Updated: Oct 15
Many of us in the black community weren't raised in a vegan household. Growing up, it wasn't a lifestyle that any of the people of color that I specifically knew, participated in. Most black recipes directly contradicted the guidelines of 'veganism'; or so I thought.
As I got older, and started to expand the circle of people I knew and interacted with, I started to meet people of color that had been living, or chosen different lifestyles. Honestly, it might have been a combination of being surround by public health people, meeting people of color that had grown up on the west coast, or even experiencing an extremely sensitive digestive system following 3 weeks of soft foods post tonsillectomy; but i finally decided to give 'veganism' a try. Although, it didn't end up being my thing long-term, it definitely changed my perspective on food. I vividly remember how amazing I felt during that time and I often wondered how and why other people of color had made the lasting change.
So I started asking around to find out more.
First I talked to one of my classmates from Howard who went vegan late sophomore year. I wanted to understand what prompted him to make such a drastic change, despite our school's regular Soul Food Thursdays in the cafe.
Mario - " [I had] strong feelings of wanting to be more self-empowered and confident sophomore year at University. I felt hyper aware of my weight since leaving my hometown and I wanted to feel more comfortable with my appearance. Although it would take a couple years to fully go vegan/plant based, sophomore year is when i began the transition of eliminating processed foods/meats. Through the years, exercise and a plant based diet has come to hold such an important role in my mental health. I feel like my breathing is easier, my body feels lighter, and I overall have more happy days when I am eating very healthy and exercising."
All of that really resonated with me. I recalled feeling all of those things during my own vegan stint. But I knew feeling better physically wasn't the only reason that people turned to vegan diets. That's when I connected with a friend from my Master's degree program. Jayda had been vegan for as long as I've known her, and wanted to know what had made the change so impactful for her personally.
Jayda - "I worked intimately with dairy cows and a few graduate students to feed the cows, monitor their health, and clean the pens. I attribute my transition to veganism to this experience. The enormous quantity of waste these animals produced was shoved by a bulldozer into what seemed like a river of excrement."..."was there to witness calving season. Calves were taken away from their mothers minutes after being born and the mothers cried out for them as researchers drove away. The whole experience broke my heart, and I began my transition to veganism."
Jayda -"The public health benefits of going vegan include reducing risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and overall mortality. The reason I am vegan, is to negate all of the negative public health impacts animal agriculture has. Land is cleared for animal agriculture which kills wildlife, causes soil erosion, and eliminates trees that absorb carbon dioxide. Animals release methane that gets trapped in the atmosphere, and nitrogen from waste seeps into the ground. Large amounts of nitrate in bodies of water can cause eutrophication and kill fish. Communities near farms often complain of the smell of manure, and studies show that odorant compounds can produce irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat. The workers who are directly working on these animal agriculture farms get the brunt of these effects and slaughterhouse work can take a psychological toll. This list is not exhaustive"
I was low-key stunned. I had no idea that eating meat had such a big environmental impact. I had only thought about the meat as far back as selecting an affordable package in the grocery store.
But even with all of these amazing reasons for making the transition, I also knew from experience that the transition wasn't easy at all. I definitely stumbled through mine. Although its gotten a lot easier to find vegan alternatives, I still find it difficult to find tasty foods, that are actually filling and provide enough nutritional value to maintain my gains. I wasn't sure of how to maintain a balanced diet without meat. And on top of all of that, what about taste?!
Jayda - "When I first transitioned, I would simply make the same meals I already ate and substitute out the animal products. Now, I try out new recipes I find online, and this has introduced me to many new fruits and vegetables"
Now I'm no chef, but I was lucky enough to connect with with one at a random art event in Boston. Cecilia owns her own vegan catering company called Coco Verde (her food's bomb btw)! So in my mind, she's basically the vegan food expert.
Cecilia -"I became vegan after having my daughter. In the process of transitioning her to solid foods, it encouraged me to think about my own diet and what I was putting in my body. As a parent, I think we all try to make the choices that are best for ourselves and for our family and for us, that meant transitioning into a plant based diet."
Cecilia -"The decision in itself was easy but the process was difficult. It felt like I was leaving a piece of myself behind and that I wasn’t able to embrace my culture in the same way. That’s where Coco Verde Vegan was born! It’s our version of re imagining the dishes we grew up eating — still packing in the flavor! — and loading up on the plants."
But if you aren't quite an expert yet, how do you get started?
Mario - "Building a rhythm of consistency is everything. Once the habit is formed the transition is much easier than the perception is. There are practical steps to help with the transition such as educating yourself on plant-based easy-to-prep meals, but the hardest part of the transition is the sociological and psychological barriers. Having a vegan diet is very manageable with
economic/relationship stability, I believe the nuance comes during periods of life transitions and instability. The most important thing is to get back on the horse when you fall off and to be kind to yourself".
But what about the changing public perception?
Mario - "Diets follow trends of popularity. They are constantly being re-packaged and re-purposed with the same message under a different name. The principles of the plant-based Ayurvedic diet is 5000 years old and hold doctrines on digestion and mindfulness while eating. Elijah Muhammad preached a plant-based diet in detail in "How To Eat To Live" during the 1960's across the US. Afro-veganism during the social media age during this last decade has gained a lot of traction and notoriety with similar epithets. Each has their own nuanced differences. I believe the overall message is that the reduction/elimination of meat with the addition of cooked/raw whole foods (fruits and vegetables) leads to an increase in mental/physical vitality".
Cecilia - "The perception is changing drastically. Food justice is a racial justice issue for so many reasons, thinking about racial redlining and food deserts and in the case of animal agriculture people of Color are most affected health-wise. Learning about communities of Color being situated near pig farms and therefore having high rates of cancer because of the pesticides, spraying, and waste was another catalyst towards a plant based diet. More and more people are making these connections and becoming more open to incorporating a plant based meal or two into their diets which I think is great! It makes me hopeful for the future in terms of overall health in communities of Color and what that can look like."
Jayda - "You can find the definition of veganism on the Vegan Society website: "Veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose." It is more than a diet - it is a protest and a belief.
If you're interested in trying out or transitioning to a vegan diet, below are some helpful links and resources provided by Mario."
The Detox Miracle Sourcebook - Robert Norse N.D.
Eat Feel Fresh: A Contemporary Plant-Based Aryuvedic Cookbook - Sahara Rose Ketabi
"Dr. Aris Latham Interview - Jamaica Raw"
"An Introduction to a whole food plant based diet, a presentation by Dr. Lim"