lauren Ornelas, Food Empowerment Project


lauren Ornelas, Food Empowerment Project
lauren_ornelaslauren Ornelas is the founder/director of Food Empowerment Project (F.E.P.), a vegan food justice nonprofit seeking to create a more just world by helping consumers recognize the power of their food choices. F.E.P. works in solidarity with farm workers, advocates for chocolate not sourced from the worst forms of child labor, and focuses on access to healthy foods in communities of color and low-income communities. While lauren was the director of Viva!USA, she investigated factory farms and ran consumer campaigns. In cooperation with activists across the country, she persuaded Trader Joe’s to stop selling all duck meat and was the spark that got the founder of Whole Foods Market to become a vegan. She served as campaign director with the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition for six years. Watch her TEDx talk on The Power of Our Food Choices. Learn more about F.E.P.’s work at and


Caryn Hartglass: Hello, everybody! I’m Caryn Hartglass. Hey! How are you doing today on this beautiful May 20th, 2014? Well, it’s beautiful! Finally! Here in New York City. One of the things that I love to do- you know I love food- It’s All About Food. I really enjoy eating outdoors. We have a little terrace and I got to eat outdoors several times today already. So, it’s a good day! Feeling the sun on me. Making a little Vitamin D- while I’m eating. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. Right? This past weekend- you may know I live in the county of Queens in New York City- and we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the World Fair back in 1964-1965 this weekend at the Queens Flushing Meadows- Corona Park. Does anybody remember the World Fair back in 1964-1965? Raise your hand. Who remembers? I remember. I was just a little thing then but it made some tremendous impressions on me and just going back and visiting this past weekend made me think of all the incredible things that have happened over fifty years. Can you imagine what is going to happen in the next fifty or at least the next ten or twenty? I cannot even imagine but I know it’s going to be… it’s going to be good. Something to look forward to. Now, let’s get back to food. My favorite subject! We are going to be talking about some serious food conversations here, some serious food topics. I’m going to bring on my first guest here: lauren Ornelas. She is the founder, and director of Food Empowerment Project, a vegan food justice non-profit seeking to create a more just world by helping consumers recognize the power of their food choices. Food Empowerment Project works in solidarity with farm workers. Advocates for chocolate not sourced from the worst forms of child labor and focuses on access to healthy foods in communities of color and low-income communities. When lauren was the director of Viva! USA, she investigated factory farms and ran consumer campaigns. In cooperation with activists across the country, she persuaded Trader Joe’s to stop selling all duck meat. And, was the spark that got the founder of Whole Foods Market to become a vegan. She serves as campaign director with the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition for 6 years. We can learn more about her at her website: and

lauren, welcome to It’s All About Food.

lauren Ornelas: Great. Thanks so much for having me.

Caryn Hartglass: Yeah. Well, you are quite the powerhouse! I’ve been following you for a long time and I’m very glad I’m having the opportunity to have a little chat here with you.

lauren Ornelas: …always… wanted to speak with you.

Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, so I hope we can hear you good enough. The connection is… Could be a little clearer… Just speak up and we wanna hear everything you say.

lauren Ornelas: Okay. Great!

Caryn Hartglass: Okay. Now, Food Empowerment Project. If you go to, we can see all the different issues that you are working on. The thing that I want to talk about to start with is the issue of human slavery. Can we talk about that? You know what? I’m a vegan. I’ve been a vegan for a long time. One of the responses that I used to get- not so much anymore- is that people say you care so much about the animals. What about people? Many of us try to connect the dots because it is all connected but they’re…. We treat animals poorly, we treat humans terribly, and we treat children terribly. So, what’s going on with food production and human slavery?

lauren Ornelas: Sure. There’s basically… I’ll talk about two different types and first of all thank you for recognizing that these connections absolutely do exist. And that was one of the reasons why I started Food Empowerment Project with our focus being food because many of us vegans started… We started down this path because we are very compassionate people and we have a sense of what is and what’s not just. We don’t want to participate in these types of industries that cause harm to others. With our food choices, it’s an easier way to have an impact here. So, when it comes to slavery. What got me thinking about this issue, when it comes to chocolate was an English documentary were they actually interviewed a former slave for the chocolate industry and the interviewer asked him “What would you say to people who eat chocolate?” His response was “they’re eating my flesh”.

Caryn Hartglass: Oh!

lauren Ornelas: As a vegan, I thought well that’s the same thing a non-human animal would say. I really had to start re-evaluating all of my food choices. What’s happening with the chocolate industry is in West Africa, there’s an approximately 1.8 million children who are victims of the worst forms of child labor which also can include slavery. Here you have you know, basically Western chocolate companies not paying farmers what they should be paid for the amount of work and the product that they’re producing. So, they in turn to employing children, and some end up basically, sometimes stealing children from market places and having them work for the cocoa industry- where they go and they actually use dangerous equipment such as machetes, to cut the cacao pods out of the cacao trees. Some children as young as seven years old.

Caryn Hartglass: Now, I first found out about this- maybe, over a decade ago. And, I’m sure it’s been going on for a long time. Has there been any improvement?

lauren Ornelas: There’s been more awareness. I mean, I say awareness knowing that most people, honestly still don’t know about this issue. There has been legislation to pass, in the United States, the Harkin-Engel Protocol, to work on this issue. But, in terms of real concrete changes, there haven’t been a lot. There have been more certifications out there. Food Empowerment Project does not suggest people go based on certifications if they want to buy chocolate that doesn’t come from West Africa. We encourage people to base they’re chocolate choices on the country of origin. Which is why we created our chocolate list that list companies we do and do not recommend based on where the chocolate is actually sourced from. Which also has two apps that people can download for free. But, the problem unfortunately is just incredible prevalent and we haven’t seen it lightning up at all.

Caryn Hartglass: Okay. So where is chocolate is chocolate grown where we can be confident that there treating people properly?

lauren Ornelas: So, outside of West Africa, although, we do have one company on our recommended list- which grows cacao in Ghana, and there are worker-owned cooperatives. So, the workers actually have the say. It’s not only the guys of the Western corporations making these decisions. But, elsewhere around the world is Latin America. You have Mexico, you have Indonesia, and just other places… Actually, Hawaii is trying to get it off the ground as well. Cacao isn’t grown just anywhere.

Caryn Hartglass: Okay. Now, you have this great list on your website: It’s a long list of different companies that sell chocolate and there is the good and there’s the not so good. Can you talk a little bit about this list and how it was created? How you go this information?

lauren Ornelas: Sure! Absolutely! So, when I would give talks about the chocolate issue, people would inevitably say, “Well, what chocolate can I eat?” And so we realized that we had to create a resource for people. Since we are a vegan organization, any company on that list has to make at least one vegan chocolate bar. So, we’ll get e-mails from people asking about Häagen-Dazs or other companies and we’ll explain that, you know, unless they make a vegan product they don’t make our list. So that’s the first criteria. Obviously because the suffering of cows in the dairy industry. But, second to that is that we recommend companies that are not sourcing from West Africa. Those are the ones that are recommended. We don’t recommend companies that will not be transparent. Meaning that when we’ve asked them, ‘Where are you sourcing you cacao from?’, they’ve refused to tell us. Surprisingly on that list is ClifBar which is why we have a campaign right now to get ClifBar to disclose. We also can’t recommend companies that don’t respond to us either. So, that’s kind of the breakdown of our list. We do contact the companies and we do give them about a month a half to two-months to respond us with three contacts. So, we contact them at least three times.

Caryn Hartglass: Now, I’m going through this list and I’ve been here before. I’m have mixed feeling when I visit you because my heart always thinks when I read the long list of the ones you don’t recommend. It’s just oh no… But, you know it’s not even chocolate that’s our worst problem. We’re not doing too badly.

lauren Ornelas: Right. Exactly. Well, the good thing is that if enough people have written to some of their favorite companies on our do not recommend list based on if they didn’t respond or because they’re sourcing. We’ve had companies change suppliers and we’ve also had companies be transparent with us. Honestly, transparency is the first step in creating any change out there.

Caryn Hartglass: So I just wanted to point out a few: 365 Dark Chocolate Bars by Whole Foods. You feel comfortable recommending. There’s a lot of others on this list. But, then the ones that I guess are the most well-known in my world, I just wanted to bring up. So, the ones that you cannot recommend just flat out- that’s a pretty short list- Hershey’s, Scharffen Berger, and this other one, Nói Síríus Chocolate. So, that you’re flat out no, where they’re sourcing the chocolate and they’re bad.

lauren Ornelas: Yes.

Caryn Hartglass: And, have they responded?

lauren Ornelas: We didn’t even bother contacting Hershey’s because we know very well where they source from… Actually, no we did end up contacting them. Cause first we didn’t even have them on our list cause we didn’t think they made anything vegan. And, then we found out they make cocoa powder. So, that’s really the only ingredient/product that we know that they make that’s vegan. If you look down, the companies who we just don’t recommend at all means they didn’t make any noises. Like we’re the issue and we are trying. For the downer the companies didn’t do…

Caryn Hartglass: Can you repeat that? I just missed that. You said the companies that didn’t weren’t making any noises about what?

lauren Ornelas: Yeah, so basically when I list when we have that the companies are not recommended but working on it. We’re not going to recommend them because they’re still sourcing from West Africa. But, they at least said they’re aware of the issue and maybe they have some type of certification. A film called Shady Chocolate, which came out maybe a year or so ago, exposed a lot of the certifications and that they were still finding piled labor. Possibly trafficked children on many of these farms that were certified.

Caryn Hartglass: Well, and then there are the companies that just don’t respond at all. I know Trader Joe’s is really good at not responding to a lot of questions about where they source food or where they’re food is made. I have some close relatives that are always concerned about Celiac and whether food is contaminated with wheat or gluten. They’re not very transparent about that information. So, I’m not surprised that they’re not transparent about chocolate either.

lauren Ornelas: Yeah.

Caryn Hartglass: Yeah. And what’s the deal with ClifBar? I thought they were a nice company.

lauren Ornelas: Well, it definitely, you know, they do some things in the social responsibility realm that they should be credited for but the lack of transparency when it comes to chocolate is the big black mark on their record. It is something that we have a right to know as consumers- especially, when we’re talking about something as serious as child labor and possibly slavery. So, we want consumers to reach out to them and ask them to be accountable for where the chocolates’ coming from. Again, all were are asking for transparency. We’re not asking for the city or even the state or the name of the farm. All we’re asking for is country of origin. So, they claim that this information is proprietary is an absolute joke.

Caryn Hartglass: All right. It’s easy to point the finger at other countries and say, yeah, they treat they’re people horribly here. Unfortunately, we don’t have a very good record here in the United States either. I was just reading today or a few days ago in the New York Times- talking about children on tobacco farms in this country. And how the laws are written so they can get away with this.

lauren Ornelas: Yeah, it’s really appalling- the rate. That report came out recently. There’s been a lot of noises as well about farm workers in the produce industry. Where we as vegans should also be concerned about where our food is coming from and how those workers are treated. Here in the United States, you have approximately 400 thousand children who work here in the fields. You have some children as young as 5 years old who are working. And these are all because of loop holes in the federal law. It’s because the fact that, these farmers are unwilling to pay the farm workers living there decent wages. Even though, people work countless hours a day in extreme temperatures. Providing food for all of us. I mean, unless you’re eating only what you grow out of your garden, more than likely your food is coming from farm workers who are not treated right in this country and absolutely appalling that this country allows this to continue.

Caryn Hartglass: Now, I remember reading- maybe 5 years ago or so- about the tomato industry in Florida. There was a movement there to expose the slavery. It was outright slavery of people being brought in from other countries- Mexico, and other places to Florida against their will even. Thinking that they’re were going to be getting a opportunity and then, they were… The stories were horrific. There has been some progress. Basically, the companies are charging a penny more a pound or something ridiculous, in order to treat these people better. And, guarantee better conditions for them.

lauren Ornelas: Exactly. What they do in the United States… What these contractors do at times is they take the passports away from the workers. So, they’re kind of… They don’t have anywhere to go. They’re freedom is taken away. And, it’s the Coalition of the Immokalee Workers who are working on this in Florida. All they’re asking for is exactly one penny more per pound of a bushel of tomatoes that they pack. They’ve been successful in getting a lot of corporations to do this. Yet, they still currently have campaigns against Wendy’s and publics who have yet to just agree to pay one penny per pound for the tomatoes they pack.

Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, ugh. It’s just crazy. So, were else do we have slavery in the United States.

lauren Ornelas: There is, not surprisingly. The animal agriculture industry…

Caryn Hartglass: Ah, my favorite.

lauren Ornelas: …Also, has a slavery riddled through some of their supply chains. Where you have workers, maybe coming from Peru and other countries. Where they come to work in, say cattle ranching and all these workers basically, in the middle of nowhere. Where the farms will actually go and provide the workers with water and with food. They’re left with elements themselves. They don’t have cellphone access. They run out of water. They’re kind of at the mercy until the ranchers come back to bring them water. It’s unfortunately…. These situations, exactly as you said, we can’t just point at another country. We need to look here and see what it is that we’re doing in our own country.

Caryn Hartglass: Okay. So, what do we do? Clearly, when it comes to animal agri-business we don’t eat animals. But, for all of us compassionate vegans who need our fruits and vegetables. How do we know that the people that are providing our food are treated well?

lauren Ornelas: Exactly. No, I know. I so appreciate all the compassionate vegans who want to go beyond veganism and their compassion. With farm workers, it’s a difficult task. It’s not like we can look for a certain seal, it’s not like we can look at where it’s sourced from. What we can do, you know, our organization tries to do things. We did a school supply drive last year for the children of farm workers. We’ll be doing a food supply, ironically, for farm workers in the next couple of weeks. To help them have food in their tables. Buying organic- you know, kind of like if you know how cows are treated in the dairy industry- Buying organic doesn’t necessarily mean the cows are treated any better. It’s the same way with the farm workers. But, it does mean one less bad thing is happening to them. So, if you can afford to buy organic that is a good thing. Speaking out to the grocery stores. Letting them know it matters to you. If you go to the farmers market make sure that you talk to the people who are there about how the workers are treated and make sure that they know it’s important to you. There are a couple of seals and certifications that are being worked on. Most seem as the preliminary stages at this point. It isn’t as easy as go vegan or the chocolate issue when it comes to our produce at this point.

Caryn Hartglass: Wow.

lauren Ornelas: I know, right. It’s just so….

Caryn Hartglass: Yeah.

lauren Ornelas: But, the thing is the more you can lend your voices to state legislation- any regulations. We try to keep people informed on regulations and legislations so that people know when they can use their voices. I mean think about some of the changes. We have a long way to go for animals, but some of the changes that are collective voices have made for non-human animals- we can use our voices collectively, as well. To take care of the human animals, too.

Caryn Hartglass: I guess, we are talking about it and that’s a first step. There are so many things that go on in this world, in the United States. Horrible things. There’s child abuse and all kinds of molestation and abuse that’s going on. That we don’t see; we don’t know about. Battering and the list is endless. There is more legislation that’s trying to prevent all of these things. But, so much of is just out of our view. It’s really hard to know what’s going on.

lauren Ornelas: Yes.

Caryn Hartglass: So, I’m just going to put a little light out there. Put a little energy out there and hope for the best.

Okay. Let’s move on then. So, what else is going on with the Food Empowerment Project?

lauren Ornelas: A couple of things. One is, we have a newsletter for new vegans or people who are interested in going vegan. It’s a newsletter that they will receive in the mail for free, if they sign up. They get one issue a month for the year. Our hope is that… to kind of be a way of support of new vegans. So, they have a reminder every month as to why they made this decision. Every issue comes with a story of an animal and how they’re treated in the Ag industry, as well as a rescue story from various sanctuaries including VINE Sanctuary, and some of the other sanctuaries around the country. Happy stories of these animals when they get into sanctuaries. It also includes recipes, nutrition, information, and also information on environmental labor issues. So that if somebody is going vegan for…. You know, everybody goes vegan for different reasons. But, if it’s for an environmental reason they can also be reminded. All the reasons. Why it helps the animals as well as the planet to not consume animals any longer. So that’s something we just launched in January. We’re taking 500 sign-ups for that. One of the other projects we have going on is our access to healthy food work. Which we are currently working in Vallejo. Again, people aren’t familiar. Lack of access to healthy foods. It’s a big problem in communities of color and low-income communities. Which is often referred to as a food desert. What we’re trying to do is were trying to make an assessment of foods that are and aren’t available- not only fruits and vegetables but also meat and dairy alternatives. Many people of color were lactose-intolerant. So, we need to have those dairy alternatives as well as those young people who want to go vegan- who want to have some of the alternatives available. So, were trying to see what is and isn’t available in these communities and help the groups work on these issues. Gain better access.

Caryn Hartglass: Great. Now, you have… Now, onto a happy subject. Well, you know when it comes down to it, you know, sometimes I just throw up my hands and I go “Just go vegan!” It’ll just solve so many things. It doesn’t necessarily solve the people better….the conditions of the people growing the vegetables, but it does solve many, many problems and from there we can solve the rest of them. But, the point is that the food is delicious. You have another website: veganmexicanfood. Is that it?

lauren Ornelas: Yes.

Caryn Hartglass: .com

lauren Ornelas: It’s translated in English and in Spanish.

Caryn Hartglass: Right. Now, what motivated that?

lauren Ornelas: I’m a Chicana. So, I am used to growing up with Mexican food. A lot of our food is pretty easy to be made vegan. Some is already vegan. So, it makes sense to me to reach out to our communities and make sure that we were aware of the different types of foods that are available. We take recipes from anybody who wants to donate their recipes. We’re trying to keep it, pretty grassroots, so that we’ve got people who support our work to donate and get credit for the recipes. Some of the recipes come from my family, who over the decades, now have had to figure out different foods to veganize so that I could eat with everyone.

Caryn Hartglass: What to feed lauren? She’s such a problem!

lauren Ornelas: That is a big problem in general. Definetly!

Caryn Hartglass: Well, I love Mexican food! Beans and beans and beans. Rice and rice and rice. I could eat it all day and just throw a bunch of spices on them and it’s great! And, it’s cheap.

lauren Ornelas: It is. Yes.

Caryn Hartglass: Now. You’ve gotten around. You were the… In your bio, it said you were the spark that got the founder of Whole Foods to go vegan. How did that happen?

lauren Ornelas: I was running a group called Viva! USA at the time were I conducted investigation on factory farms and slaughterhouses. We did investigations across the US of duck farms. Part of our campaign was making sure that the grocery stores quit selling duck meat. As you mentioned here, we were successful in getting Trader Joe’s to stop selling duck meat as well as a couple small natural health food stores. And Pier 1 Imports to stop using feathers in all of their products. But, Whole Foods was a difficult target. I believed… I’m from Texas. Their based in Texas. I thought it would be all Texas friendly. They would just listen to me, but it didn’t turn out that way. We got them to quit carrying duck meat from one of the farms we investigated. We were not as quickly successful in getting the other farm. We actually had a campaign against Whole Foods Market for a number of years. Which took place across the country. The founder of Whole Foods and I had a…. I don’t know, a nice way to call it- We met let’s say at a shareholders meeting and I spoke and we spoke afterwards. He and I e-mailed back and forth for several weeks after that meeting kind of going back and forth, arguing about everything. Finally, he said I’m done talking to you or don’t have anything more to say to you. So, I just wrote him back one more e-mail cause that’s just how I do it. Then, six months later, he wrote to me and said that after our conversation, he’d done a lot of reading. Read up on the issue and then, he had made a decision to go vegan.

Caryn Hartglass: Wow! How did you feel about that? That was huge! I remember reading about that!

lauren Ornelas: Yeah. I fell out of my chair. I keep getting… It’s the absolute truth. I just couldn’t believe it. It was one of the rolling chairs and you know being a non-profit, it wasn’t the most stable, perfect, new chair or anything. So, that’s probably aid to why I feel out of my chair. I literally fell out of my chair and was waiting to see how real was this. You know, cause it could have been a hoax. He could have just thought that way for a little while and…. Yeah… It was quite amazing. We’ve been in touch over the years. We communicate. In the beginning, we communicated a lot and I gave him my input. I still do on a lot of what Whole Foods is up to. But, yeah, it was very shocking.

Caryn Hartglass: Well, that was a huge accomplishment. Because, Whole Foods isn’t perfect. No person or company is perfect. But, they have done a lot of very good things and I think some of it stems from John Mackey’s decision to go vegan. And, want to offer more whole minimally processed foods that are affordable. So, that people can get kale if they want it. I think that was a very powerful thing. So thank you for that.

lauren Ornelas: Oh, yeah…

Caryn Hartglass: You can just take the rest of your life off and relax. You don’t have to do any more work. You’ve done…

lauren Ornelas: I heard that! I’m waiting for my heart and my head to feel that way. But, at this point, I still push for more pushing to be done. But, thank you. It was pretty amazing.

Caryn Hartglass: Well, I look forward to hear what you do next and who’ll you convince to go vegan next.

lauren Ornelas: Oh, thank you very much. I thank you for… It’s so hard doing this work and feeling like, you know, it’s sometimes overwhelming- the issues that we work on at Food Empowerment Project. But, it helps some people like you who care and want to learn and want to make a difference. Thanks for ending this on a lighter note. So, it’s not so heavy for me. Feeling like I just depressed everyone.

Caryn Hartglass: I know. It is so hard. But, here I’m sending out some light onto you too.

lauren Ornelas: Thank you!

Caryn Hartglass: What I like to do on this program. It’s a safe place for vegans to talk about the good things and the not so good things. Thank you, lauren for joining me.

lauren Ornelas: Thanks so much!

Caryn Hartglass: Okay. Be strong!

lauren Ornelas: Thanks. Take care.

Caryn Hartglass: That was lauren Ornelas. Find out more at because it is! Food is power! I definitely recommend going to that list on their website about chocolate because we don’t want to be supporting child slavery and they’ve made it easy to do that. By avoiding the companies that we know are questionable or aren’t being transparent. So, we take a little break. Okay. We’re going to talk more about the injustice of our food system with Keith McHenry of Food Not Bombs.

Transcribed by Jennifer Tzoc 9/15/2014

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *