Guest Blog: Veganism, Black Culture, and Environmental Justice

Written by William Romain

Veganism is often presented as a “white people thing.” We see images of white people with yoga pants coming out of a fancy gym with expensive kombucha in hand on their way to pick up their favorite “African Peanut Stew,” telling us that veganism is “not even that expensive!” Or, we might stumble across “The Vegan Teacher” or any of her followers on TikTok, shaming us for eating meat as it is a sin. These examples, paired with various other unfortunate tactics, tend to play into the notion that veganism is only for white and wealthy people. However, plant-based eating has a long history with African countries and other colonized nations and ethnic groups. Still, because of environmental racism, it is difficult for people of color to go back to their roots. 

“Our ancestors followed a plant-based diet, and they thrived, and most died of old age. The food they ate was organic, and meat and meat products were consumed minimally.” – Tendai Chiapara, Zimbabwean blogger

Before European colonization, various people and communities across African countries had diets rich in fruit, vegetables, and legumes. If they used meat, it was usually only served as an additional seasoning for their meals. However, once the Europeans came, they brought more than diseases. They also brought cattle and capitalistic meat-eating practices. The vast majority of Europeans believed that food was what differentiated countries and made some places superior to others. They also thought that if they were to consume foods from countries deemed inferior to them, they too would become inferior. Thus, Europeans consciously decided to violate their colonized people’s food production and consumption rights, significantly changing their diets, for the worse, for years to come. So, it is important to recognize that veganism is not something new that white people created. In fact, historically, veganism and vegetarianism are something that white people tried to destroy. Because numerous societies of color have advocated for plant-based diets for centuries, for many, plant-based eating can be a return to the homeland from which we have been deprived. 

“Our ancestors were vegan. We have always been vegan, and that tradition and culture should not be forgotten.” – Nicola Kagoro, South African Vegan chef

“It is important to spread Veganism in Africa, because it originated in Africa, our ancestors didn’t eat as much meat, it is through colonization that we learned these crazy meat eating practices.”- Niccola Chef, vegan who cooks for group of female soldiers that go after poachers based in Zimbabwe 

Despite this history, if you Google the word vegans the majority of the images that appear are of white people. However, even if one wants to deny the history, you cannot deny the current impact and benefits of plant-based eating. According to a survey from the Pew Research Center, Black people are three times more likely than white people to become vegan. The most popular reason for this, is that our bodies were not made for this colonized, eurocentric, and meat-centric diet. We can point to a study published in Circulation that reported a near 20% reduction of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease (ASCVD) for African Americans who consumed a vegan diet for five weeks. A different study found that African Americans who ate vegan had a 44% reduced risk for hypertension, lower blood pressure, and half the risk of diabetes than nonvegan/vegetarian participants. The Adventist Health Study-2 found that for Black participants who ate a vegan/vegetarian diet, early death and cancer incidence rates were lower 36% and 22% respectively. Clearly, plant-based diets have life-saving benefits on Black people’s health. 

Unfortunately, due to environmental racism, which is defined by GreenAction as “the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color,” it is difficult for people of color to get the fresh food sources they deserve. A disproportionate amount of Black and Brown people live in places that are informally called food apartheids, which is a term that communicates that the “geographic distribution of increased barriers to food access can be explained not by a community’s lack of initiative, but by the continued legacy of racially discriminatory economic and political structures.” This means that there are more gas stations and liquor stores than grocery stores that carry fresh and farmed produce, simply because the government refuses to offer the proper food resources for these areas.

Thankfully, due to the Environmental Justice Movement, which is “an intergenerational, multi-racial and international movement, promoting environmental, economic, and social justice by recognizing the direct link between economic, environmental and health issues and demanding a safe, clean community and workplace environment,” there are many people and organizations that are helping to solve the crisis of environmental racism by providing healthy food and vegan/vegetarian options for people in need. Some organizations in Arkansas, including Be Mighty, provide fresh breakfast and lunches to kids Monday through Saturday. Other necessary organizations are community gardens, specifically the Dunbar Community Garden whose mission is “to provide educational resources and interactive opportunities for youth, families, and the community through sustainable urban agriculture.” There are a few restaurants that can also be included in this list, one of my favorites is The House of Mental. This is a Black owned, soul food based, vegan restaurant in downtown Little Rock. Restaurants like this, offer the chance to healthily experience the richly flavored and bomb cooking that is arguably the basis of Black culture. 

Veganism and vegetarianism have never been just a white people thing. It is important for us to recognize that plant-based eating has a flavorful and dynamic history with many ethnic groups and this lifestyle has the ability to save many of us (health-wise), if we can work together to fight and provide ourselves with the resources we deserve.

Citations:

https://foodispower.org

https://plantbasednews.org/culture/black-americans-more-likely-to-be-vegan-than-white-americans/

https://www.pewresearch.org/science/2016/12/01/the-new-food-fights/

https://www.pcrm.org/news/health-nutrition/vegan-diets-decrease-heart-attack-risk-among-african-americans

https://www.pcrm.org/good-nutrition/healthy-communities/black-health

https://www.pcrm.org/news/health-nutrition/seventh-day-adventists-have-lower-risk-cancer-and-death

https://greenaction.org/what-is-environmental-justice/

https://thebolditalic.com/vegetarianism-isnt-just-for-white-people-6f0c6c348050

https://greenaction.org

https://utenvironment.org/projects/microfarm/food-justice/glossary/food-apartheid-not-desert/

https://thinkzerollc.com/zero-waste-blog-1/f/food-deserts-are-environmental-racism-at-work

http://dunbargarden.org

About the Author:

William Romain has been a dedicated volunteer with the Be Mighty program throughout the pandemic. He is a senior at Little Rock Central High School and has called the library “home” as long as he can remember. William says working with Be Mighty this past year has been his saving grace amidst all the craziness, and that discussions with other volunteers and folks collecting meals have only fueled his passion for food. “From talking about institutionalized racism to the incredibleness of David Fincher,” Be Mighty has given him a place to express his thoughts amidst a food community so open to discussion, growth, and learning.

Read William’s previous guest blog here:

Disclaimer: The content in this blog post does not necessarily reflect the thoughts of the Be Mighty program or the Central Arkansas Library System. We share it to spark conversation and discussion, and to share a glimpse into the thoughts of the audience we serve most closely, kids and teens 18 and under in Little Rock.

If you would like to write a guest blog for Be Mighty Little Rock, please contact Jasmine Zandi, jzandi@cals.org.

AmeriCorps Service Members at CALS: Becoming better advocates through service

This summer, the Be Mighty team grew to a size we haven’t seen since the program’s inception. Working with the national AmeriCorps program, we hosted 4 summer AmeriCorps VISTA Associates. Coupled with the 3 long-term service members already serving with the Central Arkansas Library System (CALS); our program was able to take exciting new strides! Not only were our members excited to continue the meal distribution program, but they were instrumental in piloting new programs as well. Ever flexible and always up for a challenge, we could not have asked for a better group of members.  

Please join us in thanking these amazing people for their service to the Central Arkansas Library System, and the Be Mighty campaign. Below you will read about some of their many accomplishments, as well as segments of their key takeaways from the experience.  

Thank you, Ashley, Lily, Katie, Megan, Jamee, Sierra, and Olivia (all pictured). You are all rockstars!  

 

Megan began a year-long service term as Be Might Little Rock VISTA in August 2020 and has served in various capacities throughout. Especially when struck with the difficulties of the pandemic, Megan was a tremendous help in maintaining our momentum, ensuring the community always had up-to-date information regarding key resources through the implementation of marketing and communications strategies. Megan also assisted with meal and produce box distributions at branches system-wide, and even hosted various projects, such as a panel discussion of local leaders for MLK Jr. Day. She says the year has made a tremendous impact on her career, and she is glad to have served with Be Mighty Little Rock. 

Olivia began a year-long term as Grants& Development VISTA in January 2021. In this first portion of the service term, Olivia has been integral to the CALS Development team, diligently researching grants aimed at alleviating poverty, specifically related to library initiatives such as the Be Mighty program, Rock It! Lab, Community Resources Department, and Outreach Department. She also works on grants that relate to education, crafting proposals for literacy kits or tool kits for the CALS tool library. Without such grants and diligent research behind the scenes, many of our programs could not exist! We are so happy to still have a few months with her!  

Katie began an 8-month term with CALS at the Children’s Library and Learning Center as an AmeriCorps Full Circle FarmCorps Team Leader. Through the FarmCorps pillars of farm, outreach, and teach, Katie has served to address food insecurity and strengthen communities in Pulaski County. As a part of her service, Katie has assisted the management and beautification of the garden, greenhouse, and apiary at Children’s, resulting in over 650 pounds of fresh produce that was used in gardening/nutrition education programs or provided free to local patrons. She produced or contributed to several streams of kids virtual and in-person programming, and even facilitated an entire virtual nutrition education program using the Growing MyPlate curriculum.  

Lucky for us, Katie has accepted a position with Be Mighty as the new Garden & Nutrition Education Facilitator. She will be leading children’s garden and nutrition education courses throughout the fall.  Keep an eye out and take advantage of all the knowledge Katie has to share!  

The Be Mighty summer VISTA Associates began their terms in June 2021 and served with 4 different CALS branches: Ashley with Dee Brown Library, Jamee with Children’s Library, Lily with McMath Library, and Sierra with Main Library. The objective of the Associate service term was to increase food security in Little Rock by increasing the number of meals served through the USDA meal distribution program, referring patrons to federal/community resources, and providing educational programming about nutrition for children. Food insecurity among children is a significant issue throughout Arkansas, and particularly in Little Rock, where 77% of children qualify for free and reduced meals. The Associates not only provided relief through meals, but also organized programming to help families support themselves through federal benefits, like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), and nutrition education.  

Throughout the months of June and July, the Associates distributed a total of 6259 meals to kids and teens across just their 4 branches with an average daily participation of around 128 kids. They also became trained SNAP navigators through the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, participated in the SNAP Challenge, and established weekly SNAP office hours at their library branches for patrons who may need food resources. Though only up and running for a short time, these office hours seemed to be a success!

— You can read more about the importance of SNAP and the Associates’ experience with the SNAP Challenge in our previous blog post, titled SNAP Challenge: Reflections and Resources —  

Lastly, the Associates were key to launching Be Mighty nutrition education. We hosted several nutrition education opportunities for children in June and July, both virtually and in-person, and the Associates prepped hundreds of accompanying recipe kits, planned & facilitated lessons, and developed curriculum content to a format suitable for a free online curriculum to be available to kids throughout the 2021-2022 schoolyear on Niche Academy. Not only is it important for individuals to have money to spend on food, but nutrition education is vital in empowering individuals with the confidence to cook easy, healthy, and affordable meals at home for themselves and their families.  

Overall, growing more informed on the issue of hunger at-large has helped the Associates become better advocates. Ashley, who hails from Mississippi, agreed that the opportunities to immerse herself in the LR community brought light to the issues most of the community is facing and helped her understand how best to address the issue during her term. As Sierra shared, the severity of the issue at hand may seem alarming but hearing positive patron feedback about how programs like Be Mighty can help alleviate the burden of poverty keep us motivated to continue strong.   

Jamee said sharing what she has learned, and helping others become more aware of the resources available to them throughout Little Rock has not only helped her grow as an advocate, but also as an individual and artist, and she feels she is now professionally better suited to serve communities. Lily highlighted that through this experience, she learned the issue of food insecurity in Arkansas is complex and must be approached from many angles. Although it is essential to health and happiness, food is often sacrificed when families face financial hardship, so addressing the need for food and the root of financial hardship are both necessary to eradicate food insecurity.  

Our service members made the most of the unique experience that an AmeriCorps terms with CALS provided them. Libraries have long acted as resource hubs, and CALS and Be Mighty are excited to continue finding innovative approaches to support our community in the fight against hunger. We know that none of this work would be possible without dedicated folks like you all who make the work feel (almost) easy. We appreciate you and wish you all the best in your future endeavors!

SNAP Challenge: Reflection & Resources

Most know Be Mighty to be a meal distribution program. While this has been our focus, we are also expanding our capacity to facilitate nutrition education courses, and conduct food security screenings and referrals. Thanks to the help of our summer Associates, we have taken a big leap forward in our goals to provide greater access to not only food, but also broader food resources.  

There is no denying that these have been difficult times. When the world fell into the pandemic, we fell into a lot of uncertainty. Many also fell deeper into poverty. Hunger was always a problem before the pandemic, but we saw it more broadly when the pandemic hit. With support from the National Recreation & Park Association’s Nutrition Hub grant, we have conducted hundreds of food security screenings and referrals so far this summer. These screenings measure food insecurity and based on the responses, we can point individuals to key resources they may not already be accessing, such as SNAP. You can access the questions here: https://bemightylittlerock.org/food-survey-resource-referral/  

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly food stamps, is the greatest resource available to Americans experiencing food insecurity. It is a voucher program providing nutrition benefits to supplement the food budget for families and individuals in need so they can purchase healthy foods and move towards self-sufficiency. 

It became clear during the pandemic how close the average American could be to teetering between food secure and insecure. It only takes one major shift to really throw things off. One medical emergency, one car engine needing to be replaced unexpectedly, and the list goes on. Most don’t stay on SNAP for long, but it alleviates hardship to some degree while they return to complete self-sufficiency. This social safety net is key to ensuring hunger is eradicated throughout our community.

SNAP gives folks the freedom to make their own food decisions. You can even use your SNAP benefits at a local farmer’s market! Many are enrolled in the Double Up Food Bucks program, allowing SNAP recipients to double their dollars at the market. Utilization of federal SNAP dollars puts money back into local businesses and corporations. In 2009, it was recorded that every $1 increase in SNAP benefits generated an estimated $1.79-$1.84 in economic activity (https://www.snaptohealth.org/snap/the-real-benefits-of-the-snap-program/). According to the USDA, SNAP participation for 6 months was associated with a 5 to 10 percent decrease in food insecurity, including households with food insecure children.

First, our Associates were trained as SNAP navigators. Bobbi McDaniel with the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance walked us through the application, answering common questions or concerns that may arise during the application process. After all, the application process is extensive. Many would even say that the application process itself is even a barrier to folks who may need the assistance. Once our Associates became familiar with the application process, we also wanted to familiarize them with an average week as someone who receives SNAP benefits. The Food Research & Action Center developed a SNAP Challenge. This challenge helps to educate the public and leaders about the important role SNAP plays in mitigating hunger and poverty.  


Here is what 2 of our Associates wrote about their experiences while participating in the SNAP Challenge:

Ashley Nguyen (Summer AmeriCorps VISTA Associate – Dee Brown Library)  

The challenge of spending only $20 dollars on groceries for the week seemed daunting even before the week began. This was less than half my usual budget; I spent a few days planning and preparing myself for the week. I used the grocery store apps to find prices and figure out my game plan which made things a little easier when going shopping. At the end of the shopping trip, my groceries consisted of lots of carbs. I went into the first day of the challenge with a good attitude and high energy; I was able to stay within budget and felt hopeful about the next few days. This positive attitude began to fade when my exhaustion due to a rapid swap in food choices began to creep up on me. I felt more irritable and grew tired of eating the same meals every day. By the fourth day, I was ready to call quits and I did. The experience opened my eyes to the struggles many people go through; the most concerning part was how little variety in produce I could have with my budget. Food choices are limited when you don’t have the means to pay for good nutrient dense food and unfortunately, this is the reality for many Americans.  

Jamee McAdoo (Summer AmeriCorps VISTA Associate – Children’s Library) 

After just the first day of participating in the SNAP Challenge of $4 a day/$20 a work week, I instantly saw how difficult it would be to eat off $4 a day! 

Having to plan ahead, count dollars, and make sure I wasn’t overspending. Overall, I did cut out some snacks, and I tried to eat out less, but I mainly ate this week as I usually do, and I still ended up spending nearly $50! 

SNAP is a great resource and initiative to support individuals in need of a little assistance; however, even with this aid, most still struggle. 

I see that it is a privilege to not feel stuck or limited in food options. The pressure of saving money adds so much stress that things like health and nutritional value oftentimes can’t be a priority. 

I encourage everyone to spend a week really observing and calculating how much money is spent on food. Look at the different food choices you’d make with only $20 to spend for that week on meals and put yourself in the shoes of someone forced to live more frugal. 


If you, or someone you know, needs assistance with their SNAP application, the address for a foodbank or food pantry in their area, and more, you can visit our Associates during their SNAP office hours until the beginning of August. Their hours are listed below.  

Children’s Library & Learning Center: Monday and Tuesday 1:30-2:30pm 

Dee Brown Library: Mondays 1:00-3:00pm 

Main Library: Wednesdays 9:30-10:30am 

McMath Library: Tuesdays 1:00-3:00pm 

You can also contact the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance SNAP Hotline at: 1-833-SNAP-ARK (1-833-762-7275). The hotline is staffed Monday – Friday 10 a.m. – 3p.m. Get answers to SNAP questions and help with your application.  


Linked below are a number of useful documents from the NRPA: 

Using SNAP/WIC benefits at the Farmers Market 

SNAP Eligibility Checklist for Families 

SNAP Enrollment Documentation Checklist 

WIC Eligibility Checklist for Families 

WIC Enrollment Documentation Checklist