10 Vegans of Color on What Being Vegan Means to Them

January 6, 2019 originally published in SELF Magazine

In Queens, where I’ve lived for my whole life, I can find a bodega (a corner store) filled with fast and highly processed food more quickly and easily than I can find fresh produce around my neighborhood in Jackson Heights, a predominantly Latinx part of Queens. Why? Because food deserts—what the CDC describes as “areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk, and other foods that make up a full and healthy diet”—are not uncommon in low-income communities of color. A 2014 study that looked at the intersection of racial segregation and poverty concluded that “neighborhoods with greater poverty and large minority populations have less access to supermarkets.” Last March, a report even named Jackson Heights as one of three Queens “food swamps” (their term for “neighborhoods where fast food and junk food outlets outnumber healthy alternatives”). From my home, I can see two bodegas, a KFC, and a Popeye’s, but no options that offer plant-based fare or even a menu that features an abundance of whole and minimally processed foods.

Besides the issues of food swamps and deserts, there’s the way that factory farming of animals contributes to dynamics that harm communities, especially communities of color. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in the U.S., more than 60 percent of the people employed in the animal slaughtering and processing industries are Black or Latinx, and 38 percent are immigrants. Illness and injury rates in the meatpacking industry are two-and-a-half times higher than the national average, and getting seriously injured on the job is three times more likely to happen in the meatpacking industry than in U.S. industries as a whole, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The CDC has reported the various health risks of working in and even living near factory farms. Rates of injury and illness among workers in chicken and beef processing are higher than in those in other kinds of manufacturing, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). In addition to meatpacking being physically dangerous, some research suggests that the industry may take a psychological toll on workers. In 2009, a statistical analysis in the journal Organization & Environment found that counties with slaughterhouses have four times the national average of violent arrest, with significantly higher rates of alcoholism, domestic abuse, child abuse, and suicide. The study theorized that “the work of killing animals in an industrial process may have social and psychological consequences for the workers.” It's important to note that the study found correlation, not causation, however.

Veganism is important to me because I believe that black and brown folks deserve to have food that makes us feel good, physically and psychologically. It’s not that veganism is inherently more nutritious or healthier than not being a vegan. (After all, you can eat highly processed foods and avoid vegetables on just about any diet!) What is better for you is having access to fresh produce and minimally processed foods and being able to incorporate those into your diet. This means we need more fresh produce and minimally processed foods at affordable prices. We deserve access to foods that improve our health, not harm it. And we deserve access to jobs that pay a living wage and don’t endanger us, physically and psychologically.

This is why I founded Veggie Mijas, a national collective of women and non-binary folks and femmes of color. It was formed out of the ‘hood: For the community, made within the community. The issues I’ve just described are central to Veggie Mijas and ones that we feel are going unnoticed (or being ignored) by mainstream white veganism.

Mainstream veganism—like mainstream wellness and nutrition—does not often cover the abuse that brown and black and immigrant folks are going through within the capitalist cycle. This is why we, Veggie Mijas, believe in reframing the way veganism is talked about by including analyses of food swamps and deserts, the suffering of both animals and humans, and the health of black and brown people. These are all aspects of food justice, and the reasons that organizations such as La Raza for Liberation and Food Empowerment Project strive to frame veganism with an intersectional lens so that we can see how the food industry affects Black and brown communities.

A bit of sister/siblinghood, community gardening, recipes, and resources to food accessibility and food education, all of which Veggie Mijas strives to provide, can go a long way towards food justice for brown and black communities. Decolonizing your food choices to opt out of the harm to animals and people caused by factory farming starts with eating more plant-based foods and finding more information about your roots, finding your people, and asking questions about food to family members if you have that accessibility.

There are so many reasons why folks of color go vegan. Here are some amazing Veggie Mijas/Mijxs that tell us what their vegan lifestyle means to them:

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