It’s Friday night, and for the first time in months, warm enough to stroll around New York City without the armor of arm-stiffening winter wear. In a city still timidly emerging from their apartments after a year in quarantine, Crown Heights buzzes with relieved New Yorkers, still masked, but enjoying the early spring weather.
Just a block from Prospect Park, Ital Kitchen is not a new restaurant, but the crowd in the backyard patio might suggest otherwise.
I enter the cozy indoor dining room, pass a bamboo divider and take a quick walk through the kitchen, arms distance from open flames topped with steaming woks and pots and pans. A trendy, Brooklyn-looking crowd dine and chat and drink in the restaurant’s secluded backyard.
Metal tables with mismatched chairs and benches, low couches and heat lamps are spread out at a safe distance. On each table, a different spread of booze brought from home, little cups of rice, and one of many plant-based dishes chef Michael Gordon just whipped up in the kitchen. Hand painted portraits hang from the wooden fence, and every direction, happy, young patrons of all fashion aesthetics and hair colors laugh in the dim light, sipping from mason jars and quirky glasses painted with butterflies and animals.
Gordon, who is 50, opened Ital Kitchen in 2001, and finding an enthusiastic audience took 20 years in the making. But he always insisted on sticking to his principles, and having fun while doing it, patiently waiting for the tide to shift. “The place hasn’t changed, but at least I’m making money now,” he jokes.
Born in Jamaica, Gordon moved to the United States in 1986 when he was fifteen years old. He decided to open Ital Kitchen shortly after he discovered Rastafarianism in his late twenties. Growing up on the Island, Gordon had an uncle who was a devout follower of Rastafari. It was not until Gordon was living in Queens, and had children of his own, that he truly came to embrace some of the beliefs he had learned from his uncle. Gordon had been feeling at a bit of a standstill, and was unsure what to do with his life, “I just needed something different,” he said. In Rastafari, he found a new purpose.
One of the Rastafari concepts that resonated the most with Michael was the idea of Ital eating, which stems from the word vital and is defined by eating natural, unprocessed, predominantly plant-based foods. As Gordon says, “Ital is vital.”
For Gordon, Rastafari and the idea of Ital opened his eyes to the way food affected not only him as an individual, but also the people around him. He quickly found that by eating a plant-based diet, he felt happier and calmer, and found the same to be true of other plant eaters. Gordon believes that “the greener you eat the greener you be.”
He defines foods made with animal products as “angry foods” and “stressful foods” — food which at some point in their production, involve the suffering of some human or animal to get from the farm to your plate. “I think a lot of violence comes through food. I think a lot of people are eating these stressful foods that create violence within them,” he says.
But he believes it does not have to be that way, and after a few years experimenting with Ital and Rastafari for himself, decided to open Ital Kitchen to share his discovery with fellow New Yorkers. But in the early 2000s, vegan food was a hard sell, even in Brooklyn, and for nearly 20 years, an average day at Ital Kitchen was one with little business. “We used to just sit here and play chess and smoke pot all day and we would get three or four customers,” says Gordon.
And between the menu of vegan ingredients many people had never heard of, and Michael’s stoner eccentricities, his family and members of his Crown Heights community had plenty of doubt that he would succeed at all. “When I first started people thought I was crazy,” he admits.
Year after year, he stayed in the same storefront, pouring his love into the place. He has painted and repainted the walls and the chairs, added new decor from his travels around the United States and back to the Carribean, and constantly experimented with new recipes (the vegan jerk chicken, however, has always been on the menu: his nod to the Island). Along the way, Gordon went to Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Arizona, he graduated in 2010. Every week, he flew to Scottsdale to attend classes and on the weekend, he returned to Ital Kitchen to practice his new skills in the restaurant.
Gordon wears his years of work on his paint splattered sweatpants, a faded red and green knit cap and a smile which creases at the eyes, the face of a man who enjoys what he does. And as the rest of New York and the world is beginning to catch up to the ideas Michael has been touting since 2001, and embracing the power of plant food, Ital Kitchen is finally enjoying some of the popularity Michael has worked hard to earn. He proved his naysayers wrong — the proof is in the electric Friday night crowd.
“The world has shifted to Rastafarianism without even knowing,” he says. “Food is going to save us.”
Standing on the Shoulders of Green Giants
Marcus Garvey was born in Jamaica in 1887. He grew up poor, and belonged to the lowest social class on the island which was still under British rule. Garvey grew up to resent imperialism and white supremacy. After traveling around the Americas and to London as a teenager looking for work, he returned Jamaica in 1914, and brought with him a mission to empower the “new Negro” under a banner of Black nationalism.
He started the Universal Negro Improvement Association, and in 1916 moved to Harlem where he helped the organization rapidly grow. By 1920, it had over 1,900 divisions in 40 countries.
A focal point of Garvey’s work was the “back to Africa” movement, and as a powerful public speaker, he rallied masses around the idea of unity for people of the African diaspora. In 1920 he delivered a speech telling the audience to “Look to Africa when a black king shall be crowned, for the day of deliverance is near.” These words would make Garvey a prophet of Rastafari, a religion in nativity. In 1930, the prophecy was fulfilled when a man named Ras Tafari crowned himself Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia. Selassie became a living god for followers of Rastafari around the world.
Leonard Howell was one of the first preachers of new religion, and is known by some as “The First Rastafari.” In 1934, he was arrested and charged with sedition for speaking against the Jamaican government in a speech to rally new members to the Rastafari religion.
After he was released from prison, he continued to preach against white supremacy and in support of Rastafari, and in 1940, founded the first Rastafari village in Jamaica known as Pinnacle.
Howell, who had spent much of his childhood traveling around the world, admired Hinduism and became known as “the Gong” or “Gyangunguru Maragh,” amongst his followers. The Rastafari belief in Ital comes from Howell, who borrowed a commitment to plant-based eating from Hindu practices and applied it to his new Rasta religion.
Rastafari belongs alongside Judaism, Christianity, and Islam under the banner of Abrahamic religions, but is differentiates itself in it’s Afro-centric reading of the monotheistic Bible. Ideologically, many Rastas accept Haile Salessie as a messiah, who will deliver people of the African diaspora back to Zion, the promised land, which is Ethiopia in the Rasta view. Once delivered back to Zion, the Black race, which is believed by Rastas to be one of the original tribes of Israel, will be freed from Babylon, which in this context, refers to Western society.
In practice, however, Rastafari may align itself more with Eastern religions like Buddhism or Hinduism. For many, Rastafari is a lifestyle, not just a religion, and there is no one set way to embrace it’s values. Many Rastas smoke marijuana, as a form of spiritual cleansing and many abstain from other intoxicating substances like alcohol, cigarettes and prescription drugs. Wearing dreadlocks is also common amongst Rastas as a commitment to living as natural a life as possible and a symbol of their dedication to Jah or God. Followers of Rastafari may also affiliate with a particular subgroup, or ‘mansion.’ The Nyahbinghi and Bobo Ashanti are two of the strictest, and to this day, most members of these mansions follow plant-based diets in the spirit of Ital.
A few decades after Rastafari began to spread and develop into a movement of global proportion, a new kind of movement for Black liberation was gaining momentum.
The 1960s was marked by the American Civil Rights Movement, led by figures like Martin Luther King, Malcom X, Coretta Scott King, who had visions for racial equality in a country still fractured by Jim Crow separatism.
Dick Gregory was a well known Civil Rights activist and comedian and like Leonard Howell, turned to food as a tool for racial liberation. Gregory died in August of 2017, but in many ways, he was a father of a revolution just beginning to come of age.
When Gregory watched his wife, who was nine months pregnant, get kicked by a Mississippi sheriff in the 1960s, the only reason he did not fight back was because he had sworn himself to nonviolence, a pillar of the Civil Rights Movement of that decade. In that moment, he had another revelation: if nonviolence meant a refusal to hit or kick another person, even one that was beating him, the same should apply to animals. He decided to stop eating meat, and in the decades to come, advocacy for vegetarianism became a focal point of his work.
In 1974, he co-wrote a book with Dr. Alvenia Fulton, a naturopathic physician and owner of the first vegetarian cafe and health food store on the south side of Chicago. Entitled Dick Gregory’s Natural Diet for Folks Who Eat: Cookin’ with Mother Nature, Gregory’s book explains the health costs of the modern American diet which is filled with animal products and processed foods, and how people might find better health, and perhaps even enlightenment, in a vegetarian diet. An original copy now sells for nearly $400 and the book is being reprinted, with a new introduction, and will be sold beginning in June.
In an obituary of Gregory written by Trayce McQuirter, she wrote about a lecture he gave while she was attending Amherst College, and how it inspired her to transform her lifestyle. She wrote, “in his speech, he traced the path of a hamburger from a cow on a factory farm to the slaughterhouse to a hamburger to a clogged artery to a heart attack, and it completely rocked my world.”
McQuirter published By Any Greens Necessary: A Revolutionary Guide for Black Women Who Want to Eat Great, Get Healthy, Lose Weight, and Look Phat, in 2010, a recipe book, guidebook, and essay all in one, which exposing the unsanitary and inhumane conditions under which meat is produced and the explains potentially deadly effects of consuming a predominantly meat and dairy diet. The book advocates for other Black women, and everyone, to consider going vegan.
Over half a century after his book was published, Gregory’s plea for Black Americans to consider plant-based nutrition is gaining popularity — McQuirter is not a lone disciple.
As of 2020, Black Americans formed the fastest growing demographic of plant-eaters — a Gallup Survey estimated eight percent of all Black Americans are vegan and people of color ate 31 percent less meat in 2019, compared with a 19 percent decrease for white people.
VegNews, a popular vegan news outlet, published a “Black Vegan Issue” in January, complete with “The Great American Black Vegan Restaurant Tour.” From Slutty Vegan in Atlanta, to Ras Plant-Based in Brooklyn, and Detroit Vegan Soul, restaurant owners across the country are offering creative spins on vegan dining, and are unapologetic with their politics in the process.
Directly inspired by Gregory or Rastafari, and their own experiences and ideas, a new generation of Black political leaders are turning to the page and to their community, and promoting veganism as part of their vision for racial equality. Breeze Harper is the editor of Sistah Vegan, a collection of essays written by Black women explaining their connection to veganism, and attributes her initial interest in plant-based advocacy to Gregory’s teachings. Omowale Adewale, founder of Black VegFest and author of Brotha Vegan, was inspired to go vegan by the Rastafari religion, and uses his work as a way to see himself represented in the mainstream vegan movement. “The vegan community has been white for so long, and sometimes it feels like they want to keep it white,” he told BBC.
Across the country, Black vegans are in search of a solution to centuries of inequality and oppression that begins in the kitchen.
An Unequal Food History
My personal introduction to these ideas came from watching “The Invisible Vegan,” a 2019 documentary directed by Jasmine Leyva. She is an actress living in Los Angeles, who decided to go vegan 10 years ago after meeting Chef Babette, owner of vegan restaurant, Stuff I Eat. Though Leyva was only 20 at the time, she was amazed that someone who was 60 years old could look so good just from eating vegan, and decided to give it a shot.
Immediately, Leyva noticed a huge difference. “A lot of minor health problems I had that I thought were just growing pains starting clearing up,” she told me. Leyva had suffered from chronic acne and severe menstrual pain which all but disappeared when she changed her diet. “I realized there’s more to this than being able to look good in some booty shorts.”
But while the physical changes Leyva experienced were positive, the feedback she received from her peers was less so. “I’m from D.C., which is more of ‘Black city,’ she said, “and when I moved to L.A. and went vegan, my friends from home used to make fun of me and say ‘you’re eating white people food.’”
Leyva decided to make the “Invisible Vegan” to break down the stereotypes she faced as a Black woman who is vegan, a return credit for the vegan movement into the right hands. As she points out in our interview, Donald Watson was a white Englishman who coined the term ‘vegan’ in the 1940s. While his organization, The Vegan Society, helped bring plant-based eating into Western culture and vocabulary, it may have also helped erase some of the true origins of plant-based eating, and it’s original non-white practitioners. “It’s just like yoga,” says Leyva. “It isn’t a European thing, but images of yoga in the West tend to be a white woman with a ponytail. The true origins of the other people who contributed to these movements get lost sauce.”
In 90 minutes, the documentary covers a lot of ground; from the history of soul food, to body image, to factory farming. Leyva mentions Rastafari, Dick Gregory, and other Civil Rights activists like Angela Davis and Rosa Parks, whose contributions to vegan and vegetarianism are often forgotten in the pages of history. And in one of the most impactful sections, Leyva lays out what may really be at stake when it comes to choosing what to eat for dinner.
According to the documentary, Black Americans are 30% more likely to die from heart disease and 60% more likely to be diabetic than white Americans. In addition, Black women are 40% more likely to develop breast cancer and the rate of pancreatic cancer is 50-90% higher amongst Black men. Black men also die at the highest rate of prostate cancer.
Why such a sharp disparity? Evidence increasingly suggests that diet may be to blame, but it is not quite that simple. lauren Ornelas, founder of the Food Empowerment Project believes that we are living in a ‘food apartheid.’ And in the United States, it is by design. “These are deliberate attempts to harm the health of Black, brown and indigenous communities,” she tells me.
Ornelas, who identifies as Chicanx and Indigenous, has dedicated her life to educating people on where their food comes from and advocating for the people and animals most often harmed by large, industrial food companies. Her organization promotes what they call “ethical veganism,” or rather, a plant-based diet free from animal or human suffering in the form of farm worker exploitation. “I think that capitalism obviously was created to benefit and profit off the backs of those who were seen as vulnerable,” she says. “It was never meant to benefit us at all.”
For Ornelas, the ‘food apartheid’ is not just about the treatment of food industry workers, but there is also a problem with the food itself. From the moment Christopher Columbus brought cattle to the New World on his fourth voyage, food systems in America began to change, and the Indigenous diet was trampled over by new imports. “Colonization is part of what brought these foods to our shores,” she explains.
The dairy cow serves as an apt example to prove her point. Most Native Americans are lactose intolerant — roughly 95% — as well as 50-60% of Latinx and 65-75% of Black Americans, according to McQuirter’s By Any Greens Necessary. Yet still to this day, the USDA recommends dairy products universally as part of a healthy diet.
But dairy is just one example. In her book, McQuirter details several other examples of the way USDA guidelines defy nutritional science, and further, she explains a bit on food advertising and finance, which works to keep the meat and dairy industries on top and plant foods on the sidelines. But there is another problem at play. Not only does the food industry and USDA keep people misinformed, it also creates a landscape which makes affordable, healthy food hard to come by for many people living in low-income, often minority-dominated neighborhoods. It is a phenomenon known as a food desert.
The USDA defines a food desert as an area over one mile from the nearest grocery store and with limited transportation options for access to fresh produce. Food Empowerment Project estimates that in New York alone, 750,000 people live in areas legally classifiable as food deserts and an additional three million struggle with grocery store access to fresh produce. And the problem disproportionately impacts neighborhoods in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Harlem and with higher percentages of Black residents.
Increasingly, nutritional science has begun to undo decades of lies. In one instance, The World Health Organization deemed meat a carcinogenic substance in 2015. Other experts like Dr. Milton Mills featured in the Invisible Vegan have begun to promote plant-based diets to help people to prevent the onset of degenerative diseases. And documentaries like the Game Changers and What the Health are doing their part to set the record straight.
But already decades, if not centuries of damage have been done, and the same people who grew up in a system that lied to them and made them sick are aging, and at risk of developing degenerative disease most commonly caused by excess consumption of animal products.
As a nation, we are perhaps just beginning to wake up and unlearn the campaign of lies waged against an entire county, a campaign which disproportionately claims victims from communities of color. But where do we go from here? What might a more equitable, and transparent food industry look like, which places the well being of consumers over profit? And if plant-based living holds the secret, how do we expand the pulpit of the vegan movement to make room for all?
In New York, I found some interesting people with ideas to make that vision a reality.
Aunts et Uncles
The stretch of Nostrand Avenue that runs through Flatbush is known as Little Caribbean. The neighborhood has been home to immigrants from the Caribbean islands since the early twentieth century, and wears the mark of its history on its storefronts. Caribbean Vibes, Exquisite Express, Immaculee Bakery and Real Caribbean Pot all serve traditional dishes from the islands within a block of one another.
Aunts et Uncles is a young face on a block of sun-bleached awnings. The storefront faces out to the street with floor to ceiling windows, unblemished aside from the company name and the words Plant-Based Cafe Bar Shoppe. Gold tables with mint green chairs on the sidewalk invite you to grab a coffee and people watch.
Inside, everything is a vision in pink, white, green and a calming light colored wood. Basking in the natural light by the windows, a pink plush couch sits in front of a backdrop of greenery, beside the book display and merchandise; sweatshirts, t-shirts and tote bags. The bar area is accented with gold: gold seats, cocktail shakers, even the orb-shaped light fixtures overhead. A set of tables neatly set with pink and green chairs line the wall across from the bar.
The restaurant is run by married couple Michael and Nicole Nicholas. Michael was born and raised in Brooklyn and Nicole is from Toronto and between his background in graphic design and her background in event planning, not a detail was overlooked when it came to designing building their Aunt et Uncles brand.
“When we came up with the concept it wasn’t a restaurant first or a bar first, it was an experience first,” says Michael.
Both Michael and Nicole are from large families where their Caribbean heritage played a big part of life growing up. And both have a lot of aunts and uncles, and 30 nieces and nephews. For them, the name is a tribute to their own relationships with their family members. “The conversations you can have with your aunts and uncles are a step away from your parents so it’s a little less judgmental. It’s more a free space to be yourself and that’s what we wanted this to be,” Nicole says.
Michael’s family immigrated to the United States from St. Lucia, and Nicole’s mother is from Trinidad and her dad is from St. Vincent. For them, opening Aunt Et Uncles is a way to pay tribute to their families through the food they serve. And by putting their own, vegan twist on Caribbean staples like the Haitian Immaculee Patty or Jamaican salt fish on a biscuit, and other recipes close their hearts like lobster roll and tacos, they are paving the way for a new generation of Little Caribbeans.
“We’re kids from Caribbean culture who were Americanized and Canadianized and exposed to different things from our parents. It’s like we’re dual citizens, so we’re going to bring something totally different to the table. We’re exposing Caribbeans to something different and we’re exposing Americans to something different,” explains Michael.
Michael and Nicole made the decision to go vegan as a couple as a way to escape the fate of many of their loved ones. Cancer, diabetes, and high blood run in the family, and at the time, Michael was overweight and feared he might soon get his own diagnosis for one of the diseases that took the lives of his grandparents and Nicole’s mother.
They watched “What the Health,” a documentary which explains the link between consuming animal products and the chronic diseases that kill thousands of Americans annually, and decided to experiment, and remove all animal products from their diet.
“We realized that the food we were eating had to be the common denominator somehow. So that pushed us to be more mindful of what we consume and our lifestyle,” says Michael.
They have been vegan for four years, and for them, Aunt Et Uncles is a way for them to share the vegan lifestyle they have created without “being preachy.” But it is about more than just the vegan food. For Michael and Nicole, Aunts et Uncles is their way to set an example for the changes they hope to see in their beloved Flatbush.
“We always used to venture out of Flatbush to find spaces we could sit and concentrate on our ideas and we thought we would bring that right here,” says Nicole.
“We would go to Williamsburg to get food, Manhattan to get books or to get drinks. We were all over the place,” says Michael. “We thought that if we’re feeling like this, we can’t be the only ones in our neighborhood that have those same views and needs.”
“Sometimes as people of color, we feel left out,” Nicole adds.
But while Nicole and Michael would like to see more hip cafes and shops make their way to Flatbush, what’s more important to them is ensuring these new places are built for the community that already exists, and not for the gentrifiers. “When you talk about gentrification and all of these big buildings come in and all of these changes are happening, the community that exists is not held in mind,” says Nicole. “But what if we were? What if there were all of these great changes and the community that already lives there is included?”
One of their main mantras as a business is “Make It In,” their response to the widespread notion that people who grow up in a neighborhood like Flatbush need to “make it out” in order to achieve their dreams. “With the idea of ‘making it in,’ you’re including the decisions of the community and everyone is growing together,” Nicole explains.
And they embrace the idea of “making it in” with every decision they make, down to the prices. In order to ensure their vision is accessible to everyone in the community, Michael and Nicole sell high quality, locally sourced food at a less-than-profitable rate. “Let’s just say if we were doing it for the money we wouldn’t be doing it this way,” Michael admits.
As their Instagram proclaims, Michael and Nicole are hoping to pay tribute to “a culture within the culture of Flatbush.” And in doing so, they hope to inspire a new generation of people like them with a fresh vision for what their neighborhood community can look like.
“There’s so many wonderful people in this neighborhood, but the idea of ‘being in the hood’ is not a geographical thing, it’s a mindset,” says Michael. “So if you start planting seeds and allow them to grow, the mindset will change.”
COVID may have presented some speed-bumps to Michael and Nicole to open their brand, but with delicious food, an eye for design, and a mission to give back to a community they love, Aunts et Uncles is on track to make a splash.
“If you have the mindset that Flatbush is a pretty chic neighborhood, that can be an anchor for people to change the representation of the neighborhood.”
Overthrow Community Fridge
In Manhattan, Power Malu is planting his own seeds to grow the mindset of his fellow New Yorkers. On Bleecker street outside the Overthrow Boxing Club, he set up a refrigerator, spray painted with the words “New York, what are you fighting for?” Malu is fighting to prove that everyone, even people struggling with insecurity, deserve to eat a healthy, plant-based diet.
When COVID-19 struck New York, Malu was returning from his native Puerto Rico where he had been assisting with Hurricane relief efforts. When he landed in New York, he found the city he loved in crisis, and got to work doing his part to help out.
He got involved in mutual aid organizations which delivered food to people in need. But he quickly found himself in a crisis of consciousness. Malu has been vegan for nearly five years, and while he was happy to help people, and understood the financial limitations of the organizations he worked with, he was dissatisfied with the quality of food he was helping to distribute.
“A lot of (mutual aid) organizations that get money from the government basically throw scraps at people and that’s what was happening during the pandemic,” says Malu. “I decided if no one is stepping up and talking about this, I need to bring awareness to this issue.”
Malu is a firm believer in the power of plant-based diet to reverse conditions like heart disease and cancer, a philosophy that came to him over time through experimenting with his diet and researching the merits of plant food. When he made food deliveries at the beginning of the pandemic, he met many people suffering from diabetes, high blood pressure and cancer who were struggling to pay their medical bills. He began to spread his gospel — “food is thy medicine.”
“The people that were suffering from COVID the most were people with underlying conditions from Black and brown communities,” he said.
What Malu set out to create with the Overthrow Community Fridge was in his words a way to “overthrow the food system” and start fresh. Rather than the treatment based model of disease that reigns supreme in the United States, he envisions a system of prevention. Give people access to the right food, and the health problems may never develop to begin with. “When you talk about radical love and changing systems, food justice is exactly that,” he says.
And as the Community Director at Overthrow Boxing Club, Malu knew the perfect place to make his dream of a free, vegan community fridge a reality.
Overthrow Boxing Club occupies a building on Bleecker with a rich history of radical politics. In 1967, the Youth International Party (often referred to as Yippies) was founded at 9 Bleecker Street. The group had a marijuana leaf on their flag, and were known for theatrical stunts and anarchy. With punk club CBGB across the street, the block was the counterculture hub in the city.
The boxing club took over the space in 2014. In addition to boxing, it hosts music events, sponsors 5k races, and partners with social justice organizations. Their most recent merchandise features a cartoon Donald Trump getting punched in the face with a boxing-gloved fist.
In order to create a community fridge that was open to the public, free, and stocked 24/7, Malu formed partnerships. He teamed up with Eloisa Trinidad, founder of Chili’s on Wheels, a vegan mean share service and Hip Hop is Green, an advocacy group which offers a vegan oriented education on nutrition, mental health, and fitness in schools across the country. He spoke to grocery store and restaurant owners across New York and New Jersey who promised to provide regular donations of produce which may otherwise go unsold and large quantities of prepared meals. On a given day, the fridge might be filled with salads and cookies donated by the popular vegan fast-food restaurant byChloe, empanadas from Vspot in East Village, or fruits and vegetables recovered from a grocery store warehouse by one of the Overthrow Community Fridge volunteers.
And the block is busy, well-trafficked even on a cold night in March by visitors to the fridge, volunteers, and fitness gurus pumping out boxing workouts inside and chatting outside. Malu greets everyone with a smile, an elbow bump, and his bendiciones or blessings. He refers to everyone as brother or sister.
The fridge began operation in February, during Black History Month, and that was not a coincidence. “There are a lot of Civil Rights leaders like Dick Gregory, Angela Davis, Rosa Parks, that were vegan or vegetarian, but that’s not something we learn about or talk about,” explains Malu. Opening Overthrow Community Fridge in February was his way to pay tribute, and to bring awareness to a message which has perhaps earned less attention than it should. “This is part of the movement for liberation that we’re seeing for Black lives, for Puerto Rico’s independence, all of it works together. Because we’re fighting against a system that oppresses people and keeps people sick so that they can continue to make money off of people.”
In its three months of operation, the fridge drew quite a buzz. “It has inspired people from Brazil, Japan, all over the world. People are sending messages to us saying that they want to do something like this. So that in itself is powerful because we understand that it’s not only a local issue. This is a global issue.”
For Malu, the fridge is his way to make a statement that is visible to anyone who passes by. “We’re out here in public telling people that you deserve to eat like this. This is healthy food and you deserve to have access to this no matter what your socioeconomic status is,” he says. “This is radical in itself.”
A Psychological Revolution Through Food
People like Power Malu and Michael and Nicole Nicholas are implementing their visions for a food system which does not play favorites and gives everyone an opportunity to live as healthy as possible. But the work does not end there. To truly undo centuries of food injustice, the most significant revolution may still need to occur on an individual, mental level.
“I think with lot of activism, we’re always trying to change others out there, but I think over time, some of the best work is what happens within,” says Aph Ko, writer of Racism as Zoological Witchcraft: a Guide to Getting Out and co-author of Aphro-Ism: Essays on Pop Culture, Feminism and Black Veganism from Two Sisters.
Ko has always had a passion for social justice, but always felt out of place in anti-racist and feminist organizations. “It wasn’t until I started interrogating animal rights that I realized how compartmentalized our movements are, and I felt very stifled,” she says.
Through her books and work with her website, Black Vegans Rock, Ko is out to prove that the way think about the issues ailing society is fraught; rather than thinking about all of these issues separately, and sectioning ourselves off to different groups and affiliations, we need to talk about racism, animal rights, and feminism all in the same conversations. “And people think intersectionality is going to cure that but really it’s just about being a person,” she adds.
In the end, Ko believes (and argues, in Racism as Zoological Witchcraft) that most well intentioned activists are after a common enemy: white supremacy. But in Western society we have a tendency to attach ourselves to labels and align ourselves to movements only focus on a very small portion of a much larger movement. What Ko suggests is return to the drawing board. “I think one of the negative things about a lot of our social justice movements is that we think there’s only one way to do the work,” she says. I’m showing that there are different ways to be vegan, and different ways to be an activist and different ways to engage with this work.”
And yet another ingredient to creating a vegan movement that is accessible to all, is to deliver the message in a way that is most palatable to the recipient. “Part of what I like to encourage people to do is think more practically and more broadly so that we can stop holding people hostage around food,” says Dr. Psyche Williams-Forson, a professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland. She has dedicated much of her career to studying food history of African-Americans, and is in the process of writing a book on what she calls ‘food shaming’ and ‘food policing’ and the need to eliminate judgement surrounding food, particularly that which is racist in nature.
Forson is quoted in an article entitled “‘White People Food’ Is Creating An Unattainable Picture Of Health,” where she offers further insight on the importance of taking the right approach to encourage people to make health choices that are best suited to their needs. “When you go into a person’s culture and you say, ‘You can’t eat this,’ or ‘You can’t do that,’ it’s just like going into your house and moving your furniture,” she said.”You’re going to feel violated, you’re going to feel invaded. It makes people feel like their cultural sustainability has been compromised.”
But whatever the best approach may be, when we begin to remove judgement and stereotypes, and take a step back to question the narrative around food that’s been fed to us, a new, more truthful and compassionate narrative can take its place. “We need to wake up because a lot of the things that we spend our money on are things that we actually don’t support,” says Jasmine Leyva. “But we’re zombie mode.”
I interviewed Michael Gordon in the dining room at Ital Kitchen on a quiet, sunny afternoon. At one point in our interview, he pulls a pack of Bob Marley rolling papers and a bag of weed from a patterned hemp pouch. He carefully rips the green bulbs apart into a little mountain, removes a sand-colored paper creased in half from the pack, and rolls it up. He holds the perfect joint as he talks, waving it around unlit, like an extra finger. He tells me this has always been, and will always be, the first part of his daily cooking routine.
I ask Michael if he has a mission as a chef and as a restaurant owner. And his answer, after twenty years in business; “I still don’t know. I just set out that whatever I do, I’m gonna have fun doing it.”
But while he may not have the words to boil his work with Ital Kitchen down to one statement of purpose, his mission in life is pretty clear. “I tell people, to be smart is to achieve happiness.”
And for Michael, vegan food is a central part of his happiness and the happiness he hopes to share with others. “What makes the world a happy place is people getting into the habit of being happy. And you can’t be happy if you don’t have the right food to eat,” he says. “Give people the right food and they’ll figure out the rest.”
Vegan food may not be a stand alone answer to end centuries of racism and oppression, and it may not even be the answer to ending the food apartheid. But as the movement grows, and as more people begin to slow down and question the way they live and eat, it may be a good start.
“I’ve seen all the changes in this neighborhood,” he says. “I think everyone has been displaced somehow, that’s the economics of things. But if you’re going to grow you’re going to have to accept changes and make yourself of the change you want. That’s what I’ve done here.”