After receiving years of pushback from fellow animal rights activists, Ornelas set out on her own in 2007 and launched the Food Empowerment Project.
Courtesy of Food Empowerment Project
“As a woman of color, as a Xicanx—I call myself Xicanx, the X at the beginning to acknowledge my indigenous roots of the Americas and then X at the end in solidarity with the trans community, but also an X as a rejection of the patriarchal language of Spanish—I kept trying to talk about how issues were connected.
The organization [Food Empowerment Project] was started with an understanding that our mission wasn’t a ‘this or that.’ It was an and. It was all of this together. All of these injustices are under the umbrella of food, and we can connect these issues, and we can be stronger against all these various systems of oppression which are really connected when you look at all of them.
When you look at food apartheid, you have Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities being the most impacted. A lot of it’s founded on racism, it’s founded on not feeling like Black, Brown, and Indigenous people deserve the same wages, and it’s a legacy of racism where our people don’t have generational wealth—you know, our land was taken from us. It’s similar to if you look at farm worker justice, it’s similar to if you look at what’s happening in western Africa and Brazil for cacao. The same thing ties them together.
With Food Empowerment Project, it was really important to me to say ‘Hey, vegans, we need you to be vegan for the animals. We absolutely need that; it’s important. The animals need us. But let’s not dismiss or ignore the other injustices in the food industry. We’re not asking you to drop what you do for the animals, but don’t act as if these other abuses aren’t taking place.’ And for people who do understand these issues to say hey, look, these same systems are also oppressing non-human animals, and if you have the privilege, do something.”
In 2018, F.E.P. successfully led an effort to change California’s “50-mile” rule that negatively impacted farm workers’s children. The organization’s commitment to the human side of food justice runs deep; its website advocates for and educates about slaughterhouse workers, child laborers, CAFO workers, and produce harvesters, among others. It’s not always the case that an animal advocate will also stick up for avocado packers, but lauren Ornelas has made it her life’s work. There is no food safe from critique, no veggie too precious to question or company too popular to ignore. Amy’s Kitchen, for instance, has long been a hallmark of plant-based diets, but in the wake of labor abuse allegations, Food Empowerment Project has thrown its weight fully behind the slighted workers.
“We loved Amy’s. You know, we were there on the opening day of their drive through their fast food restaurant, and their food was amazing. But again, like with non-human animals, it’s not a matter of what tastes good. It’s a matter of contributing to an injustice or not. I found a report talking about how at this one pig farm the workers were (rightfully) complaining about the fact that the people who spoke Spanish were not given bathroom breaks like the other employees were, and in the same paperwork when they’re talking about their treatment, they also talk about what’s happening to the pigs… using their voices for both.”
The organization fights food apartheid by working with communities—but only if they want help. F.E.P. first conducts a neighborhood assessment to see how dire the problem is. Just how limited is the access to healthy foods? After the assessments are completed, they conduct focus groups, asking community members to identify barriers and brainstorm potential solutions. Public officials are then informed of the findings so that policy changes can be made; some of F.E.P.’s reports on access to healthy foods have been cited by the United Nations Human Rights Committee!
F.E.P. also offers cooking resources to those who want to eat ethically without forgoing authentic cultural flavors. They offer a Vegan Mexican Food guide in English and Spanish, a Vegan Filipino Food guide in English and Tagalog, a Vegan Lao Food guide in English and Lau, and most recently a Vegan Chinese Food guide in English and simplified Chinese. Other resources include a general recipe database, a how-to on growing your own food, and a ranked list of which chocolates are produced ethically. The chocolate list has about a thousand different brands, always growing as F.E.P. contacts and investigates more manufacturers, and is conveniently available as an app.
In certain ways, Ornelas believes that her Mexican roots make it easier to normalize plant-forward values: