David Coman-Hidy is the Executive Director of The Humane League. Under his leadership, The Humane League has grown into a national presence with offices spanning from coast to coast—winning campaigns against some of the largest foodservice and retail corporations in the world and reaching millions of young people each year with a message of compassion for farmed animals. During David’s tenure, The Humane League has been ranked as “Best In America” by the Independent Charities of America and named a “Top Charity” by the charity navigator Animal Charity Evaluators for three consecutive years.
David, age 25, has spoken on factory farming and effective advocacy at conferences and on campuses across the country. He has advised dozens of successful campaigns and his thoughts on activism have been published in Uncaged: Top Activists Share Their Wisdom on Effective Farm Animal Advocacy alongside experts Peter Singer, Bruce Friedrich, and Matt Ball.
David graduated Summa Cum Laude from Emerson College’s honors program in only three years after winning the communication college’s Forensics Award and entrance into the Gold Key Honours society. He currently resides in Brooklyn, NY with his partner and two cats, Olive and Basil.
Caryn Hartglass: Hello everybody, I’m Caryn Hartglass. Thanks for joining me today. You’re listening to It’s All About Food. That’s what you want to listen to, right? I hope so. We get to talk about food, my favorite subject—the good, the not so good, the delicious, and a lot more.
I wanted to just bring up a few things before we get to the meat of the program. You know, I hope, that we are having our fundraiser—Responsible Eating and Living, my nonprofit, is having a fundraiser on Earth Day, my birthday, and I want all of you to be there. So all you have to do is go to www.responsibleeatingandliving.com and scroll down the right side, and you’ll see a link to our Happy B’Earth Day Revue. There’s going to be lots of great vegan food and drinks and a performance by the Swingin’ Gourmets. It’s going to be a lot of fun, and if you go to that page—the event page—you can watch some promos for it, which I think are a lot of fun, too. So I hope you do that.
And I wanted to mention also that we have some great auction and gift-bag sponsors, and more are joining in the fun. Catskill Animal Sanctuary is giving a night at their homestead, which is a lovely, lovely house in the Catskills, and you can visit their sanctuary. Gaiam TV is offering a subscription to their online video programs. Go Organic NYC, which is a company that I just started using recently—it’s an organic delivery food service—and they’re giving two $100 gift certificates in our auction. World Peas—that’s World Peas, P-E-A-S—they have some fun snack foods; they’re giving a gift basket. Sera’s Salon is giving a manicure for our auction. And we’ve got some great treats for our gift bags, including Gardein coupons and Raw Revolution bars, Beanfield’s—they’re chips made from beans—and BenBella is including a certificate for a free download to their book, Best of Plant-Based Eating and Living. And there’s a lot more that I’ll mention in other programs, so I hope you make it, okay? Because it’s going to be a lot of fun, and it’s my birthday, and I want to have a nice party with all of you.
Let’s move on to my first guest, David Coman-Hidy. He’s the Executive Director of the Humane League. Under his leadership, the Humane League has grown into a national presence with offices spanning from coast to coast, winning campaigns against some of the largest food-service and retail corporations in the world, and reaching millions of young people each year with a message of compassion for farmed animals. During David’s tenure, the Humane League has been ranked as Best in America by the Independent Charities of America and named a Top Charity by the Charity Navigator Animal Charity Evaluators for three consecutive years.
Caryn Hartglass: David, how are you doing to today?
David Coman-Hidy: Hey, good. Thanks so much for having me on the show.
Caryn Hartglass: You’re welcome. So you’re 25 years old, and you’re just a young superman, aren’t you?
David Coman-Hidy: I don’t if that’s how I’d describe myself, but that’s very kind of you. I’ve got to say, we have a really exceptional group of people at the Humane League who’ve helped us grow, and many of them are very young, including our—let’s see, our Philadelphia Director is 22 years old, I believe, and she’s responsible for Philadelphia Meatless Mondays. Our newest campaign coordinator, Taylor, is 21 years old, and he’s behind some of our biggest corporate victories yet. So I’m like the old man in the group now.
Caryn Hartglass: That’s exciting. All right. Give me a brief history on the Humane League, how it got started….
David Coman-Hidy: Sure, the Humane League was started actually a decade ago by my friend Nick, Nick Cooney, who some of your listeners may know, from some of his books. And for a long time, it was just Nick doing—by himself, with volunteers—kind of like local grassroots organizing, so things like leafleting and doing local campus campaigns, setting up news racks with vegetarian starter kits—just trying to pick out some of the most effective tactics that local volunteers can use, and after a few years, he raised enough money to hire one other person to do that same kind of work in Boston, so that’s when I got started. That was nearly five years ago, so for a little while, it was Nick in Philly, me in Boston, and then we added on our friend Aaron Ross in Baltimore and his partner Kate. Since then, we kind of took that franchise model of opening up local offices, and by the end of the spring, we’ll have 11 different major metro areas with our folks, as well as a number of full-time corporate campaigners on staff as well. So yeah, we do a mix of kind of like the grassroots outreach like leafleting on campuses, organizing student groups, setting up news racks, running local campaigns like getting school systems to participate in Meatless Mondays, and then kind of the other part of our work is our national campaigns, so that’s where we get major corporations to change their policies, and those campaigns are supported by the network of volunteers that we have through our grassroots offices.
Caryn Hartglass: You recently moved to New York?
David Coman-Hidy: That’s right, I’ve been here for about four or five months now, it’s been really exciting. It’s such a great animal community here. I’m still getting to know everyone, but yeah, it’s been a lot of fun living in Brooklyn.
Caryn Hartglass: Do you have some specific targeted plans, the reason why you came to New York other than we’re the greatest city in the world?
David Coman-Hidy: Well, I must admit, my partner got a job here is the main reason, but I have had my eye on New York for a little while. Right now, it’s myself and one of our full-time campaigners are both living here, and we work on a lot of our national campaigns out of the city. So our work from New York has been mostly nationally focused, but we are hoping down the line to hire someone to do the kind of grassroots local work that we really think would be great to see more of in the city. Vegan Outreach is doing a great job of leafleting and hitting up college campuses, but there are simply so many people here that really there could be a dozen more full-time staff people, I think, working in the city, so we definitely want to start expanding our grassroots presence here in the near future.
Caryn Hartglass: And what is the mission of the Humane League?
David Coman-Hidy: Our mission is to, simply put, reduce as much suffering as we possibly can. So whether that is creating more vegetarians and vegans, getting people to reduce meat consumption so that animals aren’t born into factory farms, or changing the policies at companies so that the worst abuses on factory farms are phased out, and of course there’s a cost increase that reduces the bulk production of these products—whatever means we can find to be most effective to reduce suffering and spare as many animal lives as we can.
Caryn Hartglass: The word humane is an interesting one, and it’s a word that bothers me very often because I think we all know what humane really means, and we use it a lot for things that aren’t humane. I know the Humane League is doing things to promote the real meaning of humane, but….
David Coman-Hidy: Yeah, part of the reason that we like that name is that it has that kind of mainstream appeal. Whereas everyone thinks of themselves as humane. We also work with a lot of corporations where, if we have the word vegan or something like that in our name, it might be a lot more difficult to get public traction. But we are very careful with our language. We never talk about—for example, we work with companies to ban or to boycott farms that use gestation crates or farms that use battery cages and so forth, and we’re very careful with our language, we never say that, “oh now they’ll be using a humane egg farm“ or “they’re using a good egg farm.” We always talk about things in terms of boycotting, talking about the cruelty of certain practices, highlighting their cruelty, so we always talk in the negative about that kind of thing. I completely agree; I hate to see press releases that come out and talk about humane meat and humane eggs and so on. It’s so frustrating.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, exactly. Humane or humane farming, which involves things that aren’t humane. What are some of the winning campaigns that you had that I read about in your bio?
David Coman-Hidy: Sure. So in the last few months, we’ve actually had a pretty, really big winning streak for our corporate campaigners that’s been exciting. So just to give some perspective, like I said, four or five years ago, it was just two of us working in our local areas, and we’d do things like, on college campuses, to get their dining halls to add more vegan options, to get dining halls to boycott battery-cage eggs and so on. So we’d kind of go campus to campus. When I started in Boston, for example, some of the first campaigns I did was to get a battery-cage boycott on Harvard and BU and most of the campuses in the city, as well as adding more vegan options in the BU dining hall, that kind of thing.
We’ve kind of scaled up, we went, spread to a number of cities, started getting a lot more campuses to switch, and in the last few months, we decided to target the actual major dining companies that actually control all of the cafeterias. So there’s a few—Compass Groups, Sodexo, and Aramark are by far the largest. They’re billions and billions of dollars, multinational companies that each control hundreds and hundreds of dining halls and accounts at hospitals and colleges and sports arenas. So we launched a national campaign against one of these companies at Sodexo. They’re an $18 billion company; they have hundreds of campus accounts alone in the country, in the US alone. And we targeted them to make a complete battery-cage boycott across all of their accounts, both liquid and shell eggs. Just to give you an idea of scale, I think that Sodexo alone employs, if you will, about one in every 300 hens in the United States that lay eggs, so it’s a really huge purchaser. The campaign lasted for a little over two months, and then they not only agreed to make these boycotts, but they also put out a comprehensive animal-welfare policy. So they’re also going to be trying to curtail some other practices like tail docking and dehorning without any kind of painkillers, other kind of harm-reduction methods that are going to make a meaningful difference for a lot of animals out there.
And what’s more exciting about that, though, is that within a number of weeks from that victory, we were able to get similar commitments out of Aramark, their competitor, and then Compass Groups made the switch, and they are the single largest of these companies. So those three companies alone impact over three million hens every year, and of course, egg-laying hens have about a twelve-month life cycle in the industry, so that means every year, millions and millions of hens will not have to suffer inside of battery cages, and additionally, of course, it brings the price points of egg replacers a lot closer to egg themselves, which is a very exciting thing for those who have an eye on the bulk market. About 30% of eggs are just used as a binding agent or for some other part of their chemistry that isn’t really what you think of when you think about eating eggs. So the real hope is that we can undermine that part of the egg industry with these campaigns.
Caryn Hartglass: Are they going to, Sodexo and these other companies, are they making the change immediately or is it by a certain date?
David Coman-Hidy: It’s a phase-out over the next few years, so each company was a little bit different. What we worked with on with some of them was to phase out 100% of their college accounts right now and then to phase out the rest—I mean the fact of the matter is that these egg farms don’t even exist yet. Essentially, a lot of battery-cage farms are going to have to retrofit, their demand is so—this is increasing the demand by such a huge amount, so we are actually starting to see changes in the egg industry where there’s going to need to be a change in the kind of farming taking place, so the idea is that the phase-in of these new farms will occur as the transition is happening at these major companies.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, because I was wondering about the capacity, of the way they are doing things now and the way that they’re promising to do later, and is the industry set up to handle that?
David Coman-Hidy: Yeah, the major players in the industry were part of the discussion with those companies as they were making the switch, I’d imagine. They would have to get—they’d take a while to get back to us after speaking to their contacts, so it’s certainly is making waves across the entire industry.
Caryn Hartglass: Right, because I’ve talked to a number of authors who have described what goes on in the industrial factory farmland—Ted Genaways and Chris Leonard both wrote some pretty excellent books and talked about how Tyson has major control of all the chickens, and I’m sure that these companies are getting a lot of their eggs from Tyson.
David Coman-Hidy: I think Tyson is more in control of the, what they call the broiler-hen industry. There’s a number of, I think there’s less of a monopoly in the egg world. There’s a few really large egg producers, many of which use battery cages now, of course, but who are starting to see the writing on the wall and shift over a lot of their, retrofit a lot of their other farms.
Caryn Hartglass: Well, ultimately we want them to stop making eggs, right, and use plant eggs?
David Coman-Hidy: Yeah, exactly. And like I said, if we look to European countries where laws like this or policies like this have been implemented, we see a number of things happening because…. In England, for example, when the price of eggs went up because the battery cage became illegal, what we saw was a lot of fast-food restaurants phasing eggs out of their breakfast sandwiches and so on. We also just saw a decline in actual consumption because of the price increase as well as because of the education for consumers. Another part of laws has been to include “from caged hens” on the eggs themselves, and we see a dip in consumption once things like that happen.
But consumers, when they find out what’s happening, are very sympathetic to folks like you and I and our point of view, and I think that campaigns like these not only work financially towards our end goals but also really raise awareness about where people’s food is coming from. A lot of the folks that I talk to on campuses campaigning like this have never ever really thought about where their food comes from, about the animals who are laying their eggs and so on, and this is a great way to get these kinds of gears turning in people’s minds. Eggs especially are compelling because the average American eats about one hen’s worth of eggs each year. So if you’re an average American that eats eggs, there’s a hen out there laying just for you, and they live for about 12 months, so that means every year, you’re renewing your lease on this animal in a cage. It’s a very, at least to me, a very compelling thing to make people think about: is that worth it to you, this one animal out there? It makes it a lot less abstract.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, you said you’ve got some people working on Meatless Monday campaigns?
David Coman-Hidy: Yeah, that’s right, that’s something that we decided to do last year. We saw a lot of success in various cities passing city-council resolutions and some schools participating and companies participating. So we thought that we’d take our grassroots style and tactics and bring it to the Meatless Monday campaign. And the reason we decided to this is that we just looked at the numbers, and we saw that some of the cities were in, they’re so big that even if we only succeed in one or two, the number of meals impacted will be so large that it’s just an unbelievable number of animals would be spared from life on a factory farm if we were able to institute some of these policies.
We had a number of our offices start gathering signatures of students and parents, taking pictures with students holding signs of support, getting letters written in to the dining folks in the administration of these major public school systems, getting city-council resolutions passed, and after a number of months, we actually saw success—in Philadelphia, now there’s a Meatless Monday program in all of their K-12 schools. We got about half the schools in the Baltimore county school district, which is one of the largest in the country, and also now Boston is participating on a meat-reduction day on Mondays. In total, we’re impacting about, it’s over two million meals a year, I believe, on Mondays served in those schools that formerly would have been chicken nuggets or hamburgers or something like that will now be vegetarian options, so we’re talking about countless thousands of animals spared.
Caryn Hartglass: The concept of Meatless Mondays seems so harmless, and yet on both sides of the Meatless Monday—there are people who don’t like Meatless Mondays because they don’t think we should be telling people that they shouldn’t eat meat at any time, and then there’s the other side where there are some very passionate vegans who think it’s the wrong message, it doesn’t go far enough. What do you think about all of those different voices on Meatless Mondays?
David Coman-Hidy: First of all, to me, the bottom line here is that because of these policies, thousands of animals won’t have to endure life on a factory farm, so to me that in itself makes the campaign worth doing, because to me the bottom line is how much suffering can be reduced by these campaigns. But that said, it’s probably not surprising that I also think these campaigns have a lot of other value. I think there is a lot of evidence out there that shows that if people take small steps, they’re more likely to go in the direction we want them to and eventually become vegan.
Think of it this way—when people bring this up with me, I have this thought experiment where I say you have two worlds: you have one where you are leafleting to a regular college student, and the other world, it’s a college student who K-12 every Monday was told, “Today is a special day where we are going to eat vegetarian foods because it’s better for the animals, and it’s better for the environment, and so on,” and there are promotions talking about why Meatless Monday is good, which is something that the school systems we are working with are doing. So they’ve consciously thought about why reducing meat is good for basically their entire lives and made a point to do it. Do you really think that the average college student is more likely to engage with a Vegan Outreach leaflet or a Mercy For Animals leaflet or something like that than the one who’s never thought about these issues before, never been introduced to vegetarian food that they like? I don’t think so.
At least for me, I didn’t go vegan overnight, and I made a lot of small baby steps. When I went vegetarian in high school, first I did Meatless Mondays, then I did all the weekdays, and I slowly became vegetarian over a number of weeks. So at least for me personally, it really does speak to me. If you show people that vegetarian and vegan food is normal, it’s stuff you already eat—we do surveys to follow up with people and say why did you stop being vegetarian or why are you not vegetarian, and the main thing people say is, “I don’t know what to eat,” “the food is weird,” “none of my friends eat vegetarian food.” These are all problems—these are real problems that have easy solutions, and one of the best things to do is just every week, make a point to say, “hey, you already eat vegetarian food because this is a vegetarian day—Monday—and you like pasta in red sauce, and you like bean burritos, and so on.”
I think that the people who are really critical of Meatless Mondays, it’s too much of a focus on purity and wanting everything to be 100% all of the time. In the real world, you have to work baby steps. Change is gradual. We can’t go to the Boston public school system and say, “hey, do you want to go 100% vegan?” When it comes to working with major institutions, you have to work with what you can win.
Caryn Hartglass: Right. There are organizations like the Humane League that are doing that, and that’s a good thing, and then there are others that want to see the big steps, and I guess it’s a continuum, and we need everyone on that continuum doing their part so that we can move the average over to a better place.
Caryn Hartglass: Absolutely. And the other thing to keep in mind is the Humane League—probably 95% of our resources are spent on doing vegan advocacy. We talk directly to consumers and ask them to go vegan. So I think that makes a lot of sense when you’re talking to the average person. It’s not a completely impossible thing to ask. But obviously, if we go to Starbucks, we can’t just say, “hey, have you guys thought about going 100% vegan?”
Caryn Hartglass: Right. You mention you started going vegetarian in high school. What did it for you, what planted the seed?
David Coman-Hidy: I wish I had a better excuse, but the fact of the matter is that I had a vegetarian girlfriend, who was obviously a good friend, of course—she was my girlfriend. I was really, at the time, super into the punk scene, and I knew a lot of vegetarians and vegans through that, so it seemed kind of like a normal thing. I didn’t put too much thought into it outside of, I hear it’s better for the environment, and why would I hurt animals if I don’t need to, but I wasn’t very educated on the issues, so that’s why I slowly started phasing it out, trying it—my girlfriend at the time was doing it, so I was like, oh, might as well. It became habit and stuck, and then it wasn’t until college when I read more of Peter Singer’s books and started educating myself online and watching videos of factory farming that I realized how little I knew. I went vegan and started getting involved in activism at my college.
Caryn Hartglass: That’s the last question—you made a tremendous step towards activism to make this your life’s mission. Did you have an epiphany that that’s what you wanted to do? Did it just kind of happen in little steps?
David Coman-Hidy: I would say, like I said, Peter Singer’s work was really influential to me, and I definitely think in that utilitarian kind of way, so I always knew that I wanted to be involved in campaigns and politics or some kind of political work, and which I would consider this to be as well, so I studied Political Communication at college, and I was planning on going into mainstream party politics, trying to change the world from that avenue, but I got pretty burned out working on campaigns, realizing that it wasn’t really the atmosphere that I thrived in. I didn’t find that the folks I was working with shared my same vision where I was working within the system to make the world a better place. It was a lot more about petty politics and advancing your career and that kind of thing.
So I decided to move into the nonprofit sector, and that’s how I connected with Nick at the Humane League. For a long time, I had been doing personal vegan activism and animal activism, but I never had thought that this was something that could potentially be a career, a way to spend my life, outside of trying to support it through my other work, and then I connected with the amazing world of animal activists, and there’s a few people, like Jon Camp especially, from Vegan Outreach—the Million Leaflet Man. I spent a summer in a car with him traveling on Warped Tour with him and Nick from the Humane League and Aaron and Kate from the Humane League and a lot of people who really showed me that you can make a life out of this, and they inspired me really to dedicate the rest of my life to doing this work for animals.
Caryn Hartglass: Great! Well, I want to say that I hope you don’t need to do this for the rest of your life, but like you said, things happen in small steps, and I think you’ll be busy for a long time.
David Coman-Hidy: Yeah, I look forward to an early retirement.
Caryn Hartglass: Just one last thing, what’s the Humane League working on now?
David Coman-Hidy: We’re continuing to campaign against some of these dining companies. We have a list of the top 50, so I think we’ve gone through eight of nine of them now, and we’re going to wrap that up. We’ve got a few secret plans with some big companies and corporations that we’re going to be going after in the coming year. But some really exciting news is first of all, we’re opening new grassroots locations, so we’re going to be in San Diego and Denver, and we’re also hiring a corporate campaigner in Mexico, so we’re going to be campaigning against some of the companies that we’ve defeated here in the US using the exact same tactics but in Mexico, so we’re really excited to start doing some international work.
Caryn Hartglass: That’s great because everything’s connected, isn’t it?
David Coman-Hidy: Absolutely, absolutely.
Caryn Hartglass: Well, David, it was great talking to you, and I didn’t know much about the Humane League, and now I know a little bit more, and I’m glad you’re out there.
David Coman-Hidy: Thanks so much for the opportunity to chat about our work. It was really nice.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, so people just need to visit www.thehumaneleague.com.
David Coman-Hidy: That’s right. Yep, absolutely.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, great—well, thank you, and I hope you really develop the true meaning of the word humane.
David Coman-Hidy: Thank you so much; all right, I’ll talk to you soon.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, bye-bye.
David Coman-Hidy: Bye.
Caryn Hartglass: Great. Well, that was David Coman-Hidy of the Humane League, and let’s take a little break, and then we’re going to have some fun. We’re going to talk about vegan tapas.
Transcribed 9/16/2015 by Kris McCoy