to fight for food justice?
For anyone who wants to get involved in food justice, they need to learn and listen and put their assumptions aside.
I would encourage them to look at the issues holistically and also keep the needs of the most vulnerable at the top of the list, not corporations or policymakers.
Also, I think they need to be patient as these issues are very complex and all connected – they need to be willing and openminded in order to see how it all connects.
Q: What is are the most important lessons that you and/or the F.E.P. team have learned since starting the project?
We’ve learned that our work is necessary, and it fills a void as there are many vegans, especially Black and Brown people, who have felt the vegan and animal rights movement did not accept them for who they are along with their life experiences. We have also learned that many vegans are scared and resentful about the work we do – so much so they have felt the need to attack us.
The vegan movement has a long way to go to truly understand how various injustices are connected and those of us who recognize the various forms of oppression and explo