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.

Friday, January 17, 2014

In Memoriam: Robin Romano

Food Empowerment Project lost a powerful ally in our fight—his wisdom and talents helped to shape our work and give a face to our campaigns. You have seen his work on our website.

I have a hard time accepting that Robin Romano is gone.

There is a lot to say about Robin’s work and who he was, but I feel it is important for our supporters to know who he is and what he meant to us.

When I first connected with Robin, I knew that he was one of the filmmakers for The Dark Side of Chocolate, but I didn’t know much more. After looking over our website, he happened to mention to me that his images—truly telling photographs—were on our site. 

He also mentioned that he was the filmmaker for the documentary film The Harvest/La Cosecha, which is about farm worker’s children, who have to work in the fields alongside their parents and siblings here in the US.

It was incredible and wonderful to find someone whose work and passion matched ours so well.

It was as if F.E.P. had a filmmaker and photographer who could capture the beauty and pain of child labor and made the case for why F.E.P.’s work is so important.

During this time, F.E.P. was also in the process of creating our chocolate list as well as dealing with Clif Bar. Robin was instrumental in helping us focus our chocolate list criteria. Given all that he had seen in West Africa, he was well aware of how prevalent the problem was there and that certifications did not matter. 

In fact, during one of these times, he had just gotten back from his work on Shady Chocolate, the sequel to The Dark Side of Chocolate, and his contribution to our effort was the image he took in West Africa of the two girls on a Rainforest Alliance field, which we use on our Clif Bar petition.

Robin would spend hours with me on the phone, telling me his ideas about possible solutions, problems with various groups, legislation, his hopes, and always being so willing to connect me with others.  

A number of times I would call him very upset because I felt like the jerk  in the room – speaking to people who grew organic food and letting them know that organic didn’t mean the workers were treated any better, or butting heads with organizations that were too close to various certifications. He told me that he was always “the asshole in the room” and now it was my turn. He let me know he would be there for me during these times – someone needed to speak the truth.

The last time I spoke with Robin was about my TEDx talk. He was interested in how I was going to tie in all of the issues (veganism, farm workers, and chocolate), and he gave me his consent to use his images. 

He was driving in upstate New York with farm worker advocates—who he promptly introduced me to and had them send me his most recent photos. He sounded like Robin, his mind going 100 miles an hour.  

I feel the epitome of who Robin is can be seen in Shady Chocolate. There is a scene where a young boy has cut his leg with a machete. You can hear Robin’s voice as the narrator explains that the photographer bandages the child up and has decided to take him to the doctor. That’s Robin. Robin wasn’t just a filmmaker who was there to capture images and tell a story. He wanted to change that story. He wanted to make things better; he wanted justice.

Most of the images that we use from Robin relate directly to our work. What I have included on this blog are some beautiful images that Robin sent to me of where he lived.  I wanted to show how Robin could not only capture some of the pain in this world, but the beauty.

He captured beauty and injustice with the same grace and dignity.

Robin, you are truly missed, and our world will never be the same without you. And the children have lost a great defender.

We are so thankful for all that you taught us, and we will continue to work to make you proud.