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Sunday, October 23, 2011

Hash brown Stick w/Ketchup

Hash brown stick with ketchup. That is one of the things you would have had for lunch this week if you were an elementary school student in the Alum Rock Unified School District.

I try to picture what it would look like. Would it be on a Popsicle stick? Would grease be running down the sides?

I don’t have children, but I am well aware that schools don't typically offer the healthiest of foods for their students.

A wonderful community group in San José called Somos Mayfair recently surveyed members in their community regarding the school lunch program. I volunteered to enter some of the data and then participated in their community meeting to discuss the results.

The entire event was in Spanish, and although the meeting was not as well attended as they had hoped for, the energy in the room was overwhelming. I sat at a table with a woman and her two children. Her son, about 5, was eating baby carrots, watermelon and popping fresh garbanzo beans out of the pods into his mouth. I asked if he ate like this all of the time, and his mother said he does when he is at home because he loves his veggies.

The cafeteria menu* for that district was shown to me for that school was anything but healthy. Here are some of the options for breakfast: breakfast pizza, cinnamon glazed pancake, pork sausage biscuit and Trix yogurt. Some of the healthier options included whole grain cereal and applesauce cup.

Lunch: chicken hot dog w/ketchup, French bread pizza, PBJ sandwich (not so bad!), mini cheeseburger w/ketchup, turkey soft taco w/taco sauce, beef-and-bean burritos, corn dogs and chicken nuggets and hash brown stick w/ketchup.

The menu does show that they have some sort of salad bar available, however, as someone who first went vegetarian when I was in elementary school, I don’t imagine I could eat salad every day in fact when I was in college many years ago, I became anemic because of salads being my only option.

We discussed different things that needed to be done and, well, my suggestion of having the Child Nutrition Services Board eat from the school lunch menu for at least two weeks got a positive reaction.

The findings in the surveys showed that even though the majority of the children qualified for the free-lunch program, many didn’t take advantage of it because the food being offered was so unhealthy.

And what about any of the kids who have a strong love and compassion for animals? What are their options? Again, they should be given choices – not to mention that these types of choices will lead them to eating healthier food as they get older.

But, I started to wonder if I compared the school lunch menus of the students who live in the Mayfair neighborhood in East San José to those who live in Palo Alto. The Mayfair neighborhood (where Cesar Chavez lived at one point) is made up of immigrants, mostly from Mexico. And, well, Palo Alto is a very affluent area.

I just couldn’t imagine students in Palo Alto eating these types of meals.

So, for this blog, I looked it up:

Palo Alto School District Menu

Sample of some of the Lunch options: Hearty Garden Salad with Sunflower Seeds or Cheese Ravioli with Wheat Roll, Bean & Cheese Burrito, Assorted Vegetables, Assortment of Fruit, or Minnie Mouse Salad with Wheat Roll, Hamburger on Whole Wheat Bun, or Bosco Sticks with Marinara Sauce.

Alum Rock Unified School District Menu:

Right. No surprises.

I am sure that people can explain economics and the reasons why, but personally I don’t care about any excuses regarding economics; I care about equality, and I care about justice.

So not only do people of color and low-income communities face a lack of healthy foods in their neighborhoods as compared to others, but they suffer this same injustice in the PUBLIC schools?

This is wrong and no words can make it any better.

But hopefully with more groups like Somos Mayfair asking tough questions of those in charge, changes can happen and kids, regardless of their background, can grow up healthy and happy.

*Thank goodness for California’s new law; with SB 1413, California schools are required to provide access to drinking water in the meal areas. Yes, without that, the students wouldn’t have access.

Monday, September 26, 2011

From hippies to hipsters: Vegan cookbooks

Every social justice movement has a history of events and milestones that you can look back on to see how far it has come. With veganism, we have a variety of things with which we can measure its influence: for example, no longer having to add boiling water to powder to make veggie burgers, an increase in dining options, and of course our cookbooks.

I recently received a copy of The 30-Day Vegan Challenge by Colleen Patrick-Goudreau, and my first impression was it is a gorgeous book. It’s happy, inviting and the recipes definitely look delicious!

I had to think for a second why I was so damned impressed with the book. And I realized, vegan cookbooks didn’t exactly start out that way.

For those of you who know me well, you know that for me, making spaghetti (noodles from a box and sauce from a jar) is a big cooking ordeal, so what do I know about cookbooks?

The answer is – a fair amount. Now, what do I know about cooking – absolutely nothing.

In the ‘80s when I went vegan and got involved in the animal rights movement, recipes were mostly typed pieces of paper with ingredients and preparation instructions on them that were copied one too many times. Eventually, groups began to make their own little booklets of recipes – typed – no pictures. Eventually, PeTA started to include small recipe cards in their magazines with drawings on them.

In the ‘90s some great cookbooks came out, including my favorite, The Compassionate Cook by PeTA, and although the cookbook had a great drawing by Berke Breathed on the front cover (and great recipes) it was still only the recipes, just like Vegan Vittles by Jo Stepaniak.

And one of my favorite cookbooks (again, I only eat the food, I don’t make it) is from a vegetarian cookbook (almost vegan), The New Farm Vegetarian Cookbook created by the good people in Summertown, TN. It did have black-and-white photographs and well……..umm… looked pretty hippie and (no offense to the hippies who read this blog), that particular look can only win a certain audience.

Then in 1999, something happened and veganism got hip (well, we already were, but our cookbooks started to shout it!) That was the year How It All Vegan by Tanya Barnard & Sarah Kramer came out and it was quirky, cool and tasty!

Later, Isa Chandra Moskowitz tipped the scale with Vegan with a Vengeance and then it was all over – delicious color recipes and people knew exactly how cool vegans were and could be. Then in 2006, Isa helped us to conquer the country’s cupcake craze with another outstanding cookbook – Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World.

In 2007, we got a taste of Colleen’s first cookbook, The Joy of Vegan Baking, which welcomed us to this joy with a picture of delicious cookies on the front and healthy pie and bread recipes inside.

Melisser Elliott continued the trend with The Vegan Girl’s Guide to Life, which had recipes and more.

And well, Colleen, Isa, Sarah and the rest continue to show off loads of recipes with gorgeous color photos! Yes, our food looks tasty, healthy (when it should) and so decadent when it needs to.

Obviously this is not a history of vegan cookbooks as much as it is a walk through it from my perspective. We have come a long way from the days of squeezing vegan cheese out of tubes (that would plasticize when baked),and our cookbooks no longer make it seem as if our food isn’t tasty enough to display or is "full of hay."*

For me, cookbooks have always been a decoration, more of a status symbol to others to show them how many vegan cookbooks are out there. You can learn from me: you don’t have to cook to enjoy cookbooks; just find someone who knows how to cook!

*Hey where did the hay comment come from? When I was in college the Beyond Beef Campaign (started by Jeremy Rifkin) organized a day where activists around the country would have a delicious-looking veggie burger in front of McDonald’s to show how delicious they could be. At our event in Austin, two men came up wearing cowboy hats. One with a bun and some hay inside the other was more dressed up. By the time they arrived the media had left so we were able to confront them and after I debated with one of them for a while one of the activists commented on my ‘bravery’ I asked why – she said he was the Agricultural Commissioner of Texas. And now, this idiot is running for President – he is the Governor of Texas Rick Perry (the other was the head of the Cattlemen’s Association).

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Activism Down Under Part 2: The Aussies

As my last blog post explained, I was recently in New Zealand speaking at their national animal rights conference. Since I had flown that far already, it made sense to travel to Australia as well. I had never been there so I was looking forward to meeting activists with whom I had worked on various campaigns.

Before starting Food Empowerment Project, I was the Executive Director of a group called Viva!USA, and one of our campaigns we ran was against Adidas for their use of kangaroo skins for their soccer cleats.

Over the years, I have had the privilege of spending time with animals in a more natural environment at sanctuaries throughout the United States. It is truly a joy to be around animals like ducks, pigs, chickens, turkeys, cows, and sheep, especially since people often think of them as food. But observing them when they are allowed to be the individuals they are, indulging in their instinctual behaviors, well, it can be a life-altering experience. Yet one animal I had spent years protecting, and one I was unsure if I would ever see in person, is the kangaroo.

I was lucky enough to meet one of the activists I have been working with on behalf of roos: Lindy Stacker. Because I had never met Lindy in person, she brought along a special companion so I would recognize her at the airport. There is nothing quite like being greeted by an incredible woman/activist and an inflatable kangaroo!

Lindy took us to an orphanage where we met a baby wallaby and both Eastern and Red Kangaroos. We were able to touch them, and I even felt the tail of a Red Kangaroo hit my leg; his strength was amazing.

We also met another individual who deserves mention. His name is Howard Ralph.

Howard is a medical doctor, surgeon, aesthetician, and a veterinarian. He is all of these and, well, an incredibly humble and gentle man.

After some coaxing from Lindy, he eventually handed me a photo album wrapped in a pillow case.

I had anticipated seeing images of injured kangaroos whom he had helped heal. What I had not expected to see was the range of animals this man has sought to help and cure: the small frog whose leg was broken and he put a pin in to fix, tortoises whose shells had been cracked when they were hit by a car, the wombat with cataracts, as well as the snakes, kangaroos, owls, possums, koalas, echidna, bats, and more.

His thought and practice has been, if you can help humans with this experience, why not animals?

The pictures in his “bible” were of animals before, during, and after surgery.

Here is one story: A bearded dragon suffered a fractured mandible after being hit by a car. Under anesthetic, the fracture was pinned and, because the lizard wouldn’t be able to eat for some months while his fracture healed, an oesopitalostomy tube was inserted to allow him to eat until he was well again. According to Howard, the patient healed.

There is also the story of the brushtail possum who was taken to the vet and was going to be killed because he had a broken arm! Just because of a broken arm. Luckily, the vet’s nurse knew about Howard, and she took the possum to see him.

More stories and even images can be seen here:

Unfortunately, donations are difficult to send from the states, but Food Empowerment Project plans to do some sort of event to showcase Howard’s efforts and raise needed funds for his clinic, Southern Cross Wildlife Care, which truly embodies the belief that every individual matters. (Everything that is done at this clinic, including the work of Howard and Lindy, is done as volunteers; the clinic receives no government funding.)

The world needs more doctors like Howard Ralph. If they have the experience, they should put their talents into practice to save lives – all lives, big and small.

Of course, we need not be a gifted vet to help animals. We all have the power to impact their lives every day by choosing to keep them off our plates.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Activism Down Under Part I: The Kiwis

I recently had the opportunity to go to New Zealand to give a talk in Wellington as well as speak at the country’s national animal rights conference in Auckland.

First of all, not only is New Zealand beautiful, but from Air New Zealand to the country’s shops, airports and buses, it is amazing how friendly people are. This is not an ad for New Zealand; however, it was very telling as our flight back was on a U.S.-based airline, and the staff was not nearly as polite. But I digress…

In Wellington we met some wonderful activists – some who had been around for a while and others who were new. The first evening we were there I gave a talk on food justice and the work of Food Empowerment Project.

In preparation for my talks, I had done some research on food security issues in New Zealand to see if the situation was any different from the U.S. Unfortunately, what I found was the same situation: it is primarily the indigenous Maori people who are living in areas where it is difficult to find healthy foods – fresh fruits and vegetables. And they too are lactose intolerant.

As much as I was glad that I was going to be able to speak on an issue that is a big part of the work we do, it was very disheartening to see firsthand that such an injustice goes beyond the United States.

I found that speaking about food justice issues sparked an interest among the activists, just like in the States. Many activists were interested in food security issues as well as wanting to learn more about how to buy chocolate that does not involve any child or forced labor. If you haven’t seen our updated chocolate list, do check it out:

We had one day to play in Wellington and went to a bird sanctuary where we saw some of the most amazing birds. And listening to them? Well, it is times like these where you appreciate sound.

Food, oh yes – vegans love to talk about food – so the major food find in New Zealand was a delicious noodle soup called laksa. Okay, now, don't everyone post that you have known about this dish forever – but instead post that you will send me some!

Okay, back to Auckland! The national animal rights conference in New Zealand was organized by SAFE with input from local activists.

One of the things that amazed me about being there was how for so long my view of global animal rights activism has looked at what has been going on ‘across the pond’ in Europe, and apparently I had lost sight of what has been taking place down under.

When I was there, I learned that New Zealand no longer has wild animals in their circuses and no more marine mammals in entertainment!

On Friday night, the kickoff event was open to the public and was held in Auckland’s beautiful town hall. I spoke about various victories in campaigns I have worked on, from stopping a mega dairy to winning a lawsuit for the animals at the California Supreme Court. On Saturday, I spoke about food justice and was impressed to hear other speakers such as Lyn White from Animals Australia and many of the Kiwi activists.

For all the cruelty and ugliness that Lyn has seen around the world, she is an incredibly kind person. I encourage you to click on the link above and read about her work. She showed a lot of graphic footage of her investigations on live export (enough for the crowd to eventually plead for her not to show anymore), and although watching this footage pains me since I tend to relive these images in my head (unfortunately at night), as someone who has done investigations as well, I felt I should watch them. And I have debated for a few nights about including this link; however, as Lyn said, for anyone who tells you animals don’t feel, have them watch this video about Tommy. However, I really, really don’t encourage you to watch it if you already ‘get it,’ as it is one of the most painful films of exploitation that I have seen. Truly, this video, although not graphic, does need a warning.

A new face in the New Zealand animal rights crowd was Carl Scott. He built a cage near an egg farm and lived in it for one month to not only get exposure for the issue of hens raised in battery cages, but also to have an understanding of what it must feel like for them. Carl is the kind of activist I wish we had more of in the States. He is funny, passionate, thoughtful and humble. He is eager to learn and do more.

Honestly, I didn’t see much of the ‘fanfare’ or glorifying of individuals as I see in the States – for the most part, it seemed like there was an understanding of a lot of work being done together, and the celebrity status was pretty non-existent (at least in comparison to the U.S.). And I had to ask myself if that is because of the humility of the ‘leaders’ or the realistic understanding that activists have, or was it both? Either way, it was certainly refreshing.

Other Kiwi activists that I got to hear speak include Yolanda Soryl of the vegan New Zealand Vegetarian Society – I wish I had had more time to spend with her. We learned about the devastating earthquake in Christchurch from Nichola Kriek of SAFE – she made it all more human for me and helped me recognize the impact the quake had on the veg community.

And our Mark Hawthorne gave a valuable talk to activists around the globe about the importance of recognizing and avoiding burnout. On Sunday I gave one of my favorite talks on how to run campaigns. And I am thrilled that I have already heard from activists there since I have been back! And the lovely Mark Eden (an amazing activist who has been on the NZ scene for decades) led a workshop in which he broke us up into groups to see how we would deal with real issues happening in our backyard while encouraging us to use a variety of allies and tactics.

As New Zealand is so far away, I do worry that I won’t be seeing many of the incredible activists I met anytime soon. But I hope all of you (Mark, Tom, Raquel, Tim, Trudi, Nichola, Amanda Broughton and the rest of you) will keep in touch. Hugs and kisses to Queenie, Sabina, Pierre, Ninja, Bryan & Jack. My thanks to SAFE for asking me to speak and for taking care of the arrangements.

And thanks to everyone for their support of Food Empowerment Project’s work. We are so pleased to know that our work resonates with so many of you and that there is a global niche to fill.

A thumbs up to you all.

Next: Australia….

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Lives of Farm Workers Part III: A Broken System - Corporate Welfare in the Fields

(This is the final section of my three-part blog.)

During the testimonial session of the farm worker reality tour we were able to meet some of the children of the farm workers.

One of the children was an amazing young woman named Jasmin, who had just graduated from high school. She talked about her dream of going to college. She was incredibly smart and very well spoken. She smiled as she talked about her goals in life, as well as some of the drawbacks for a teen living in a labor camp – there is no bus service there, for example, and so it can be quite isolating.

The toughest part for her at school was a system created by the State of California. In order to live in the migrant camps, you can only reside in the camps for the months of May until November. Farm worker families must leave the camps on November 30 and cannot return until May 1st. And you don’t just have to leave the camps – you have to move 60 miles away. So what does this mean for the kids who are trying to get an education? They have to start school in November and be prepared to take the tests with the rest of the students on material they have not learned. Luckily for Jasmin, her teachers understood her predicament enough to help. Talk about creating a system to make someone fail – that seems to be the goal of systems like this.

The labor camps provide the workers with a lower-than-average rent (say, $340 a month) and the state foots the rest of the bill. Hmm… if the state is going to be generous, I would prefer that generosity go to people – not corporations. But do you see what is happening here? This is corporate welfare. (And no, I do not and will not recognize a corporation as an individual person – but if the government wants to do so, I guess more corporate types need to be in jail for the crimes their companies commit.)

This was the crushing reality for me on this tour; since I was young I have read about the lives of migrant farm workers and have been horrified by their working and living conditions, but little did I know that the state was saying to the growers, “Okay, you don’t want to pay these people a living wage? That’s fine – the state will foot some of the bill.” I mean, really? This is outrageous.

This is basically giving the growers a free ride.

And of course, it is not like every farm worker is allowed to live in a labor camp. Only 12% of farm workers live in one of the 26 camps in California. And to live there one has to be chosen by a lottery.

Okay, so where do the remaining 88% of farm workers live? They aren’t getting paid a living wage, and they work very strenuous jobs and long hours. As described in the previous blog, that is why some take to living outside in the woods, camping, or living in their trucks.

The system is incredibly messed up if you ask me – and that is a nice way of putting it. I know some might be bothered by the state paying for the labor camps because of it being their tax money and it shouldn’t go to “help these people.”

However, the short-sightedness of that way of thinking must end. These labor camps aren’t handouts to the farm workers – they are handouts to the growers, the corporations. It is basically giving them a free ride of not paying the workers what they deserve, much less enough to live on.

The system needs to be fixed, and Food Empowerment Project aims to work with those who want to help fix this problem.