Creating a kinder world is a multi-faceted venture, it requires looking at issues through a broad lens, allowing for transformative solutions to be found and implemented. Food Empowerment Project (FEP) is a US based organisation that seeks to create a more just and sustainable world by recognising the power of one’s food choices. FEP brings attention to, and takes action on, issues of animal abuse on farms, unfair working conditions for produce workers, unavailability of healthy foods in low income areas, and the depletion of natural resources. 

Kindness Project was lucky enough to speak to the founder of FEP, Lauren Ornelas, an incredible activist, to discuss FEP’s mission and her views on issues relating to our current food system. 

Tell us a bit more about the FEP, your mission, and the work that you do within your community?

As a vegan since 1988, it was really important for me to start making sure there was a way for me to connect other social justice issues that I cared about that involved humans. Our goal, really, is to help people make these connections and also create tools to help make a difference. When you are talking about what is happening to non-human animals and encouraging people who have access to healthy foods to go vegan, having resources available is important; we have our websites, and, to provide tools to assist people in going vegan. With chocolate we inform people about what is happening regarding slavery and child labour, and we created an app to assist people with finding ethically sourced chocolate. 

Essentially it’s about creating tools for people to help them make positive change in their food choices, and not limiting it to individual choices; we need to hold policy makers accountable, we need to use our collective voices to try to create change for all those who are oppressed and exploited in the food industry, human or non-human animal.

What makes you so passionate about this cause and drove you to found FEP?

I went vegetarian for the first time in the 1970’s when I was in elementary school, and I grew up in Texas so it wasn’t anything very common there, and I wasn’t able to stick with it because my family didn’t have a lot of money. I was also raised a Mexican with a good understanding of the grape boycott and what’s happening to farm workers, and think that all of these things I was passionate about helped me create FEP. So I have pretty much dedicated my whole life to animal rights and non-human issues, but I knew that I couldn’t stop there. I went to speak at the World Social Forum in Venezuela, and I was around so many other activists that looked like me, and we were talking about other issues; I was there to talk about animal agriculture and the impact on the animals and the environment, they were talking about things like water privatisation, labour issues and immigration issues. That’s why I started FEP, because all of these issues connect, they connect when we talk about food. When we eat food, for those who have the privilege to eat several times a day, there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with that. I am passionate about ways we can use food to create positive changes in the world, break down barriers that exist, and really look at food as a responsibility.

Source: Food Empowerment Project Instagram

What do you see as being the biggest injustices that exist in our current food system for both human and non-human animals?

On a macro level obviously that’s raising and killing animals for food, and that includes fish and all the other sea creatures. I think that is the most devastating harm that is happening to the animals, to the planet and the people who are forced to work in these industries. You have people who work, quote on quote, to harvest the oceans, basically killing everything in the nets’ path. A lot of them are slaves, they are forced into this labour. You have slaughterhouse workers and factory farm workers, many of whom are undocumented in the United States; if they start to complain for them or for non-human animals, they are threatened with deportation, they are treated completely differently, they don’t get paid well. They suffer the psychological abuse that comes with killing all day long; I mean that’s nothing anyone signed up for to do their whole life, it isn’t something they want to do, which is why there is like 100% turn over in slaughterhouses. Of course you have the suffering of non-human animals, which is tremendous from birth till death. Mutilations that take place to their body without the use of any anaesthesia, kept in crowded conditions; various body parts are taken off not for their own benefit, but for the benefit of those who want to keep them in these cramped conditions. And they have transport, horrible transport to deal with, whether it be very hot or very cold they are being transported in these trucks and by boat. 

In the United States you have environmental racism, where you have most of the animal farms located in black, brown and Indigenous communities; the people who live there are suffering from health problems (respiratory issues, headaches), they can’t open their windows because of the stench, and their property value is worthless because nobody wants to live near these facilities. 

Then you look at what it does to human health – you take in antibiotics and antibiotic resistance, take in the fact that eating animal products is not the best thing for our health. In addition to that you have colonisation; there are so many of us who do not digest things like milk – cows’ milk or goats’ milk – because it wasn’t something that our ancestors consumed. My ancestors, who were from the Americas – you know Columbus brought the cows over on his fourth voyage – that’s why we don’t digest cows’ milk, that’s why people call us lactose intolerant, which FEP calls ‘lactose normal’, because there is nothing wrong with not being able to digest the milk of another species, much less the recognition of the legacy that colonisation has had on us, on our land, and on our bodies today. So, overwhelmingly, I think it’s the consumption of animals, but never for me that means to disparage the horrific treatment of animals in laboratories or aquariums, or any other way. But in terms of all the ramifications consuming animals has on human and non-human animals – it’s riddled with injustices, it’s part of this system that is literally to harm and exploit both beings.

What do you think are the biggest barriers to making veganism accessible to everyone?

Cost, and I don’t say that because everyone wants vegan ice cream, I mean in our work that we have done, the biggest barrier for people accessing fresh fruit and vegetables has simply been the cost. This is why we fight for living wages, because living wages creates equity and will bring everybody up. It’s not about people wanting to buy vegan meats or other such substitutes, it’s literally that they do not have access to healthy food. Obviously, convenience feeds into that. Sometimes we have to pay 50c more for our oat milk, or 50c more for vegan cheese – then it again becomes a cost issue. I do think that another barrier is that vegans haven’t really been very welcoming, frankly – I think that vegans have used sexist campaigns, racist campaigns, and we have turned a lot of people off, even people I would consider allies, people who you think would clearly see our image and understand. But because we’ve been so off putting to them, they’re not going to listen to us. Ultimately, I think we would be doing ourselves a good service, for the animals, by being representatives that are welcoming and wanting to have dialogue.

How can animal rights organisations be more inclusive of these issues in their advocacy?

I think that you know this is the misperception that people have of FEP, that people think we want all organisations to do both. That’s our mission, our whole mission, our whole organisation is to do both, advocate for human rights and advocate for animal rights under the lens of veganism, that is our goal. We don’t just talk about them when they intersect, we talk about them holistically, on their own, as injustices taking place that we are trying to stop. I think that many people think that we are asking all vegan organisations to do that as well, but we’re not. I mean I have been doing animal rights since 1987 – I have investigated factory farms, slaughterhouses, circuses, rodeos, you know I’ve done it – I understand and I want people out there just focusing on non-human animals, but all we are asking for is some consistency. So if you are talking about all the abuses that are taking place in animal agriculture, it’s not hard just to acknowledge that there are abuses in our food system in general. It’s not hard to say things like “if you have access to healthy foods, go vegan” you know, “it’s not easy for everyone to go vegan, but if you have that ability then do so”. It’s not hard to say, “we feel it’s important to acknowledge there is suffering in the chocolate industry, and so we encourage you to buy chocolate that is not from certain areas”. That’s all it has to be – doesn’t mean you are changing anything, it doesn’t mean your publication, your website, your outreach is changing any focus, it’s just asking for that little bit of consistency. I think that little bit of consistency will make people appreciate it, people who are skeptical, people who are listening to you thinking, “well I know my aunt couldn’t go vegan – and they’re saying it’s easy to go vegan”. That’s like, okay, I appreciate that, like you are opening the door a little bit, you are not acting like you know everything, because we don’t, for one thing – we may be good on all the things that impact non-human animals, but there are a plethora of things affecting human animals. So I think for people who already know, who I think happen to be the low hanging fruit, that once we can let them know we are humble enough to acknowledge that, they’re going to be more open minded to listen to what we have to say because we’re not acting as if we know everything.

Caitie Wilson

Caitie Wilson (she/her) is the Communications Manager at Kindness Project and also works as the Administrative, Social Media & Fundraising Manager at Farm Transparency Project. She became vegan after her studies at university with lecturer Peter Singer, and writes on collective liberation with the intention of creating compassion towards each other, towards animals and to our planet. Caitie is passionate about zero waste practices, and likes to experiment with vegan cooking in her spare time. She is currently making efforts towards living in an off-grid tiny home with her partner and rescue pup to direct her interest of sustainable living into her personal life.

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