Access to healthy food should be a right and not a privilege.

This may sound surprising, but it was the late ‘80s in Texas, while I was in high school, that I went vegan. I went vegan because I didn’t want to contribute to the suffering of animals—not for food, not for entertainment, or makeup, etc. Before that, however, I had been vegetarian for a few years.

I was actually vegetarian for a bit when I was in elementary school, but I was unable to stick with it because my family did not have a lot of money. At times, we ate the food that people gave us, which meant it was difficult for me to stick with being vegetarian.

When I went vegan, it was difficult, especially compared to the amount of vegan options that are available today. Unfortunately, because it is easier for people to eat vegan these days, many vegans (with a more privileged background) seem to believe that it is therefore easy to go vegan or that anyone can go vegan.

This is one of many issues that my organization, Food Empowerment Project, works on. As much as we wish it were true that going vegan is easy, from information we’ve gathered, this is not necessarily the case.

Our work has shown that many communities of color and low-income communities lack access to simple fresh fruits and vegetables that many take for granted. Instead of having grocery stores, residents get their food from liquor stores and convenience stores.

These establishments have little to no fresh produce.

In the Bay Area city of Vallejo, CA, which is one of the most diverse cities in the nation with a population high in Latinx, Black, and Filipino community members, we did a study and found that only 16 of the 70 stores located there even had any “meat” or dairy substitutes.

We also found that 88% of all liquor stores and 71% of all convenience stores in Vallejo are in low-income neighborhoods. Of those stores, 35 in total (or one-third) sell fewer than 5 types of produce, or no produce at all.

Access to healthy food should be a right and not a privilege.

Unfortunately, while collecting data, we also found that a well-known grocery store chain, Safeway, moved from their downtown Vallejo location and relocated to a suburban area miles away. Like they have done in other places around the U.S., Safeway put a restrictive deed on their former property, preventing another grocery store from moving in for 15 years!

We are working to right these injustices in a variety of ways:

  • In Vallejo, we hosted a huge vegan event for members of the community where we released our findings in a report. Public officials spoke, there were local musical performers, and there was loads of delicious, free vegan food. You can see a short video here. We are planning another event on July 16, 2017.
  • We are currently organizing focus groups to find out from the community what barriers they face in accessing healthy foods and what they see as the solutions. It’s imperative that the solutions come from the community.
  • We also have a launched a nationwide campaign against Safeway. They must stop these harmful acts that impact community health. You can sign a petition in support here:

Access to healthy food is a complicated issue, and it is critical for all of us to remember that there are many people in this country who have a hard time affording fresh fruits and vegetables. Many have to take buses, ride their bikes, or walk to buy their groceries. Some work several jobs just to make ends meet.

We can help do our part by supporting living wage efforts, and for those whose compassion is what guided them to veganism, please remember that not everyone has the privileges that you may have had. Remember that simply finding a fresh tomato is not always easy.


lauren Ornelas, Founder/Executive Director/Food Empowerment Project

P.O. Box 7322, Cotati, CA 94931, 530.848 /



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