Food Empowerment Project with Lauren Ornelas
Lauren Ornelas is Food Empowerment Project'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 20 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. She also has host of amazing Mexican Vegan Recipes which deserve a blog for themselves! YUM! Check them out here.
You have been involved with animal rights movement for over 20 years, what have been some major changes you have witnessed in that time?
In terms of society’s view of animals, I definitely feel I have seen an incredible shift. Growing up in Texas and having gone vegan in the late ’80s, it has been amazing to see veganism being a word that more and more people are familiar with. And the change in the public’s view of animals in captivity has been in some ways beyond words - just incredible! The fact that SeaWorld is no longer regarded as an ideal place to take the family and instead its name is now only associated with controversy regarding animal cruelty is vindicating. Within our movement I have seen social media change us in good ways and bad. We have always had infighting, but social media seems to encourage bullying. If I am allowed to break activism down in terms of outreach and education through social media and trying to use social media as a means of a popularity contest, I will. I think using social media as a platform for informing others about the cruelties inflicted on animals or how to make vegan foods has been very helpful; however, social media used as a popularity contest to measure one’s effectiveness is worrisome. I feel in the past our movement used campaigns as a tool to measure concrete changes for the animals, and, unfortunately, these days, groups can get by with hopes and aspirations.
Can you talk about lobbying the corporate supermarkets, such as Wholefoods; the successes and fallbacks and how you think more positive changes can occur in the future.
My past campaigns to make chains such as Trader Joe’s stop selling duck “meat” and Pier 1 Imports to stop using feathers was through consumer pressure. With my previous organization, Viva!USA, I conducted investigations of duck farms and sent that information to stores selling duck “meat” and feathers from those locations. If a store did not cease buying from these farms, we began consumer campaigns until they stopped. We had people write and call, and we had protests in front of the stores until they stopped. Whole Foods Market continued to sell duck “meat,” though the campaign did spark the co-founder to go vegan.
The more we use reliable evidence, do not exaggerate, try to attempt a positive dialogue with corporations, and are smart about our campaign goals, the more we can make positive changes.
For many of us, campaigning is an ideal way to achieve change for animals as it not only combines outreach and education, but it also includes a specific goal with which we can measure effectiveness for animals. With our duck campaign, we knew that a number of duck farms shut down. To this day, Trader Joe’s still does not sell duck “meat,” and it has been more than 10 years and we know the campaign created new vegans and vegetarians.
What are three effective changes people can make to affect change for the better?
- One change would be for activists to remember to use empathy and patience when dealing with other humans and not to assume we know better than an individual regarding his or her life experiences. This will help activists and also be more effective.
- If people want to help improve the lives of non-human animals, they can cease participating in their exploitation and abuse.
- Given that people eat several times a day, they can do what they can to become more informed about their food choices and ensure that what they are eating reflects their values.
You emphasise the power we can have with our food choices, can you elaborate on this?
There is an endless amount of suffering, abuse, and injustice taking place in the world around us. And much of it is, unfortunately, difficult to change. But with some injustices, we can do our best not to contribute, and food is one of those issues. We eat several times a day, and with every purchase and with every bite, we can decide if want to be part of the problem or the solution. It is partially a matter of what we eat, but just as important is what we do with that consumer power to demand change.
You founded the Group Food Empowerment Project. Can you tell us why you started this group and talk about some of its main achievements and hopes for the future.
I started Food Empowerment Project (F.E.P.) so that I (and others) could have an organization whose mission combines fighting against the injustices in the food industry for both human and non-human animals. We have four major focus areas: promoting veganism for ethical reasons, joining with the fight for farm worker rights, access to healthy foods in communities of color and low-income communities, and encouraging people to not buy chocolate sourced from areas where the worst forms of child labor, including slavery, are found. As a primarily volunteer-based organization (though we are working to grow), we have accomplished a lot – we created an eight-page, 12- issue newsletter that people who want to go and stay vegan can get through the mail. They receive a survey at the beginning and end of the year to help us gauge where they are and our effectiveness. We also have coordinated school supply drives for the children of farm workers to help with their education, collecting hundreds of backpacks and thousands of school supplies. Our chocolate list and app helps consumers to buy more ethically sourced chocolate and we were successful in getting Clif Bar to disclose the country of origin for their chocolate. This transparency allows consumers to be more informed. We also work on access to healthy foods in communities of colour and low-income communities and have put out a couple of reports on this issue.
A more unknown issue of the food production currently is what you name "Exporting factory farms" and "importing slavery.” May you talk about this a little to explain what is going on globally?
The main reason I created “Exporting factory farms” was a talk I gave at the World Social Forum in Caracas, Venezuela (which is where the concept of Food Empowerment Project came to me), where I spoke about the way in which corporations that exploit animals raised for food also exploit workers and the environment. Attending my talk were people from the US, as well as Cuba, Mexico, Brazil, and elsewhere in Latin America. Many were interested in how we could work together on battling these corporations. This is still an area where F.E.P. hopes to grow, but for now, I wanted to make sure we had this information on our website so groups had a good understanding how the US is propagating this cruelty. We created “importing slavery” because we wanted to make sure we covered other human-related abuses in the food industries, including some of those that combine human and non-human animals.