In Queens, where I’ve lived for my whole life, I can find a bodega (a corner store) filled with fast and highly processed food more quickly and easily than I can find fresh produce around my neighborhood in Jackson Heights, a predominantly Latinx part of Queens. Why? Because food deserts—what the CDC describes as “areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk, and other foods that make up a full and healthy diet”—are not uncommon in low-income communities of color. A 2014 study that looked at the intersection of racial segregation and poverty concluded that “neighborhoods with greater poverty and large minority populations have less access to supermarkets.” Last March, a report even named Jackson Heights as one of three Queens “food swamps” (their term for “neighborhoods where fast food and junk food outlets outnumber healthy alternatives”). From my home, I can see two bodegas, a KFC, and a Popeye’s, but no options that offer plant-based fare or even a menu that features an abundance of whole and minimally processed foods.
Besides the issues of food swamps and deserts, there’s the way that factory farming of animals contributes to dynamics that harm communities, especially communities of color. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in the U.S., more than 60 percent of the people employed in the animal slaughtering and processing industries are Black or Latinx, and 38 percent are immigrants. Illness and injury rates in the meatpacking industry are two-and-a-half times higher than the national average, and getting seriously injured on the job is three times more likely to happen in the meatpacking industry than in U.S. industries as a whole, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The CDC has reported the various health risks of working in and even living near factory farms. Rates of injury and illness among workers in chicken and beef processing are higher than in those in other kinds of manufacturing, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). In addition to meatpacking being physically dangerous, some research suggests that the industry may take a psychological toll on workers. In 2009, a statistical analysis in the journal Organization & Environment found that counties with slaughterhouses have four times the national average of violent arrest, with significantly higher rates of alcoholism, domestic abuse, child abuse, and suicide. The study theorized that “the work of killing animals in an industrial process may have social and psychological consequences for the workers.” It's important to note that the study found correlation, not causation, however.
Veganism is important to me because I believe that black and brown folks deserve to have food that makes us feel good, physically and psychologically. It’s not that veganism is inherently more nutritious or healthier than not being a vegan. (After all, you can eat highly processed foods and avoid vegetables on just about any diet!) What is better for you is having access to fresh produce and minimally processed foods and being able to incorporate those into your diet. This means we need more fresh produce and minimally processed foods at affordable prices. We deserve access to foods that improve our health, not harm it. And we deserve access to jobs that pay a living wage and don’t endanger us, physically and psychologically.
This is why I founded Veggie Mijas, a national collective of women and non-binary folks and femmes of color. It was formed out of the ‘hood: For the community, made within the community. The issues I’ve just described are central to Veggie Mijas and ones that we feel are going unnoticed (or being ignored) by mainstream white veganism.
Mainstream veganism—like mainstream wellness and nutrition—does not often cover the abuse that brown and black and immigrant folks are going through within the capitalist cycle. This is why we, Veggie Mijas, believe in reframing the way veganism is talked about by including analyses of food swamps and deserts, the suffering of both animals and humans, and the health of black and brown people. These are all aspects of food justice, and the reasons that organizations such as La Raza for Liberation and Food Empowerment Project strive to frame veganism with an intersectional lens so that we can see how the food industry affects black and brown communities.
A bit of sister/siblinghood, community gardening, recipes, and resources to food accessibility and food education, all of which Veggie Mijas strives to provide, can go a long way towards food justice for brown and black communities. Decolonizing your food choices to opt out of the harm to animals and people caused by factory farming starts with eating more plant-based foods and finding more information about your roots, finding your people, and asking questions about food to family members if you have that accessibility.
There are so many reasons why folks of color go vegan. Here are some amazing Veggie Mijas/Mijxs that tell us what their vegan lifestyle means to them.
1. Ashlee Dume, 23, Harlem, New York
“I identify as a vegan African-American woman with Latinx heritage. I became vegan at first because I wanted a healthier lifestyle, yet after doing my research I realized that being vegan is also about being compassionate towards animals and protecting our environment. Being a vegan POC is important to me because I know my community has health disparities when it comes to preventable diseases like heart disease and diabetes. I want to show people of color that veganism can be attainable for them and that vegan food can be delicious!”
2. Ysanet Batista, 28, South Bronx, New York
"Eating and preparing plant-based foods is the way I honor my body, health, and my black and brown ancestors. It is important to understand that black and indigenous people are dying from so-called lifestyle illnesses that can be addressed, at least partially, with better access to healthier foods (as well as affordable healthcare and employment). With large food corporations targeting low-income communities of color, my goal in promoting a plant-based lifestyle is to create awareness of the food system and understand that we can nourish and sustain our bodies with ancestral and culturally relevant plant-based foods and spices.”
“I identify as a vegan femme of color because for my black body to choose self-care and compassion as core values is a political stance. I approach my activism through the lenses of black feminism and food justice to highlight the unique experience that black/brown women, femme, and non-binary people of color face when trying to align their lifestyles with their values. By uncovering my ancestors’ strength wisdom and legacy, by practicing compassion for all life and by encouraging conscious consumerism, I am changing the vegan narrative.”
4. Ivonne Quiroz, 34, Orange County, California
“I identify as a vegan Latina because it’s important to for others to know that we exist; that veganism isn’t just for white people who are affluent. Veganism is for the girl from the ‘hood, single moms, welfare recipients, immigrants, and those at the intersections of all those identities. It’s important for me to uplift these identities because being vegan is good to end nonhuman animals’ suffering but it’s also good for the health of our planet. To deny people the opportunity to have an impact on all these aspects because they don’t see themselves in this movement or don’t see themselves in the individuals that call themselves vegan is an injustice to human and nonhuman animals alike.”
“Being a vegan woman of color is a unique experience because five years ago I felt like I was the only one. Although mainstream vegan culture is predominantly white, I believe that with social media, vegans of color are now forming our own subculture. I'm finding more vegans that are coming from the same place that I am from and want to share authentic recipes and traditions from our ancestors, just by giving them our vegan twist without losing their essence.”
6. Amanda Tello, 29, St. Louis, Missouri
“I am an indigenous Mexican, and identifying as a vegan of color is important in creating space. Mainstream veganism ignores people of color and our long histories with plant-based diets. When we claim that this movement is a decolonization of our diets, we have a responsibility to decolonize much more than the food we serve. Vegans of color bring a conversation and awareness around food access and racial justice to the movement that currently does not exists. It is about a reclaiming of our access, power, and divine right to our ancestral foods.”
7. Reatna Taylor, 25, Charlotte, North Carolina
“Being a vegan person of color is important to me because we live in a world that is subject to so much oppression to both humans and animals. Veganism, being so largely Eurocentric and animal-centered, seems to disregard advocacy for the trauma and injustices experienced by folks of color. It is important for me to be a part of the POC veganism community that provides a unique perspective and narrative to the larger conversation, a perspective that places value on the advocacy of dismantling injustices of those people and of animals.”
8. Jael Buscema, 25, Queensland, Australia
“Identifying as a vegan Argentinian has allowed me to acknowledge and further empathize with my ancestors and their oneness with the earth. I believe that mindful consumption is vital for not only our personal healing and progression but also for the protection of our exhausted lands. I would love to bring this form of awareness to many communities of color.”
9. Letitia Richards, 36, Charlotte, North Carolina
“When I first started my wellness journey about 13 years ago, I realized how important it was for me to change my lifestyle and the relationship I had with food. I wanted to experience all that nature had to offer me and veganism helped me with that. I want to raise awareness and show how essential it is that we take care of all parts of ourselves—mind, body, and soul.”
10. Alyssa Perez, 27, Bronx, New York
“I identify as a vegan Puerto Rican and to me this means that I am a person of color whose diet abstains from animal cruelty and exploitation. [Being vegan] is essential for both my personal and professional lives: I am healthier, I feel better, I think clearly, and I am also able to educate others on how the meat and dairy industries hurt the natural environment. The environment is something which I have deep roots and connection to—therefore being vegan is truly my being.”
Quotes have been edited for clarity. The ideas expressed in this story are the opinion of the author and those featured and do not necessarily reflect the views of SELF or SELF editors.