Press "Enter" to skip to content

Resource: Food, Faith, Food Sovereignty & Economic Empowerment – Lauren Ornelas

lauren ornelas discusses her advocacy and activist work with the Food Empowerment Project. This talk was part of a Food & Faith Convening event held in November 2018 at Duke University. The event was developed through a partnership between Duke Divinity School and the Rural Church Program Area of The Duke Endowment, the Duke World Food Policy Center (WFPC).  Convening discussions identified several themes that drive the work of faith communities: moving from charity to justice, food sovereignty, and equitable food-oriented development; moving from charity to justice for the land & environment; the need for bridging and relationship building between practitioners, funders, and the academy; and the need for bridging between faith communities and policy. Additionally, several academic themes for future research were identified focused on cross-faith comparative analysis and the broad impact of faith community-based food systems work.

About lauren ornelas

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. lauren has been active in the animal rights movement for more than 30 years. She is the former executive director of Viva!USA, a national nonprofit vegan advocacy organization that Viva!UK asked her to start in 1999 and for which 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 achieved corporate changes within Whole Foods Market, Pier 1 Imports, and others. Watch her TEDx talk on “The Power of Our Food Choices.”


I’m Lauren Ornelas, and I’m the founder and executive director of a non-profit called Food Empowerment Project. I want to thank you all for having me here. I kind of feel like I’m coming from a different place from many people as I don’t, although I’m originally from Texas and now I live in California, I don’t have much relationship with even food or land. I don’t even like to eat that much. But I have always seen food as is a tool for social change. That comes from being a very proud Mexican and being raised with a great boycott. As well as being involved in the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa. And from seeing food more as something to help create positive change in the world and trying to encourage people to eat their ethics.

So my organization is a vegan food justice organization and we promote veganism for the animals. We also create tools to help educate consumers and our goal is try to connect the issues. So as a vegan organization, we are encouraging people to eat more plants, and therefore we feel we have a responsibility to talk about farm workers and how farm workers are treated in the food supply. A big part of our work is also farm worker justice issues where we work on policy changes.

We just got a policy that had been in the state of California that was impacting the educations of children of farm workers for decades – we finally got that changed. We also do things like school supply drives for the children of farm workers, and we don’t see that as an act of charity. We see that as instead as a way to help right an injustice that’s taking place against farm workers across the country.

We also work on trying to get people not to buy chocolate from slavery and child labor. So we create tools to help people know where their chocolate comes from, to know if they want to eat their ethics, to not be buying chocolate sourced from those areas. We’re just trying to connect all these various forms of oppression and to show how they’re all connected and sometimes the same root of oppression comes from the same place.

Our last area is working on lack of access to healthy foods in communities of color and low-income communities, and as Rev. Joyner mentioned, I mean it’s not just lack of access. So in our work, we do assessments. We also go out and do focus groups, so we started this work because where I lived in San Jose, which ironically is known as the Valley of Heart’s Delight, is where Cesar Chavez got his organizing start. I lived in an area where I had two liquor stores across the street where I worked and I lived downtown. I gathered up our volunteers and we did an assessment on the community, and we compared high-income and low-income areas, and knew what we’d find. But we knew we needed data and statistics in order to prove what we already knew, Because we knew people were only going to listen to that. Then we followed up and we did focus groups. We follow environmental justice principles. We don’t go into somebody else’s community unless they want us there. For example, I went to an event and met later with one of the founding members of the Black Panther Party, David Hilliard, and told him about our work, and he was like: “Will you please come to my community in Vallejo, California and tell me what you see are the issues here.” So that’s where we’ve been doing our work for several years now. And what we found in all of these focus groups is that one of the biggest contributing factors is living wages. As an organization that is looking at farm workers justice as well as lack of access to healthy foods, we really don’t want food to become any cheaper. Because people are already not being paid what they should be paid for the work that they’re doing. So this is why we say to everybody who wants to help change the system is we have to fight for living wages, whether it be fast food, Walmart workers, city, state, whatever, we have to increase living wages. And again, in the communities as most of us are working in, tend to be time poor and cash poor, this is one way – when people are working multiple jobs, that we can have them working less jobs and spending more time with their families if they can make more money.

We also found in our work that corporations have been one of the problems for people experiencing access to healthy foods. This becomes a touchy situation when you deal with churches and even groups that work with people who experience homelessness, work with some of these corporations to get food. In the community that we’re working in currently, Safeway, which was located in a community of color, left that location and relocated miles away. And when they left their former property, they placed a restrictive deed preventing any other grocery store from moving in for 15 years. And we found this to be a problem across the country. We have a national campaign against Safeway right now. It hasn’t garnered the support that we’d hoped because a lot of food organizations also get money from corporations, and it’s not just Safeway. It’s Walmart doing this. And so there’s a lot of food justice groups unfortunately who will not sign on with us and oppose Safeway from doing this. But we have a national day of action on December 10th which is International Human Rights Day where we’re saying human access to healthy foods should be a right and not a privilege. That is what’s it’s turned into in this country and around the world when it comes to people of color and Indigenous communities.

In talking about food and what happens in terms of charity, we have such backwards things happening, at least in our community we’re located in. We’re an international organization with a staff of three based in Sonoma County, where you have winery workers who pick and do the harvesting who are actually homeless. Who live just outdoors in cardboard boxes and pickup trucks. And you have the wineries organizing galas to raise money to give to the farm workers instead of paying them living wages. I mean, this is the backwards society I guess so that people can dress up and feel really good about themselves and pat themselves on the back instead of doing simply what needs to be done, and that’s paying people what they deserve to make.

So in terms of faith stuff, we’ve worked a little bit with the faith-based community. They have opened their doors to us for conducting our focus groups. One of the things that we found as one of the solutions in the problem, are worker-owned cooperatives. Because otherwise, as people of color, we’re going to continue to be dependent on others instead of dependent on ourselves. And finding mostly Black farmers in our community to supply foods for the worker-owned cooperatives. We did six focus groups in the community we’re in and only one person had ever heard of a worker-owned cooperative, so we’re trying to change that narrative. We want the wisdom to come from the community. We pay them for their time in the focus groups. But we wanted to bring this idea up and really explain what it means to be your own owner, where you make the decisions, you make the profits, you make the decisions on where your profits go. That’s actually the big thing that we’re working on right now is trying to start a worker-owned cooperative in the community.

I say we because the woman who’s spearheading it is a Black woman who’s got lots of children and jobs and health problems. So we’re going to try and use our volunteers to help do the hard out where she applies for the grants, where we do all this. And it’s going to be something we all do together, and we are very lucky that we did three community groups to inform people about what worker-owned cooperatives are. Because we have a consumer-based cooperative trying to start up as well, and they’re very different things, and their missions are actually very different, but the faith-based communities are ones who welcomed us to their spaces for free so that we could do all of this. What we would like faith-based leaders to continue to do is speak out about these issues, but also to speak out against racism. To spend more time talking about living wage efforts, and acknowledge that access to healthy food is a justice issue and is part of an oppressive system. The challenging question that I leave with is that given amount of power that we all have at the local level. I don’t know about you but for a long time, I haven’t had much faith in the power of where we’re at federally, and that’s because I see so much of the power that we have is local. Whether it be by people growing their own foods or looking to change policymakers from allowing corporations such as Safeway and Walmart to do these restrictive deeds. How we can join together and work more on the local level and join our voices together to harness the power to create change, community by community. Thank you.