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Sunday, October 31, 2010

Intolerant for lactose

We just posted a new section to our website on lactose intolerance.

One of the reasons we chose to highlight this issue on our website is because lactose intolerance affects communities of color at a higher rate than others and these are the same communities that are impacted the most by a lack of access to healthy foods – which include alternatives to animal products.

When you consider that 95 percent of Asians, 60 to 80 percent of African Americans, 80 to 100 percent of American Indians and 50 to 80 percent of Latinos are lactose intolerant, this is a huge issue.

In our report Shining a Light on the Valley of Heart’s Delight we found that only 3 percent of locations in lower-income areas (which are predominantly communities of color) had dairy alternatives in comparison to 23 percent in the higher income areas.

And when surveyed on how many stores had any information about lactose intolerance and/or information about alternatives to dairy, NONE of the stores in the lower-income communities had this in comparison to 6.1 percent of the stores in the higher-income communities.

I am not going to throw out any conspiracy theories here (even though I might be tempted), but the real issue is that this is truly wrong, and this situation is responsible for making people sick.

What makes me sad is thinking about how many children and adults probably have no idea they are lactose intolerant and possibly deal with discomfort on a daily basis.

I have no idea if I am lactose intolerant because I am vegan so it is not something I have to worry about, but I have no doubt that this is a real issue for many people given the advertisements for those who are intolerant (oh, the irony of taking a pill so you can consume dairy products versus eating dairy alternatives!).

Not only is this a matter of health, it is a matter of choice. Choice should not be defined by income level, just like healthy food should be a right and not a privilege.

As an organization that seeks to eliminate some of the suffering in this world by encouraging the most just food choices, the Food Empowerment Project advocates people giving up milk (and all animal products) due to the cruelty inherent in the dairy industry.

But the negative environmental impacts that dairy products have is enough to make one give up milk. Considering that one dairy cow produces 25 pounds of wet manure per day, it is no wonder that the dairy industry is wreaking havoc on our waterways.

Avoiding dairy foods is not only an important step for one’s health, but it’s good for the animals as well as the planet.

Not having the option to choose dairy alternatives denies consumers both the opportunity to eat healthier and the opportunity to make choices that are better for the animals and the planet.

A huge thanks to our wonderful volunteer Lex Berko (who is now in London for grad school) for writing this segment and to Valerie Belt for her editing.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

What is an education worth if we aren’t learning?

I gave a talk this week at San Jose State University about food justice (i.e., all of the issues that Food Empowerment Project encompasses). San Jose State (SJSU) is a wonderful university with a great activist tradition.

The class was incredibly attentive and had some wonderful questions.

Most of the students commented that they did not know about the chocolate slavery issue, and one woman who was a vegetarian said that when she lived in Orange County she was able to buy food pretty easily, but where she lives now, she has to take two buses to get to a Whole Foods Market.

They were also unfamiliar with environmental racism, and what resonated with one student was the power of corporations in all of the issues I discussed.

The professor said he was surprised that many of the students did not know anything about these issues; why, he asked, are they not learning at school what is happening in the world? Why wasn’t much of this being discussed both in and out of the classroom?

His question is a good one. Why aren’t students shown how they can make an impact on the world around them? True, it’s important to learn history and gain skills for a particular job. But an education is incomplete if it fails to address the world’s injustices – and how students can take a stand against them.

When I went to college and learned more about the civil rights movement, U.S. prisons, etc., I was amazed at how much was not covered in high school. Since then I have continued to learn about issues and injustices that, much to my surprise, are not even touched upon in many college classrooms. Ironically, some I have learned from listening to music and others through movies.

I have educated myself about amazing, inspiring people around the globe who have risked their lives to fight oppression and who have strived to improve the world – not by increasing their bank accounts, but by speaking out for those less fortunate. To some extent I am sure this is true for many people of color who learn about our heroes in places other than in our history classes.

Somehow the truth of what occurs in the real world is either diluted or skipped altogether. For example, when I was in school, we learned about Anne Frank – and rightly so.

But it was not until much later in life that I learned about the Uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto and the resistance during World War II. Why would we not learn about the part of history in which people rose up to fight against an injustice? To fight for their lives? The true heroes in a despicable part of history?

Could it be that history is told to us to make us tamer, more controlled, maybe even more passive?

While this does not have anything to do with food, what I speak of are the injustices few students – or anyone else, for that matter – seem to learn about, which is an issue the Food Empowerment Project seeks to bring to light.

I was joined in my SJSU talk by a pagan woman who tried to tie my topic to her religion. She stated that many people sit down for dinner and thank God, but that when she and her family sit down at the table to eat, they thank the cow. Umm … the cow. I am always shocked that anyone would do this.

The professor kindly asked me for a response as he saw me emphatically shaking my head.

"Why would anyone thank the cow?" I asked. The cow – or any animal killed for food – has no say, no option, and no choice. Their lives are taken from them. This type of thinking is simply a way to placate someone’s guilt about taking a life. An innocent life.

Again, to my mind, what we should be talking about, we aren’t.

If nothing else, I know these students' minds were opened and many of them truly want to figure out ways in which they can help make a difference.

Imagine if we had every student learning about the injustices in the world and how each one could make a difference. How many more people like Cesar Chavez, Steven Biko, Alice Paul, Dolores Huerta, Elizabeth Katy Stanton, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X (and others who have fought for what they believe in) would we have?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

But I don't want to eat food tainted with slavery....

Working on issues where everyone can make a difference has been one of my goals with Food Empowerment Project, and based on the areas that I am most passionate about, I chose to focus on food. Here I have believed we can all try to do our best to make good choices.

And for the most part, I still believe that to be the case.

Another goal I have had with all the campaigns that I have run is to provide people with something they can do besides donating money so that they are not just bearing witness to all of the horrors and abuses that exist.

You know what I am talking about. You probably get emails and mailings from groups that tell you about the suffering of animals in laboratories or children being abused in other countries and the only thing they tell you that you can do is to donate to them.

As someone who has never had a lot of money, thinking that donating money was the only way I could help prevent injustices has always left me feeling a bit helpless, powerless….

I say all of this as I worry that I have done that with one of the website sections we have posted about imported food products tainted with slavery.

With the chocolate slavery issue it's pretty easy as we can make sure our purchases of chocolate don’t contribute to the continued use of slave labor. With slavery in the U.S. it might not be quite as easy because we won't always know which companies to buy from (again, speaking of produce here because staying away from animal products is a way to steer clear of these exploits), but we can, however, ensure that the media works to expose such labor violations and that legislators work to end it.

But with slavery taking place overseas, and then having this food (again, produce) imported, it means we are faced with a problem that is much more difficult to address. And I know that.

My goal in having that section on our website is for all of us to be aware that this is happening. All over the place – with loads of industries – including food. It is truly important to be informed and dispel the myth that slavery doesn’t exist anymore - even more so that it doesn’t happen here in the U.S.

So I ask that when you read this section in particular, please know that we want you to be informed – not feel helpless as we offer a variety of ways for you to make a difference and change the world with your food choices.

Oh yeah, and if you want, you are welcome to donate too…

Friday, October 22, 2010

Fresh from the farm ... workers

On Saturday, I had the opportunity to go with friends (who are also rock star Food Empowerment Project volunteers) to an event put on by ALBA.They are an amazing organization based in Salinas, CA. One of their programs includes training farm workers (current and past) to become farmers of their own.

I had heard about ALBA when I attended a talk at Stanford University and was really intrigued by their work. When we started developing the farm worker section of our website, we went to tour ALBA’s land and learn more.

During my first visit we were able to speak to one of the ALBA farmers, who also continues to work in the fields. The farm that he works for is a conventional farm that has a section dedicated to organic. It was when he moved from working in the conventional fields to the organic area that he started to get interested in ALBA.

It was interesting to hear about things from his perspective. For some workers, they are defensive when they are told that organic is better. They do not want to feel as if they have been doing anything that would be bad for others, including their families. They are hard workers.

But this worker started to become more interested in organics when he saw that he did not have to put on as much protective clothing as the workers on the conventional farms, and he had seen many on the conventional farms get sick from the agricultural chemicals they were using. When speaking about organics, he kept using the word "limpio," which means “clean” in English.


Who doesn't deserve clean food and a clean way to make a living? It's such an interesting way to look at these issues. For some of the workers, the concern about organic is more about not wanting to feel like they are doing anything wrong.

Why in the hell should they be feeling guilty? In my opinion, they are victims, and in fact, we are all victims of the chemical industry that has convinced us that agricultural chemicals are necessary.

Our day on their farms was amazing. We were able buy fresh strawberries, corn, flowers, kale, etc., right in front of where they were being grown, with the farmers who work the land. Men, women – families – able to take pride in their work.

A special bonus for me was that the sunflowers I had helped plant there had grown huge, and in fact, the seeds were falling out. Something I had never seen before. And the seeds were so delicious and juicy – nothing like I had ever tasted.

I consider ALBA's work not unlike that of a gardener tending to a garden - ALBA provides the support for these farmer workers and in turn the farm workers produce food for us all!