Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Making Human Rights Day More Than Just a Symbolic Action

Below is what I wrote for Pachamama Alliance's blog for Human Rights Day.

With Human Rights Day upon us, Food Empowerment Project (F.E.P.), like many, looks at this day and wonders what we can do to end many of the heartbreaking and abhorrent human rights abuses here and abroad. With the killings of the unarmed Andy Lopez, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and others at the hands of cops, and the horrific murders of the students in Mexico, Human Rights Day feels more like just good intentions with no follow through.

I am overwhelmed by sadness and rage, mostly because I feel absolutely helpless.

One of the reasons I started F.E.P. is the desire to do something to alleviate some of the injustices in the world that I contributed to on a frequent basis, and so I chose to focus on food. And I wanted to encourage people to use their individual choices to reflect their beliefs and their collective voices to help create change.

Going vegan to help eliminate forms of animal oppression is just one part of this.

But it would be a shame to not acknowledge that some of the outrage that is taking place is tied to situations of similar abuse and oppression, and much of it is taking place against people of color, from the lack of access to healthy foods in communities of color and low-income communities to those who pick our food.

Farm workers in this country are victims of human rights abuses, and many are people of color and undocumented. Farm workers feed not only those of us in the state of California, but people around the globe. Unfortunately, farm workers do not make living wages, are often forced to work in dangerous conditions, and are retaliated against and dismissed for exercising their rights. It is well documented that many of the women workers experience egregious forms of sexual harassment, including rape.

Here is an area where changes are coming, but clearly not fast enough. F.E.P. has worked to assist farm workers by organizing not only school supply drives for their children but also food drives for these same workers who help put food on our tables. We are currently working with a coalition to change a regulation that negatively impacts the education of children living in farm worker labor camps in California. And the Coalition of Immokalee Workers unveiled the new Fair Food Program to have workers monitor humane wages and working conditions in the fields.

If only such changes could happen more quickly. A majority of chocolate comes from Western Africa, where children are victims of the worst forms of child labor, including slavery. In fact, according to one report, there are about 1.8 million of these children in Ghana and the Ivory Coast alone. Children are forced to carry heavy cacao pods, and if they do not move fast enough, they are beaten. The children come to the plantations in variety of ways: some are stolen, some are sold, and others go thinking they will be able to help provide some income for their families, whom many will never see again. Some children are locked in overnight and if they try to escape are beaten or killed.

In order to help those who feel compelled to avoid contributing to these kinds of abuses on Human Rights Day – or on any day, for that matter – we created a chocolate list (available on our website and in app form: so that people can buy chocolate that is not sourced from areas where the worst forms of child labor are the most prevalent. And since we are a vegan organization, to be on our list, the companies have to make at least one vegan chocolate.

We recently were able to convince Clif Bar to be transparent about the country of origin for the cocoa they use. Transparency from corporations is one of the first steps. Although the road to ending the worst abuses in the chocolate industry, including child and slave labor, is going to be a long one, corporate transparency is an important step corporations can take to show they are beginning to view the issue seriously.

There are always things we can and must do. And part of this is recognizing that this system that seeks to exploit is one that we must fight – in every form it takes. We must use our voices and actions to speak out against it and hope that one day we can make Human Rights Day more than just a symbolic action. And we need to make sure that we, in the US, take a look at all of the ways we too contribute to human rights violations.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Critical Thinking: Thug Kitchen and “Lactose Intolerance”

Do you ever learn something that makes you look at things in a completely different way? Clearly, many of us probably experienced this when we learned about how animals are abused in our society, or how the worst forms of child labor and slavery exist in the chocolate industry, or what happens to our electronics when we stop using them.

I know that this is how I felt when I learned about the issues above. There was no going back on how I looked at them.

While some of the things we learn about just widen our perspective and help us understand things at a deeper level, others mean that we need to change. And that is part of the mission of Food Empowerment Project, to help people use their food choices to make positive change.

I thought I would have you hear from whom I learned recently.

By now most of you have probably already heard about the controversy regarding Thug Kitchen. I had never heard of Thug Kitchen, and suddenly I was having people ask me about it.

As we have all now learned, it was revealed how these two white people were clearly trying to deceive people by keeping their identities hidden because they were not Black as they had implied. Many feel they were appropriating the vernacular of a certain aspect of Black culture.

However, the reality of what was really going on was crystallized to me when I spoke to Liz Ross, co-founder of Cali Vegans of Color, who explained what was happening here was more about how they were reinforcing negative stereotypes of Black people – and more pointedly, Black men.

I feel like I could say a lot, but I prefer to allow you to hear how Liz explains it:

This vegan cookbook is viewed as creative and funny by those who unfortunately only get their exposure of people of color through Hollywood stereotypes and the sensational evening news. The decision to hide their identities until now clearly indicates culpability. What is even more troubling is that Michelle Davis’ and Matt Holloway’s poor, but obvious, attempt at imitating negative stereotypes of Black men has a serious side, which is why it is offensive.

“Statistics show that Black men are more likely than white men to be stopped by the police without probable cause, frisked, assaulted and murdered, because they tend to view Black men as ‘thugs,’ as criminals, by default. Regardless of whether you agree with this fact, the message you will send to our community is one of indifference to making the connection between the mindset of many Whites and law enforcement officers that criminalizes Black men and the tragic consequences of this.”

To me, enough said. 
There is no need for a dialogue about whether what they did was irresponsible, and the writers need to acknowledge and apologize for perpetuating racist stereotypes. I also think they should donate the proceeds to community groups working on healthy foods in communities of color – and, no, I don’t mean Food Empowerment Project, but groups that are working and living in these communities – Chicago, Detroit, Oakland, areas of L.A., etc.
What they have done here is profit off of racist stereotypes of Blacks in this country. THIS is far worse and offensive than I believe I first understood it to be. 
Around the same time that all of this was going on with Thug Kitchen, a wonderful food sovereignty advocate from Kansas City, Maria Whittaker (program director for Local2Global Advocates for Food Sovereignty and KC Food Justice) posted a study called The Unbearable Whiteness of Milk: Food Oppression and the USDA.  
 I haven’t read the paper in full, but one morsel of information I found will mean we at Food Empowerment Project will refer to lactose intolerance differently. 
The author, Andrea Freeman, writes: “African Americans and Latina/os suffer from the most serious health conditions associated with saturated fats at higher rates than whites. There are significant racial disparities in the number of deaths from cancer, rates of cervical cancer, rates of prostate cancer and the likelihood that a person with prostate cancer will die from it. …African Americans and Latinas/os suffer from heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes at higher rates than whites do.

“Lactose intolerance also affects more African Americans and Latina/os than whites. Even the phrase ‘lactose intolerance’ reflects a cultural bias. A significant percentage of individuals from all communities, with the exception of Scandinavian and Northern European whites, do not retain the enzyme lactase through adulthood. …It would be therefore more appropriate to label people who retain the enzyme as ‘lactose persistent,’ instead of pathologizing the lack of the enzyme.”

She goes on to state that, “Characterizing lactose intolerance as abnormal appears to reflect the belief that the appearances of whites defines the baseline of normal, and any departure signifies an unusual and undesirable condition.”
Pretty cool, eh? Oh, I am sure our volunteer webmasters probably will not be happy and, of course, I am going to have to re-wire my brain when talking about these issues.

But she is right. And sometimes we all need to be willing to make changes in how we think and talk.
How can we improve the world around us if we are unable or too uncomfortable to make changes ourselves?

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

So many lives….

The reality of sitting in front of a slaughterhouse as animals are brought in to be killed is never something those who care about animals can really prepare themselves for.  I had to do this again recently in preparation for our vigil in front of Petaluma Poultry, a local slaughterhouse, and I was thankful to have one of our volunteers with me (thanks, Sarah!), as no one wanted me to do it by myself.

I can get into “work mode,” like I did when I was doing more factory farming investigations – get the footage and get out – and break down later. It was different at the slaughterhouse, as we needed to stay and watch trucks come in order to know what times we should be there to bear witness.

So many lives! That is all that kept running through my head – these are all babies, so many babies. All of these gentle little birds crammed into crates, loaded on trucks, and moved around like boxes.

Soon we will also do our part to bear witness to these birds as they arrive.

Petaluma Poultry can talk all they want about how their chickens are raised, but in the end, every individual bird will perish at the slaughterhouse.

Last year, Mark and I traveled to Toronto, as I was giving a talk at the conference, “Human Rights Are Animal Rights: A conference on commonalities of oppression” held in Guelph, Ontario, Canada.

Mark’s book Bleating Hearts had just come out, and we met up with Jo-Anne McArthur, who took the photo on the cover. (Read more about Jo-Anne in Mark’s recent interview with her.)

I was very familiar with Jo-Anne’s powerful images of activists giving water to pigs in a transport truck on their way to the slaughterhouse. The person I was not familiar with was the woman who started Toronto Pig Save: Anita Krajnc.

We were lucky that Jo-Anne had invited her to lunch with us. She talked about the influences of Tolstoy on her life and the concept of bearing witness: “When the suffering of another creature causes you to feel pain, do not submit to the initial desire to flee from the suffering one, but on the contrary, come closer, as close as you can to him who suffers, and try to help.”

Anita invited us to participate in the vigil that night at the cow slaughterhouse. Mark and I had never been to Toronto before and, being activists, we felt this was an important way to get a feel for the city.

Did I mention it was November and it was freezing? To those of you who know me, I don’t mean it was below 70 degrees: it was really freezing!

We went.

There were about six of us. We got there before Anita and were welcomed by some of her crew (including a great activist named Bo). Those we met included a former chicken slaughterhouse worker and a couple of other activists. It was one of those rare animal events where men were the majority and it was equal between people of color.

We held signs as people drove by.

The owner of the slaughterhouse was leaving as we were there and Anita pulled us over to meet him, which Mark and I were both incredibly uncomfortable with. But it was clear Anita was engaging him in respectful conversation, and she gave him a copy of Forks Over Knives to read and encouraged him to no longer be a part of the bloody business he was in.

Later, we went over to the chicken slaughterhouse where they also do outreach. This happened to also be the slaughterhouse where our fellow activist had worked. He pointed the setup out to us.

While we were there, I mentioned to Anita that I wanted to work with her and figure out how to be a part of what she had created – I was inspired!

Coming back to where I live now in Sonoma County, we have a number of slaughterhouses. It has always amazed me that people could pass by and not think once of the lives taken inside them on a daily basis. So that is also where Sonoma County Chicken Save has come from: a desire to not let people drive by slaughterhouses guilt-free, and also to bear witness as an activist.

Would I love for the slaughterhouse to shut down? Absolutely! But until that happens, I want to make sure that those who drive by are reminded that when they eat animals they are taking a life. I want them to see us on a regular basis and eventually come to talk to us and make changes.

But in addition to this, we will also be handing out whistleblower cards to the workers.

No one who kills animals every day wants to do this job – circumstances are why they are there and given the 100% turnover rate, it is clear that most want to get out.

In fact, Rick, one of our board members, sent me a fascinating article on some workers who, in 2012, filed a complaint to OSHA against a pig farm due to the horrifying conditions they encountered, including dangerous workplace hazards (like toxic fumes and unsafe structures), inadequate or totally absent safety equipment, being discouraged from going to the doctor for injuries, wage theft, and similar treatment.

They also filed a civil rights complaint based on the racial discrimination they faced – such as white workers being treated very differently than the Mexican workers, and being berated for speaking Spanish – and an animal welfare complaint documenting the abuse they had witnessed.

What was interesting to me was the fact that when these workers were empowered to talk about their own abuse, they also chose to take the opportunity to speak about the pigs. They reported pigs who were sick, had maggots on their legs, and pigs who they had seen kicked, slapped, and hurt by supervisors.

Maybe when workers are able to speak up and defend themselves, they might be more likely to speak up about the other non-human animal abuses that they see and which bother them.

Anita’s work with the Save movement inspires me with her intelligence and heart.

And this work is about the animals and keeping the focus on them - not just for a day, but for as long as they are there, and not just once and walking away, but being a constant presence for them.

And that is something we all owe them.

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.