Global food empowerment is on our plates, activists say

Food Empowerment Project founder Lauren Ornelas speaks at a TEDx conference in San Francisco. (Photo courtesy of Lauren Ornelas)

Going vegan in the 1980s was a much different experience than it is today — especially if you were in Texas.

For Lauren Ornelas, founder of the Food Empowerment Project (FEP), a nonprofit that encourages consumers to look at the ethical impacts of their food choices, being vegan meant ordering food at restaurants was nearly impossible.

Now living in California, a haven of vegan knowledge and influence, Ornelas laughs at how much easier getting food has become.

“When I first went vegan we didn’t have veggie burgers already formed in a patty,” Ornelas said. “We had to add boiling water to a dried packet you know? In some regard it’s so convenient, you can find almost anything that’s vegan now. It’s not like before where it was like ‘well, our cheese doesn’t melt, but there’s no animal suffering in it.’”

In 2006 Ornelas founded the FEP, which is run by a network of volunteers around the country.

She’s also building a strong alliances in Seattle with assistance from UW faculty in the Comparative History of Ideas program (CHID). As part of that initiative, Ornelas will be speaking on the UW campus this Friday afternoon.

Karen Emmerman, a FEP volunteer and UW adjunct faculty member, hopes her appearance will spark advocacy in Seattle and start conversations on how food, the environment, and global human rights are tied together.

Ornelas’ latest project is seeking transparency  from Clif Bar. The organic energy bar giant will not disclose where they source their cacao, and the FEP is worried the cacao may come from Ghana, the Ivory Coast, or another country where child slavery is used in the chocolate industry.

But to flip a sports cliché, the FEP doesn’t just take it one project at a time. In addition to dealing with corporations, the FEP is working on topics from the global expansion of industrialized meat production to pollution, and from ocean health to improving access to healthy food in low-income areas.

The list is daunting. But natural connections between these issues can help making a global change seem less overwhelming. Information from the FEP website illustrates a basic example: refraining from animal products may pressure companies to invest in practices that help animals, and in turn the environment.

The FEP sees improving one link in the chain as improving the whole chain. By educating as many people as possible about actions to take regarding food — eat this, not that; shop here, not there — the FEP hopes to make positive impacts worldwide.

“Food Empowerment [Project] was the first organization that I’ve come across that’s looked at animal welfare issues as related to other kinds of social justice issues, which is very very important,” Emmerman said.“I was very excited to finally come across an organization that takes the animal issues seriously but also the human labor issues seriously. That’s a very rare thing actually.”

Ornelas has seen a number of victories in altering the practices of corporations from Whole Foods to Pier 1 Imports, and the FEP leads drives for school supplies to aid the children of immigrant farm workers. She hopes to continue that track record with the FEP.

Cocoa beans in a cocoa pod. These are harvested to eventually make chocolate.  (Photo via  Agricultural Research Service)
Cocoa beans in a cocoa pod. These are harvested to eventually make chocolate. (Photo courtesy of Agricultural Research Service via Wikipedia)

Ornelas’ appearance at the UW is part of a growing city-wide dialogue about how Seattleites’ food choices have a worldwide impact.

“Doing something is better than doing nothing,” Ornelas said. “Basically trying to think about things that we can do versus throwing our hands up in the air and saying ‘Ah there’s too much I can’t do anything’ and instead figuring out ways each one of us can have an impact.”

Attitudes internationally and in Seattle are shifting towards trying to improve the way food is produced and harvested, and most vegans may no longer have to scour grocery stores to fit their diet.

But Emmerman and Ornelas say there’s more to be done. Even a vegan who buys locally produced food in the Northwest can still eat a chocolate bar made with slave labor in West Africa, buy produce from a farm with a track record of treating workers poorly, or any number of choices considered less-than-ideal by the FEP.

“A lot of people who are vegan will say that they’re cruelty free, but I think it’s important for us to realize that that’s not necessarily true,” Emmerman said. “It matters where our food is grown and who’s growing it, and I think that’s one of the things I hope will enrich the conversation in Seattle.”

Ornelas will be speaking Friday, Feb. 7th at 4:30 p.m. in the UW’s Thomson Hall.

This article has been updated since its initial publication.