lauren1 Ornelas is the founder and executive director of Food Empowerment Project, and has been active in the animal rights movement for more than 30 years. She is the former executive director of Viva!USA, a national nonprofit vegan advocacy organization at which she investigated factory farms and ran consumer campaigns. She also served as campaign director with the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition for six years.
Tell us a bit about the work you do with the Food Empowerment Project.
Food Empowerment Project (F.E.P.) is a vegan food justice group that works to connect various issues of oppression and encourages people to “eat their ethics.” We promote veganism in a variety of ways. All of our materials are available in both English and Spanish, on the Internet and in print. I speak about veganism for the animals in all of my talks, we have had monthly protests in front of a local chicken slaughterhouse, and we send a monthly newsletter that helps people go (and stay) vegan.
We also act in solidarity with farm workers by supporting their corporate campaigns and by pushing legislation that benefits them—we are currently working to change a regulation in California that negatively impacts the education of farm worker children. In addition, we coordinate a school supply drive for the children of farm workers.
We also advocate avoiding purchasing chocolate sourced from the worst forms of child labor, including slavery. We contact hundreds of companies each year to determine the country of origin of their cacao, and we maintain a list (updated monthly) and a free app that details which companies we do and do not recommend. Furthermore, we work on access to healthy foods in communities of color and low-income communities by using research and working with the community and local governments.
Some of the work F.E.P. does is about building community in order to gain increased access to healthy foods that we promote as vegan. The goal is to have long-lasting change. That is also the goal of our monthly Food Chain Newsletter—to recognize that not everyone will be able to stay vegan consistently, so we will be with them every month for a minimum of a year. Going vegan is a life-changing experience, and although some people have gone vegan after exposure to just one piece of information (or picture, or act, etc.) for many people it takes more than that.
As someone who is committed to a broad variety of food-related social justice issues, how do you decide which projects to take on and where to focus your efforts?
I have been an animal rights activist for thirty years now (and vegan for twenty-nine) and therefore some of these ideas come from seeing what has and has not worked—as well as seeing how our movement has tended to cater to very privileged people. I also have a desire to work on issues that can result in an immediate benefit, since so many other campaigns take a long time to result in changes.
All of these issues are connected. In order to create positive change in all of the areas we work on, and to move towards building the type of world we envision, those of us fighting for a more just and compassionate world need to be bigger and stronger. The only way we can create this change is to be consistent in our ethics and to be united. In addition to that, some of what we work on comes from listening, learning, and then determining which needs exist.
Can you give us some examples of campaigns that have and have not worked, based on your thirty years of experience? What lessons have you learned, and how has your strategy changed over those years?
I have worked on various efforts involving campaigns created by other organizations as well as those I have started on behalf of my organizations. I worked with two other women to pass a state law in California (banning the sale and production of foie gras), stopped laws to harm animals, and have been arrested more than a dozen times. I don’t even know how many protests or leafleting campaigns I have run or participated in over the decades. I think these activities are all important. We need every tool in the toolbox to help nonhuman animals.
I feel as if those campaigns where we can harness the power of consumers to help create change are incredibly effective. We might not always be able to impact a company’s bottom line, but, if necessary, we can make sure their image is associated with cruelty—an image that the public cannot ignore.
I also think it makes sense to have an actual ask—this is what differentiates general outreach from campaigns, in my opinion. I prefer campaigns because there is an end goal, and if you create this goal carefully and thoughtfully, you will be able to tell if you are making a concrete difference for animals—as well as helping with the longer-term goal of getting people to stop viewing animals as commodities.
In my mind, general outreach has a place, and I do participate in and organize such events. However this is not enough for me, as I want to know if I am actually making a difference. I try to have my activism involve campaigns and general outreach. I fear that occasionally, general outreach might be geared more towards people who want to feel good about themselves rather than actually creating change. They can say “I did X, Y, and Z,” but when it comes to creating change, there is limited proof of causality. I am not saying that all general outreach is ineffective, but I don’t think the animals can afford for us to only do what makes us feel good. There needs to be a balance.
Why is it important for animal advocates to support and work for other food justice and social justice causes? Do you have any suggestions for animal advocates to ensure that their work complements other causes?
I think it is important for animal advocates to think more carefully about the words they use and to be more consistent in their own ethics by widening their circles of compassion to include human animals. The nonhuman animals definitely need people advocating for them—and they need those groups to be productive. Widening the circle can contribute to that productivity.
However, I think it does a disservice to everyone if vegan organizations to try to extend their work beyond animals without really making sure to fully understand other social justice issues. Because this is a very complicated area, many vegan organizations end up appropriating at best or offending at worst. What these organizations can do is acknowledge that it is not easy for everyone to go vegan, and they can be careful when using the words “compassionate” and “cruelty-free”—just because no animals were harmed doesn’t mean there wasn’t human suffering involved.
In general, we can do more to avoid offending other social justice advocates. This means not appropriating their slogans (i.e. “all lives matter”), not celebrating racist celebrities who embrace vegetarianism/veganism, not supporting the arrest or convictions of slaughterhouse workers or factory farm workers, etc. We should not use sexism to sell veganism or use historical forms of injustice and oppression that are rooted in trauma. Whether we’re talking about human or nonhuman animals, the abuses in our food system are similar—living beings are treated as commodities for profit.
Can you tell me a bit more about F.E.P.’s reports on food access issues in local communities, and how you leverage those reports to create change?
We know that numbers talk, and policy makers and grant makers like statistics. Statistics can provide the data necessary to prove a problem exists, which is often important even with problems that we already know exist.
I used to live and work in downtown San José, where there were liquor stores across the street from each other—yet I had to drive miles away to get fresh and organic produce. We began our work on food access issues in Santa Clara County, where we surveyed food establishments (not restaurants or fast food), comparing high-income areas and low-income areas—proving that a disparity existed. In Vallejo, California, we surveyed all of the establishments (not restaurants or fast food) that sell food and determined that the entire community has problems accessing healthy foods. Solano County’s Public Health Department is currently using this data to help determine which stores are going to get “healthy makeovers.” They also supported the work we did in Vallejo, where we conducted five focus groups in May in order to determine community needs. The data from these reports will also be used to create policy changes within the city.
We only go into communities that ask us to do so, and we are so thankful to have been welcomed by so many community members as well as local policymakers. Our report in San José helped one community group get funding to have people sell produce in neighborhoods and for others to create urban gardens. Our report in Vallejo came out less than a year ago, but we felt happy and validated to have had various policy makers attend the event when we released our findings. Although we have already been discussing the need to limit fast food restaurants in the area, other changes need to be directed by the needs of the community.
Can you tell me a bit more about F.E.P.’s corporate campaigns?
Much of my background is in corporate campaigns for farmed animals, so I have worked to implement campaigns into our work at F.E.P.. Given that we only have three staff members (and a handful of volunteers), we only do one corporate campaign at a time.
Our first campaign was directed at corporate transparency in the chocolate industry. As we know from campaigns such as those targeting Nike and Apple, one of the first steps is to compel companies to be transparent about their suppliers. Since country of origin is an important factor in our campaign on chocolate, we need to push companies to be transparent about where their chocolate comes from. The first company targeted (and so far, the only one) was Clif Bar. It took us several years to get the company to be transparent about where their chocolate comes from. They now include the country of origin for their cacao on their website. Even though we do not recommend them, we are pleased that they are being transparent with their customers.
We currently have a campaign against Safeway. In doing our work on lack of access to healthy foods in Vallejo, CA, we found that Safeway moved one of their grocery stores from a low-income community of color to a suburban area farther away. When they left, they put a restrictive deed on their former property preventing another grocery store from moving in for fifteen years—effectively leaving that community without a grocery store. We found that they have also done this in other cities around the U.S. After communicating directly with one of their vice presidents for months, we decided to take this campaign public in October 2016.
What opportunities do you see for movements to collaborate to encourage corporations to take on policies that are more just for humans, animals, and the environment?
As someone who has worked to pass legislation as well as corporate campaigns, I find corporate campaigns to be where I would want to put my energy, as that is where the voices of the people have more say and sway. I do think there are areas of collaboration, but it has to be sincere. It can’t be just one group asking people to come together to target a corporation for only that group’s cause and then leaving afterwards without getting other issues accomplished. For example, since Safeway is unionized, we made sure to meet with one of the local unions about our campaign.
Some people worry that corporate campaigns can contribute to greenwashing or “humane-washing” our current food system. Do you share that concern, and if so how do you attempt to avoid that issue in your own work?
This is a great question. I have seen this happen before. There was a large animal group that had a campaign against Safeway regarding how the farmed animals were being treated. During one of my talks at a local school, I discovered that everyone there felt that since the group had called off their campaign, it was okay to eat the animals who were sold there. I had to explain that was not the case for people who didn’t want to harm animals. For this reason I do think groups need to be extra careful about how they word their campaigns and “victories.” When Clif Bar disclosed country of origin for their cacao, we had to be extra clear that we still did not recommend them. I have done this during my talks, and we also have that information available on our website as well as on our apps.
I would like to add that we do not believe anyone can shop their way out of these issues, and that is why we encourage various ways for people to use their individual choices to make a difference—as well as their collective voices.
Can you tell me a bit about F.E.P.’s vegan outreach efforts?
Our vegan education efforts are a part of everything that we do as an organization. We have very detailed information on our website about veganism, listing how animals (fishes, chickens, sea life, pigs, goats, sheep, cows, etc.) behave in a normal habitat compared with when they are raised for food. This has helped people to go vegan—some even overnight! As I mentioned earlier, our Food Chain Newsletter was designed to help people not only go vegan, but stay vegan—since some people don’t change overnight. In that case, it often takes more than a soundbite and more of a conversation in order to get them to understand that veganism is about how we treat all animals, not just the ones people eat. We also have a separate website with vegan recipes. Both of our websites are available in English and Spanish. We talk about veganism at every event where we table, and I speak about veganism in every talk I give. Many of these talks are to audiences who are not expecting to hear anything about nonhuman animals. We have done a monthly outreach in front of a chicken slaughterhouse and reminded people who love animals that chickens are indeed animals!
We are transparent about our vegan work in other areas. Organizations we work with on farm worker issues know we are a vegan organization and respect how we have connected the dots, as they are not used to vegans caring about farm worker justice. We were able to get a coalition we were working with to have all vegan food at a farm worker appreciation day we helped organize. The event was entirely in Spanish, and I was able to talk about various aspects of veganism.
In addition, our chocolate list is very popular and always gives us the opportunity to explain why our selections come from concern about the treatment of both human and nonhuman animals. We often get questions about why we do not list non-vegan chocolate, and this allows us to share information on how cows and goats are treated for milk.
Our work on access to healthy foods in communities of color and low-income communities has provided us with an incredible platform to talk about veganism. All of our community partners know from the beginning that we are a vegan organization—so that is a theme with the events we put on, the foods we choose to survey, and the questions we use in our focus groups. We have found that communities are eager to be able to eat healthfully, and we want to help them do that.
Our work focuses on relationship building, which most people might not be used to seeing. We participate in Hip Hop Green Dinners across the country, for instance, and my role at these events is strictly to talk about veganism and how animals are treated. We also address veganism in materials we hand out to communities.
Our work on veganism is different than what many people are used to, as most of those efforts have been organized by white vegan organizations, many of which look to utilitarianism (and, in some cases, numbers based on speculation) as a way to measure change without ever having solid evidence to back up their claims.
Could you add a bit more about how you think the use of “numbers based on speculation” can lead utilitarian organizations astray?
I have a number of issues with utilitarianism. One is that nonhuman animals are looked at in terms of numbers rather than as individuals, and in this case it’s being done by those who are supposed to be advocating for them.
ACE does not see a contradiction between the conviction that each life is inherently valuable and the conviction that it is better to improve or spare more lives rather than fewer lives. On the contrary, it follows precisely from our conviction that each life is valuable that we choose to spare more lives rather than fewer lives.2
I can understand why organizations might weigh various options in terms of where to allocate some of their funds, but for some reason those speculating that it’s more important to advocate for a larger number of animals turn it into a public display of what is right and wrong in terms of how best to advocate for animals. I find this incredibly damaging, not only to activists but also in how we are representing nonhuman animals.
All of a sudden it is as if we are the ones weighing whose life is more important just based on numbers. Even though I have worked primarily on farmed animal issues for more than twenty years, it does not mean that my advocacy is more important than those working against vivisection or animals in captivity. There is a bear named Ben who lived in a roadside attraction for most of his life until the Animal Legal Defense Fund got him out—now he lives at PAWS Sanctuary in California. Who is to tell that bear his life didn’t matter because there was only one of him? His life is important to him. Who is to say that animal activists should not advocate for rabbits just because more chickens are killed? This shows how human arrogance is such a problem in our movement. We have become so accustomed to “speaking” for the animals that we think we know everything. And we feel we not only have the right to make decisions for nonhuman animals but also for those who advocate for them.
I also find the utilitarian approach to be harmful for activists new and old. If they are passionate about issues that “the movement” deems “unworthy,” they might not be involved at all. Worst of all, I feel as if so much comes down to numbers and not heart. We look like a movement thinking like machines instead of with compassion.
When we look at various pivotal times in history, many movements worked alongside others. Look at Frederick Douglass and his work as an abolitionist as well as for women’s suffrage. Even today we see that—with leaders such as Dolores Huerta, who works for various causes. I have received so much pushback from vegan activists for working to help humans as well as nonhuman animals. What F.E.P. does is bring various movements and people together to make us bigger and stronger so that we can fight together and increase our numbers. We have no idea if the animals would agree with how we are doing any of what we are doing, but what we do know is that they all deserve us fighting for their lives.
ACE is not committed to utilitarianism, but we are an effective altruist organization that takes a “numbers-oriented” approach to helping animals. We are grateful for all of the work that animal activists do on behalf of any and all populations of animals—we simply try to direct marginal resources where they will do the most good. For instance, if an activist can choose to spend a year saving one thousand nonhuman animals or one hundred nonhuman animals, they should save the thousand, all else equal. Do you think there is a better way for us to communicate our message in a way that (a) expresses recognition of the value of each individual animal and (b) is not harmful for activists who may be passionate about other issues?
I guess my question to you would be, how do you know they are indeed saving animals? To me, some of this has to do with what we hope to accomplish, as opposed to what is actually happening.
Look at the documentary Blackfish. Let’s imagine Blackfish needed funding to be produced. Would ACE not have encouraged people to donate money for it to be produced? Would ACE have said this only impacts very few animals?3 Look at the ramifications this film has had not only for the animals who deserve freedom at SeaWorld, but also the animals held captive by the likes of Ringling Brothers. That film might have started out as being about twenty-three orcas, but thousands have and will continue to be impacted as public opinion has been swayed and people’s hearts have opened to the plight of animals in captivity.
I am not sure there is a better way to communicate your message because, in the end, ACE is still using a numbers-based approach to judge organizations.
This approach does not take into consideration how the organizations actually function. Are the employees treated well and with respect? Are they getting benefits? Or is turnover high because of how they are treated or are they not even employees and are all contract workers? Does ACE interview everyone at the organization with anonymity or just those higher up? Is there a genuine, functioning board in place? These things greatly impact organizations and their effectiveness as well, and that is not being reflected by this approach. It would be important to care about how people are treated in the movement, but even for those who do not care, it is important for this movement to have happy, healthy employees, because this helps to promote the mission of the organization.4
If ACE continues as it is, but wants to recognize the value of individual animals and inspire activists to work on issues they are passionate about, it would need to start encouraging financial support for organizations working on a variety of issues.
How does F.E.P. use research and data to inform its priorities and strategy? (We mean this broadly, in terms of geography, prioritizing issues, and choosing programs to address these issues.)
We find research and data to be imperative. I also think strategy is incredibly important in order to create long-lasting change. As someone who has been vegan for several decades, my ability to discern what is helpful to others may be biased. Therefore, when we decided to focus on helping people go vegan, we chose to collect data from individuals who wanted to go vegan. This helped us find out what spoke to them, so that we could move forward using that information. We created a survey for our Food Chain Newsletter to find out what did and did not help people.
We also use this method in our work on access to healthy foods in communities of color and low-income communities. We want to make sure the voices of the community are heard and the corresponding approaches are implemented. Others can come up with a solution to the problem being faced, but the community will understand the barriers and have ideas for the solutions that will actually work. We therefore ask the community members, in focus groups, to share their ideas and needs with us.
Veg outreach is a common strategy used by animal advocacy organizations, but usually with a focus on very specific communities (younger, higher income). Have you encountered any unique challenges with conducting veg outreach efforts in lower income and more racially diverse communities?
We have indeed faced challenges, the biggest being that you can’t encourage people to go vegan when they can’t even access fresh fruits and vegetables. Maybe I should say you shouldn’t be doing this. It definitely gives vegans a bad reputation when we say it is easy to go vegan or when we go into certain communities and encourage them to go vegan when they don’t even have access to healthy foods. It shows that those doing this outreach do not have the community’s best interests at heart and have no real connections or interest in what is happening there and the barriers they face.
We want people to be able to access healthy foods because it is a grave injustice that they cannot already do so. We want people to have this access for their own health, for the health of their family and their community, and also so that they can stop eating animals. ALL of these things are important. Not just one. This point is essential to keep in mind not only because it is right, but also because value misperceptions can impact funding availability. We had a foundation decline our grant request specifically because we include veganism in our work; we were told that they did not feel veganism was the only path to food justice.
Again, our work is different than mainstream vegan education; but as a woman of color running an organization unlike any other, I feel our approach to vegan outreach will have a more lasting and legitimate impact and is more beneficial for communities of color.
These two sentences are from ACE’s page on The Philosophical Foundation of Our Work, and were added here during the interview editing process as a structural tool for improving the clarity of both lauren’s and ACE’s thoughts in this section of the interview. As is true with all text in this interview, lauren approved this edit prior to publication.
Note added by ACE post-interview: Two of our research team members have suggested using documentaries as an intervention tactic, which you can read about in our blog post about Interventions We’d Like to See.
Note added by ACE post-interview: ACE’s criteria 6 and 7 address the abovementioned factors. Read our updated evaluation criteria for a detailed description.