lauren Ornelas & Keith McHenry
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Part I: lauren Ornelas, Food Empowerment Project
lauren 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 www.foodispower.org and www.veganmexicanfood.com.
Part II: Keith McHenry, Food Not Bombs cofounder
Artist and author Keith McHenry helped start Food Not Bombs in Massachusetts in 1980. He has recovered, cooked and shared vegan food with the hungry for over 30 years. Keith has been arrested nearly 100 times for his efforts, spending over 500 nights in jail and at one point faced 25 to life in prison.
He co-authored “Food Not Bombs How to feed the hungry and build community” and wrote and illustrated “Hungry for Peace – How you can help end poverty and war with Food Not Bombs.”
Keith has traveled all over the world, speaking at colleges, books stores and cafes. While on tour he joins local Food Not Bombs activists helping them prepare and sharing free vegan meals with the public. He also helps coordinate logistics for the Food Not Bombs movement which is active in over 1,000 cities around the world.
When he isn’t on the road Keith lives with his partner Abbi Samuels in Santa Cruz, California and Taos, New Mexico.
TRANSCRIPTION PART I:
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: foodispower.org and veganmexicanfood.com
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 foodispower.org, 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: foodispower.org/chocolate-list. 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. veganmexicanfood.com
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 foodispower.org 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
TRANSCRIPTION PART II:
Caryn Hartglass: Hello everybody, I’m back. This is Caryn Hartglass and we’re right in the middle of the program It’s All About Food. It’s really funny to hear those commercial breaks when you hear your own voice. It’s like “wait a minute, that’s me, but I’m here, no I’m there”. Shall we talk some more about food, my favorite subject? At the beginning of the program I was talking about the World’s Fair and I want to talk a little more about that before we move on to the next guest. When I was a kid and I went to the World’s Fair, it was a spectacular thing and one of the things that I loved was the Ferris wheel. There was the U.S. Tire, which is now Uniroyal, had a big Ferris wheel. There was this replica, it was a toy, that you could buy and I so wanted that little replica, that little Ferris wheel toy and I didn’t get it. Going back to visit the anniversary festival this weekend they had—at the Queen’s Museum—all kinds of things from the original fair. They had that little replica Ferris wheel behind the glass along with a lot of other things and I looked at it and it was nothing. I just kept thinking, I couldn’t believe, that I coveted this thing so intensely but I was six at the time. But looking at it, seeing how nothing it is, it made me laugh. It made me think about so many things. The way we perceive things, either as children or adults, something having power or being so magical when really it’s just something we’re creating in our heads. We have a lot of power in our heads and we should be doing good things with them. Anyway, it was fun to see.
So, let’s talk about food, shall we? I’ll bring on my next guest Keith McHenry. He’s an artist, an author and helped start Food Not Bombs in Massachusetts in 1980. He has recovered, cooked and shared vegan food with the hungry for over thirty years. Keith has been arrested nearly 100 times for his efforts, spending over 500 nights in jail and at one point faced 25 to life in prison. He co-authored Food Not Bombs, How to Feed the Hungry and Build Community and wrote and illustrated Hungry For Peace, How You Can Help End Poverty and War With Food, Not Bombs. Keith, welcome to It’s All About Food.
Keith McHenry: Thanks for having me. It’s exciting.
Caryn Hartglass: You are so exciting. You have been doing such great work for so long. How do you do it?
Keith McHenry: Well, you just have to wake up every morning and go find some food and cook it. That’s basically it. There’s no problem finding people that need food. The biggest kind of crazy thing has been that it’s vegan food and to watch this coming Saturday, the 24th of May is the 34th anniversary of the founding of Food Not Bombs. At the beginning people had no idea what vegan and vegetarian food was and now, actually people who aren’t even vegan are excited to come eat our food because they know it’s organic whole foods and makes them feel a lot better. So even though they might be eating at Burger King and McDonald’s some time during the week we hear from more and more people that they really appreciate our food even though it doesn’t have meat.
Caryn Hartglass: Let’s just talk about the title to begin with—Food Not Bombs—it’s pretty self explanatory but I imagine, especially now with our phones being tapped and all kinds of undercover work, anything that has the word “bombs” in it is going to be looked at kind of questionably. Do you have problems with the name at all?
Keith McHenry: The name has caused some problems over the decades. We discovered not long after we were first arrested for feeding the hungry in Golden Gate Park in August of 1988 that we’d been declared one of America’s most hardcore terrorist groups. We learned that that Thanksgiving weekend it turned out the National Guard Armories all around the country at a workshop on domestic terrorism which featured our logo and we know that because National Guard personnel returning home for the weekend would approach our volunteers or just people who had happened to have purchased Food Not Bombs button and had it on their coat and said “oh wow we just studied them in American Terrorism class and their America’s most hardcore terrorist group”. Most recently in April of 2009 on C-SPAN I happened to catch this, actually twice, where a state department official compared Foods Not Bombs to Al Qaeda, who is more dangerous Al Qaeda or Food Not Bombs. Their conclusion was that we were more dangerous because people liked us, we’re friendly, people enjoyed the food and it was a threat because Americans might think money should be diverted from military spending towards things like education, healthcare, stuff like that.
Caryn Hartglass: I was wondering what they were worried about. I see now, so they think that you might take money away from the defense and put it towards healthier food and healthcare. What a concept.
Keith McHenry: Yes. When I saw the lecture on C-SPAN when I was speaking at Princeton…after my lecture at Princeton…then I went to speak at Harvard Law a couple of days later I saw it again. If I hadn’t seen it again I would have thought I hallucinated the entire program. Apparently it’s just that simple. That they are concerned that the American people will come across a Food Not Bombs table and see all the people coming to eat and then start talking to us, see the sign saying “food not bombs” and then low and behold we end up convincing them that they should organize…when a congressional candidate comes up for re-election or something and says I’m going to fund Social Security or I’m going to fund housing or I’m going to fund SNAP or WIC or something like that, that they will do it. Then, oh my goodness, there’s another billion dollars gone from building drones or this whole thing that Chuck Hagel’s been talking about—38 billion dollars to upgrade nuclear weapons arsenal. Until the Ukranian crisis it didn’t seem likely that we’d be at war with Russia again. Maybe that’s part of the war in Russia theory, to scare the American public into spending money on more bombs.
Caryn Hartglass: It may sound simple but if we could make sure every person on this planet was well-fed we wouldn’t see the majority of problems that we see on the planet today.
Keith McHenry: That’s right. You would not be able to even recruit actual real terrorists to be terrorists if everybody had adequate nutrition and then security—just knowing that you will be able to eat. I was in Ethiopia a couple of years ago at both the first and the second Ethiopian Vegan Association Conference. There are at least two million people facing starvation right now and the crazy thing is that there’s an amazing amount of food being grown in Ethiopia. The Nile River is irrigating massive areas of crop land, beautiful produce, amazing amount of tulips that are grown for the European market by Dutch companies. So with all this food being exported out of Ethiopia while two million people are facing starvation. This is very common with famine, where there is adequate food, local food is being diverted from the people living there. It’s all about lack of democracy and about profit. Now, for instance, with Africa with mass starvation all across the continent huge amounts of land are cultivated. It’s an amazingly fertile agricultural continent but that food now is being controlled by European or Chinese or Saudi, Bahrainian, the Middle Eastern kingdoms and so on, they are diverting food to their markets and they’re controlling agriculture and the only people profiting in Africa from all this is the rulers in these countries and some of the wealthy land owners. Another example was in Nigeria, and who was providing the food to Sudan during that famine was Nigeria. By selling oil to the rest of the world, using that money to buy their own food and then shipping it to Sudan. I talked to the Minister of Security a couple of times when I was visiting and they said it’s not because we’re altruistic we just don’t want like five million people from Sudan crossing into our country at this point we’re going to have problems. And now with Boko Haram and all that you can see that their point might be well taken, to manipulate events in their own favor so food is a weapon from way back and that I think is a large…. In the Food Not Bombs when governments try to stop us and that’s because they know we give out food without restriction to anyone that wants it.
Caryn Hartglass: Food is a weapon. Food can be used as a weapon.
Keith McHenry: Yes. There is evidence of Hitler using the withholding of food and the rewarding of food to manipulate events leading up and during World War II.
Caryn Hartglass: Let’s talk about when you do try and feed people who need food. I understand there are different places in the country that don’t allow your group or people in general to feed people who need food.
Keith McHenry: Right now there’s roughly over 50 cities that have actually banned or limited the distribution of free food in public and it’s not limited to Food Not Bombs but frequently Food Not Bombs is the target of these actions. There’s been over a thousand arrests of Food Not Bombs volunteers starting on August 15th 1988 in San Francisco. More recently we’ve seen new restrictions in Columbia South Carolina where they are demanding we pay $125 a week for a permit…we have to apply for a permit every week to share food there. We’ve been sharing food there for decades. Other cities like Orlando create a law that you can only share food twice a year in the park and have to apply for a permit and have to move around to 46 different parks. We were sharing and still do share twice a week in Orlando. They were making it so that each week you would have to get a permit, you could only share in that park for that week then you had to move to another park. Many of the parks actually had no access to anybody…to public transportation or things…there was no way anybody would ever be able to get to the parks to eat. They’d have to walk through people’s backyards.
Caryn Hartglass: So what do you think the purpose of the permit is in some of these places. What is that going to do, in their minds?
Keith McHenry: What my experience with permits are is that they have the permits so they can withdraw the permits and that’s what we saw in San Francisco. At first there was no permit required but the police arrested us for violating like a picnic ordinance or something. It wasn’t even clear what the actual rules of that law were. No one could really explain it. Police said that they were stopping us because we were making a political statement and that wasn’t allowed. It was like Park Code 7.03 you know that we were violating. Normally if you violate that you get a ticket for $25 but in their case they brought out 45 riot police and arrested 9 of us. By the end of the month they arrested a total of 94 people and then the mayor gave us a permit but then as soon as they wanted to get rid of us again they deleted the permit process. In the meantime they got a court order against us for sharing food without a permit and we got arrested for felony conspiracy to serve food in violation of a court order. So that seems to be what the point of the permit process is.
Caryn Hartglass: What are their fears of people giving homeless people or people who are hungry free food?
Keith McHenry: The issue for most of these…it turned out it really does come down to pressure by military contractors in many cases…and other large corporations who feel that money that would be going to them through government contracts and so on—might be diverted to things like education, healthcare. For instance people think of Orlando’s big industry is Disney World but actually the larger corporation that brings in as much money as Disney World is Lockheed Martin. We don’t have evidence that there was a direct conversation between the authorities in Orlando and Lockheed Martin but it’s a big military contracting area in Central Florida because of its connection to Cape Canaveral and all that. It’s just very interesting. Whenever you get a very repressive situation like San Francisco where we found out it was Bank of America, Bechtel Corporation and Chevron—people think of Chevron as an oil company we have to remember that half the oil that is used and sold in the United States is sold to the military. Compared to us driving around in cars…to have that one customer—the U.S. military—and then to have their tax base be threatened was apparently a threat. Raytheon Missile Systems, Grumman, General Electric—these are all companies who apparently feel threatened that their contracts with the military. They’re feeling that there’s only so much tax dollars to go around and they want to get the largest chunk of it. Right now in all of the military including paying soldiers and stuff, which is really minimum wage for enlisted people, comes to nearly half the federal budget. Some estimate that this year it was 60% of the federal income tax that people are paying is going just to service just the military either past wars or current.
Caryn Hartglass: I don’t like hearing that. I don’t like to know that. I like to know that but I don’t like to hear it. Tell me some good stories where Food Not Bombs came along and fed people and there was a happy ending.
Keith McHenry: Right now I’m at the Hope Connection in Santa Cruz California. The community has gotten this huge auditorium and put all these homeless services in there, including dental work, eye doctors, podiatrists, all this amazing stuff. So while I’m outside handing out this bread and organic produce that I received from local natural food stores here in Santa Cruz, we’ve been seeing all these people coming out saying “Oh we love Food Not Bombs,” “It’s just wonderful.” This is the thing, we’re in one thousand cities in the world. It’s all-volunteer, there’s no paid staff. We have a website foodnotbombs.net that we’re going to be upgrading shortly but it’s currently there. Turns out it was…I didn’t realize this but we started this website within the first twelve months of the first commercial websites in America, so it’s been up there since 95. You can connect with your local Food Not Bombs chapter there. We have a Hunger Hotline that’s a toll free number, 1-800-884-1136. We get calls all day from people seeking food. Then we have some other projects like relief work so we’re providing meals and solar power to charge cell phones and stuff. In the Philippines, even today, we’ve been doing since the typhoon hit. We provided meals in twenty cities in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas after Katrina. We were in New Orleans in several locations for over eight months. We did Sandy relief. We’ve done earthquake relief. We’re also gearing up to provide meals that protest this weekend against Monsanto and seeking seed sovereignty and food sovereignty, really trying to push the whole idea of organics and non-GMO and the idea that food is a right and not a privilege.
Caryn Hartglass: I’m glad you mentioned Monsanto just for a moment because I wanted to bring that up awhile back when you were talking about the lack of food distribution in Ethiopia and other places where there’s plenty of food but it’s not getting to the people who need it. Companies like Monsanto will use the excuse that they need to improve crops so that these people who are starving will have food to eat and that’s not the problem. The problem is poverty. The problem is lack of democracy. The problem is food distribution and using fertile soil for products that a small group of people benefit from by exporting most of the time rather than feeding the people who are working to grow the stuff. So GMOs is not the way to go. We just need better government, more democracy, more equality.
Keith McHenry: GMOs because of the intellectual property rights that are associated with the control of these seeds is actually the leading cause of hunger on earth right now. The reason being you see like for instance in India and many other countries like that where they sign on to the world trade organization agreements or have relationships with IMF World Bank and they are required to accept genetically modified seeds and chemicals. They finally go bankrupt so thousands and thousands of farmers in areas where we need more farmers not less farmers have gone bankrupt because they can’t save their own seeds by contract and they end up having to get loans to buy the seeds and chemicals and then less and less land gets cultivated and less and less farmers are farming because they’ve gone bankrupt. There’s like thousands of farmers in India, for example, that have committed suicide because of the stress of losing their land to foreclosure because they couldn’t afford to pay for the GMO products that they ended up agreeing to grow. Then you see the same thing happening in the United States, not so much the bankruptcy, but problems with cutworms that have now adapted to Bt corn. Now the farmer is out to spend even more money on chemicals to kill the cutworms to save their crops. As a result the margins are less and you see this horrible impact that genetically-modified foods are having on food. Then you have things like the dumping of GMO crops in places like Ethiopia. You have teff, for instance, one of the oldest grains in the world grown in Ethiopia being threatened by Monsanto and Gates Foundation and so on who are trying to basically gain control of food. As a result a lot of people say that the Arab Spring came about because Monsanto had doubled the price of their seeds and chemicals in the year before. Basic food things, particularly grains and flour, increase in price so dramatically the subsidized flour in places like Egypt and Tunisia just became out of reach for many people. They are paying half their total income just on food and that inspired so much frustration that it evolved into revolutions.
Caryn Hartglass: Wow, you never hear that in mainstream news.
Keith McHenry: Very rarely, you really have to dig for that. I just wrote a chapter in a book on vegan eating and so on and found a lot of information on that but you have to dig. It is in some mainstream things, usually Wall Street Journal in the back pages or something like that.
Caryn Hartglass: Keith, we’re at the end of the half hour. I wanted to thank you so much for joining me and you are doing great, great work. Keep going.
Keith McHenry: Thank you so much and I hope listeners get involved with their local Food Not Bombs group and visit foodnotbombs.net. We really need more cooks and it would be great if we were sharing seven days a week in all one thousand cities of the world where we’re currently active. We’re an all-volunteer thing so it’s all about people spending their time and coming out and helping collect and cut and share food.
Caryn Hartglass: It sounds really good. I just wanted to end on a delicious note. I’m looking at your website. I’m looking at your tofu sandwich spread recipe. It looks really yummy.
Keith McHenry: People are always shocked. I gave that out at Conscious Living Expo in LA a year ago to hundreds and hundreds of people. They’re like “What! That’s tofu? That’s amazing!”
Caryn Hartglass: So go to foodnotbombs.net and check out the tofu sandwich spread and everything else that’s up there. Keith, thank you again and just keep doing it.
Keith McHenry: Thank you so much for having us. Take care.
Transcribed by Suzanne Kelly 7/21/2014, edited by Johanna Bronner 8/20/2014