Monday, September 1, 2014

My fast food confession

(Trigger warning: Sexual harassment and assault)

If you are thinking that this blog is going to be about how I sneak and eat McDonald’s French fries – sorry!

Food Empowerment Project has just put a new section on our website about restaurant workers. We do so not only because this issue is about food justice, but also because we fully support any effort to raise the minimum wage for ALL workers. Most importantly, we do so because everyone deserves to make a living wage to improve their quality of life, and living wages will help ensure that everyone has access to healthy foods.

For me, the issues of restaurant and fast food workers hit pretty close to home. When my parents divorced, my mom raised my two sisters and me by herself. Now and then, she worked both a full-time and a part-time job to help make ends meet. At times, these were at a fast food restaurant (hence my love of French fries, which I associate with my mom coming home late).

When I was in high school, I was already vegetarian, but I knew nothing about the beak trimming of chicks for eggs or the forcible separation of momma cows and their babies for milk. My sisters had gone off to college (it was very important to my mom for her kids to go to college, which she had not done), and it was just my mom and me. And, unfortunately, at that time my mom was not working consistently.

The only job that I could get that allowed me to be fully responsible for myself and that I could walk to was at a fast food restaurant. They sold burgers and some Mexican food (this was in San Antonio); eventually, while working there, I became an animal activist and went vegan, so this was incredibly difficult for me (in fact, painful). I worked the registers and the French fry fryers, and I was often asked what I would recommend. I would explain I didn’t eat animals and would recommend the bean tacos and French fries – they would, of course, oblige by then ordering a fish sandwich! (Not recognizing that fish are animals!)

Even though I was in high school, I was allowed to work about 60 hours a week, which I readily accepted so I could earn overtime (Saturdays and Sundays from 6 a.m. to midnight, 6 p.m. to midnight during the week). I continued to work there for a short time in college (in addition to a job on campus to pay for my tuition), but eventually my oldest sister helped me get another job.

The owners of the establishment were brothers – white – and all but a couple of the employees (one being the wife of one of the owners) were all people of color – Latino or Black.

I can say that, at the time, all of the workers got along pretty well; however, sexual abuse in this place was consistent.

One of the owners was in charge of a different location, but every time he came in, I could count on comments about my body, telling me to do certain things so he could watch me, and expressions of interest in my personal and sexual life.

Unfortunately, however, that was not the only kind of abuse: at one point, the manager of the store put my hand over the grill, telling me he was going to burn my hand until I told him I loved him. I was often shoved in the freezer (which I was not familiar with, as I would not go where the “meat” was kept), with one of the workers who would try to kiss and/or give me hickeys. This was the culture of this workplace: even the men who were uncomfortable would go along with it – sometimes getting me in the freezer and asking if they could just pinch my neck so it would look like they had done it.

These are those situations where I look back on and wonder, What was wrong with me? Why didn’t I quit? Why didn’t I report this?

I can tell you why, and I know without a doubt it is exactly the same reason why other women put up with this at food establishments and in the fields: you do not want to lose your job. You are scared and figure you can put up with it because you need the money. You need to survive.

It is not pretty, but it is true.

And this does not include injuries – I still have back pain due to a fall on the job, and, yes, I had no health insurance. During the rush hour, I would constantly be splashed with grease as I put the frozen French fries into the fryer.

My mom knew absolutely nothing about this. No one outside of there did. I was ashamed. Years later, I did tell my mom, as my experience there was impacting my relationships. Of course, she was heartbroken. But it was not her fault.

This is now my shame for having worked in a place that served animals as well as not speaking up about what was happening to me, but it was my reality and it is also still the reality of so many workers today.

I have fears about sharing this publicly; I can count on one hand how many people know about this. My shame and regret are real – I was able to stay and be vegan (creating some pretty creative meals and still attending protests and starting an animal rights group at my high school and college), but I served animals and, well, I also did not stand up for myself as a woman. Both of these realities make me sad to say. But I write all of this with the hope that people will have a better understanding of the predicament many workers are placed in, where they do not have the privilege of living their values.

And in case it is not obvious to some readers (and thanks to my friend pattrice for encouraging me to point this out more directly), there is a connection here. The same situation of workers (especially women) being put in positions of exploitation, violence, and sexual abuse is very similar to the animals whose dead bodies were being sold there.  All are animals who are raised for food and subject to horror of slaughter and being prevented from determining what they do with their own bodies.

We need to stop all of these horrors from taking place.

If you want to investigate additional problematic issues with fast food, you can read more on our website.

Even though I still struggle with feelings of shame from these experiences, I share them with the hope that people will try to have a more compassionate, full view of what happens behind the scenes, and also why sometimes people who are less financially privileged do what they do. Unfortunately, many times we pay a high price for what it does to our souls.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

What more do they have to do?

Recently an adorable and brave kitty made international news when a video of her showed that she risked her own life to chase away a dog who was attacking a little boy with whom she lived. Experts were interviewed to explain why a cat (who was certainly smaller than this dog) would risk her life. Many talked about how cats will go into burning buildings to save their kittens, and one explained how this cat saw this little boy as a member of her own family who would need protection. One could have argued that “instinct” motivated her to protect her own babies, but why a human?

And even more recently, a bear imprisoned in a zoo was caught on video saving a drowning crow. The bear used her* mouth to get the crow out of the water. Why? Did she know the crow? Who knows, but she knew the crow was in distress. And she made the decision to save him.

You might imagine these are rare instances caught on video. But how many more times does this occur without our knowledge? I figure they are countless.

And for some of us, this is not surprising, especially when we have lived with family members who walk on four legs.

Some have dogs whom they have played with and know very well their dog could pull away during a game of tug of war—but they don’t. They WANT to play and don’t cross over the boundary. And I remember my beloved kitty Malcolm (whom I had from when he opened his eyes until he was 16) would growl at the front door when strangers were there.

Animals have demonstrated their ability to use moral reason, yet human animals come up with many abstract reasons as to why we have the “right” to treat non-human animals as we do. When will our excuses end?

What more do non-human animals have to do?

We know they suffer.

And they suffer intensely when they have their babies taken away.

Remember the heart-wrenching scene in Blackfish where the mother cries when her baby is taken away? It is a noise many viewers had never heard before.

Certainly you have read stories about mother cows who cry when their babies are taken away from them so human animals can drink their milk.

The media celebrates when an animal escapes from a slaughterhouse and gets to live his life at a sanctuary.

People adopt hens and yet still eat other chickens at dinner.

Why do we feel some are the lucky ones? Why not allow them all to be lucky?

We have that power.

Maybe we need to show our morality.

I have to wonder what more animals have to do before we allow them to just be who they are without the fear of pain (emotional and physical) from us.

Of course, I will still be glad when I hear and see these stories in the news.

I can’t deny that I am thankful that people celebrate happy animal stories and that these stories get so much attention because they force us all to see these animals in a different way.

I can just hardly wait until we all recognize that we do have the power to make them all happier.

*For ease I reference the bear as a she and the crow as he; I do not know if this is correct.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Appreciating those who feed us

Last year, Food Empowerment Project (F.E.P.) organized a school supply drive for the children of farm workers living in a nearby labor camp (through Center for Farmworker Families). And thanks to our generous supporters, we were able to donate more than 40 backpacks, hundreds of pieces of paper, pens, pencils, and more.

F.E.P. works to support various legislation, regulations, and corporate campaigns, but we also try to find other creative and more direct ways we can help to make a difference.

In the fall, I was asked by AshEL Eldridge with ACE (educates and inspires young people to break through the challenge of climate change) to speak at an event for a group of students in Salinas. I talked about veganism and how animals are raised and killed for food, as well as the lack of access to healthy foods. I was shocked to find out that the salad bar at one of the high schools had been taken out. Yes, in an area where lettuce is grown, the school took out the salad bar. We ate a delicious meal and were able to watch AshEL perform his song “Food Fight.” 

This year, we joined with ACE and other organizations to support a student-led effort to organize a farm worker appreciation day in Salinas on June 15th

In addition, F.E.P. organized a vegan food drive across the Bay Area to help provide much-needed food for farm workers. Many thanks to incredible support from Republic of V (Berkeley), Marin Humane Society, Thoreau Center for Sustainability at the Tides Foundation (San Francisco), Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA) (Oakland), Human Agenda (San José), and the Stanford Prevention Research Center.

“I know this sounds absurd. But agribusiness does not pay its farm workers enough to feed them.” That is what my friend Bruce at the Thoreau Center for Sustainability said to encourage others to donate to farm workers. 

We collected more than 100 cans of food, 47 bags of bean, 15 bags of rice, 18 packages or dried fruit and nuts, 19 containers of non-dairy milks, 28 packages of baby food, 22 boxes of cereal or oats, 18 jars of peanut butter, and well, the list goes on.

I was completely blown away by everyone’s generosity. Truly. And of course the food was vegan and the vast majority was organic. It was emotional to carry dozens of bags into my apartment (not to mention incredibly heavy!) to do the count (trust me, the school supplies were much lighter!).

And it was clear that many of those who donated felt pride too, letting us know that they donated and letting us know how they told cashiers and others why they were doing this – using it as to tool to inform others of this injustice. 

When picking up the food donations, all of the locations expressed appreciation for being a part of the drive, part of an effort to give back to those who we are so absurdly separated from in our food supply.
The event itself was wonderful. Dozens of students helped us unload the truck full of food we brought and help to organize it. Organizers began the event (99% in Spanish) by explaining that it was vegan and zero waste.

F.E.P. was able to secure a grant from VegFund to help pay for the prepared meal that was entirely vegan! A group called Food What? prepared the beans, rice, corn tortillas, delicious fillings, and a variety of green salads.

It was a cold and windy day, but we were able to hand out bag after bag of food to the farm workers. They were so incredibly appreciative – just as we are for all that they do for us. Even some of the highest paid farm workers only earn $9 an hour to put a roof over their heads and feed their families.

If our food was able to help them, even just for a week to save money for something else they need, it was all worth it.

I was able to speak (with the translation help of board member Tatiana) about how animals are raised for food, the need to not support corporations such as KFC, McDonald’s, and Coca-Cola, and the importance of taking care of our health and not eating animal products, which are not good for us.

The event itself was inspiring, as it was not an opportunity to just thank the farm workers and send them off, but provide them with information on climate change, veganism, using non-toxic products (which are also cruelty-free), and how to protect themselves in the fields.

Addressing these systemic problems at a one-day event will never be enough. We must work to change the systems that are in place that deny farm workers living wages, healthy worker conditions, access to healthy foods, and end the many abuses they face as they work to put food on millions of tables in not only the U.S. but around the world.

It’s easy to say that the system is broken. But, unfortunately, it is a system that was not created to benefit the workers, to create equality and justice. Our food system treats healthy eating as a privilege instead of a right. We need a system where all living beings live and thrive without exploitation. The current systems are ones we must re-create, and with your help and generosity I believe we can do it.

Thanks to Mark, Tatiana, and Jon for all they did to help with the event, and to Bee for setting up our event page. 

Thanks also to the students from Salinas High School and Alisal High School for helping set up the food donation table. 

We also appreciate AshEL, Victoria, and Miriam for all of their help with the food.

Many thanks to VegFund for helping to pay for the prepared foods and for all who did the cooking.

A huge thank you to everyone who donated and to all of the drop-off locations: Republic of V, Thoreau Center for Sustainability, Marin Humane Society (which brought in the most foods), Human Agenda, PANNA, and the Stanford Prevention and Research Center.

Thanks to all of the students and organizations for their vision and work on this event.

Thanks to everyone who donated food and helped to spread the word.

And, of course, thanks to the farm workers, to whom we owe our health and with whom we will continue to struggle for the rights they so deserve.

If you were not able to donate food but would like to help cover some of the costs F.E.P. incurred, it would be appreciated.

See more photos:

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Let the kids’ games begin!

Earlier this month, Food Empowerment Project (F.E.P.) was able to participate in one of our favorite events of the year: the Green Kids Conference, which was started and is organized by kids! The event is hosted by Microsoft in Mountain View and is dedicated to raising awareness among children about caring for the environment.

At this event, F.E.P. not only informed attendees about animals raised and killed for food (veganism), the use of the worst form of child labor (including slavery) in the chocolate industry, lack of access to healthy foods in communities of color and low-income communities, and the plight of farm workers, but we also focus on playing games.

The first year we participated at Green Kids, we launched our Guess the Produce game where kids have to identify various fruits and veggies. We have since created a more formalized game with answer cards.

Because the children who attend this event are from all over the world, we made a point to make sure that the produce is international. We want children to appreciate the delicious food from their culture. (When I told one child that eggplant came from India, he said with pride, “That is where I am from!”)

Our newest game is called “Water Wasters” and features a panda brushing his teeth, and the kids have to circle the various ways that he is wasting water. Kids quickly circle the bathroom faucet running, the lawn sprinkler on while it is raining, and the leaky kitchen faucet. But two typically stump them: water bottles on the kitchen counter and a bucket of chicken on the table.

Most kids eventually do get the water bottles (many parents proudly explained that they do not buy water bottles), but most do not recognize that eating chickens wastes a lot of water. What is always exciting are the kids who do circle it and proudly explain that they do not eat chickens! We tell everyone that we discourage people from eating animals for their sake and the environment.
It is always fun to watch kids bring others over to play our games.

And the adults’ responses are always interesting. One woman said that her boyfriend and his son were trying to get her to go vegetarian and said that the fact that it takes 25 gallons of water to produce one pound of chicken “meat” would encourage her to do so.

Of course, our prizes were very popular! Every child who played one game received either a plain or colored pencil, and those who participated in both games also won a card for a free meal at Veggie Grill. (We’re very grateful to this wonderful vegan company for generously donating the cards.)

A group of us were able to convince the Green Kids Conference organizers that the food should be vegan there (and now all of it is). The event still has some issues, but hopefully we can continue to work with them to understand the importance of respecting all life.

Thanks to our volunteers Mark, Lori, Teri, and Kat for adding to the fun!

And a huge thank-you to our volunteer designer Dave Vander Maas for drawing our Water Wasters game. 

Monday, February 10, 2014

Food Chain: Vegan Retention Newsletter


Food Empowerment Project
(F.E.P.) has completed Food Chain, our vegan retention newsletter. This blog is not to explain what Food Chain is or how you can sign up, as our website does those things (and lists some of our donors who went above and beyond to help us get it printed).

Instead, this is a celebration and explanation of Food Chain. As many of you know, F.E.P. is primarily an all-volunteer organization. Because of this, it took us about seven years to complete the series of 12 issues; however, it has been a project of love and hope.

Hope because we want to make sure that people who want to go vegan have the resources, tools, and support to help them stick with it. We lose too many people who have the passion when they first learn about what happens to animals who are raised and killed for food, and the hope is that we can keep them vegan. The more time in their lives they can spend being vegan, the more lives are saved. We want veganism to be positive as well as infectious.

Love because what we discuss are issues close to my heart, and as painful as they can be, they are issues that (for the most part) we can work to remedy, and injustices we can avoid contributing to.

The idea for Food Chain came from work I did in Texas. After I graduated from college at St. Edward’s University, I was hired to help some researchers on a project for the Texas Department of Health (the Governor at that time was Ann Richards). The project was to help prevent child abuse.

The concept is simple: babies do not come with instructions, and the more parents can learn about what to expect (development, what games to play, etc.), the less stressful it is for the parents. Also, parents (of all backgrounds, education, and income levels) might not have time to read books about raising children. So a newsletter called Building Blocks was created and sent to participants. Parents would receive one issue a month for a year (based on the age of the child) and then after the child was a year old, they would receive a newsletter every three months until the child was about three. Researchers would also go into the homes and do interviews with the parents to see how it was working. Issues included information on where the child’s development should be at certain ages (so if there was a concern, they could go to the doctor), as well as simple things such as how many children you should invite to the child’s birthday as they age. I remember receiving a letter from parents (each with a PhD) who loved receiving the newsletter, as they were very busy and it helped keep everything in check for them.

And well, that is what we are hoping to do with Food Chain. We want to give people a snapshot of information covering a variety of issues about going vegan, and collect data to determine what information is the most effective in helping them go and stay vegan. This will help shape how we craft future editions of Food Chain so we can constantly improve it (versus just printing materials and not gauging its effectiveness).

We have it in printed form, as not everyone has the privilege of regular or easy access to the internet. Students who might only have internet access at school or at the library can sign up online and have the newsletter mailed to them at home. We will also make it available for people who sign up at our events.

And lastly, the point of this blog is to thank the many, many, many individuals who made Food Chain possible.

My deepest appreciation for everyone who contributed to this one-of-a-kind effort.

Thanks to these individuals who donated countless hours of the time (years) and talents working on Food Chain: Valerie Belt (co-coordinator), Karen Emmerman, Katie Gillespie, Kate Goldhouse, Mark Hawthorne, and Niki Mazaroli.


Rescue Stories : VINE Sanctuary, United Poultry Concerns, for the Animals Sanctuary, Farm Sanctuary, and Animal Place.
Recipes: Isa Chandra Moskowitz, Fabiana Arrastia, Vegan Zombie, Carol Adams and Patti Breitman, Kate Goldhouse, Jake Conroy and Allison Rivers Samson.
Nutritional Experts: Jack Norris, RD, and Michael Greger, MD
Designers: Raven + Crow Studio
Researcher who created our survey: Carol Glasser.

And thanks to webmaster John Eckman for getting it all up.
Fundraising Video: Michelle Cehn & Pancakes

And all of those who wrote, edited, and contributed in various ways: Carol Adams, Lex Berko, Sarah Brown, Rick Chowdhry, Kat Connors, Sharon Daraphonhdeth, Karen Davis, Bob Esposito, Camilla Fox, Che Green, Josh Hooten, Laura Hudson, pattrice Jones, Rick Kelley, Jennifer Knapp, Nora Kramer, Linda LaMar, Emily Lobsinger, Mia MacDonald, Mercy For Animals, Sandra Miller, Nassim Nobari, Dana Portnoy, Sea Shepherd, Ellen Sweeny, Mat Thomas, Laura Toller-Gardner, Dave Vander Maas, Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary, and Colleen Wysocki.

Donors who contributed outside of our fundraising effort: Chris Van Breen and VegFund.

Again, to get people to sign up for Food Chain, just head over to our website.