Last weekend in Vancouver, nearly 100 people gathered at the city’s public library to hear lauren Ornelas, founder of Food Empowerment Project, speak about food justice. The talk was organized by the Vancouver-based group Liberation BC, a grassroots organization I’ve blogged about before. lauren’s talk was so in-depth that I couldn’t possibly cover everything in a blog post, but I will offer some highlights along with some background on her nonprofit organization.

lauren has been active in the animal rights movement for more than two decades, and in that time, she’s not only learned how to be a very effective advocate, but, as she explained to attendees Saturday night, she’s come to realize how many social injustices revolve around food. Although she is at heart an animal rights advocate, lauren began her activism campaigning against apartheid and the oppression of farm workers when she was still in high school and looked to role models like Steven Biko, Nelson Mandela, Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta to inspire her. Then she learned about factory farming.

“I was a vegetarian by age 16, but I knew absolutely nothing about how animals were raised for food,” she told the audience. “I just knew I didn’t want to take a life. I’m from Texas, so every time we’d drive around and see the cows, I’d think, ‘How sad would it be for that baby calf to come home one day and the mom’s not there.’” She eventually learned about animal agriculture, and with her mother working two jobs to raise three daughters by herself, lauren and her family frequently dined on fast food and TV dinners. “It was what was convenient,” she said, explaining that it planted the seed that would come to be Food Empowerment Project, an all-volunteer organization that looks beyond single issues to educate people not just about the abuse of farmed animals, but about a community’s lack of access to organic produce, factory farms destroying the environment and even injustices perpetuated by large corporations, such as Coca-Cola privatizing and commodifying water.

lauren always struggled with wanting to tackle both animal rights and human rights. “A lot of animal rights activists were upset with me because when I would do radio interviews, I would talk about the grape boycott, or I would talk about another issue — not just animals. They felt I was doing the animals an injustice.” In 2006, she addressed the World Social Forum in Caracas, Venezuela. “I spoke about all the different ways corporate animal farms exploit animals, workers and the environment.” But when attendees at the forum asked who was working on these issues internationally, there was no one lauren could refer them to. “I realized that every single thing that I cared passionately about revolved around food. Water privatization, animals killed for food, immigration, labor issues — everything. That’s where the concept for Food Empowerment Project came to me.” By talking about food and seeing it as a valuable outreach opportunity, lauren believes Food Empowerment Project can have a powerful impact.

After an enlightening discussion of animal cruelties — including the killing of sharks for their fins — lauren addressed a number issues that are probably new to many animal activists.

“Food Empowerment Project recognizes that eating cruelty-free is not just about being vegan,” she said. Because vegans encourage people to eat more fruits and vegetables, we have a greater responsibility to lend our support to the farm workers who help put that produce on our tables. These workers — many of whom are migrants struggling to eke out a living for their families — are without many of the rights other workers enjoy, they spend countless hours bending over in blistering heat and may even die from sun stroke. Even reaching a farm to work on can be dangerous for these workers, said lauren. “Workers coming up from Mexico have to cross the border, and it’s becoming more regular for the women to start taking birth control pills in advance because of all the rape that is happening.”

Another issue lauren addressed on Saturday evening was related to the chocolate industry.  “We encourage people to only buy vegan chocolate that does not come from the slave trade,” she said. “Fair trade isn’t enough.”

“In our investigation of the chocolate industry, we’ve found that the majority of chocolate is coming from Ghana and the Ivory Coast.” Kids are kidnapped, some are sold, she said, for chocolate. “What I mean by sold is that the mom might have her sister’s husband watch her kids for an afternoon. When she comes back, the kids are gone because the kids have been sold into slavery. There are also other people who choose to work in the cacao farms in Ghana and the Ivory Coast because they are promised — kind of like migrant farm workers are — a good wage, a good living, that they’ll make some money. What happens is, when they get to these farms they’re locked in at night. … If they try to leave, they are beaten or killed.”

After researching the chocolate industry, Food Empowerment Project offers a list of chocolates on its web site. The list is broken down into companies the nonprofit can recommend, companies it cannot recommend but that are working on the slavery issue, companies it cannot recommend and are not working on the issue and companies that either won’t divulge where their chocolate comes from or simply refused to respond to queries from the nonprofit. “The worst part of that list?” said lauren. “The majority of the companies are vegan. We encourage you to write them and not only ask, ‘Where do you get your chocolate from?’ but say, ‘I’m not going to buy your products until you tell me.’”

lauren noted that Martin Luther King, Jr., became the most powerful (and thus was followed and tracked by the U.S. government) not when he was just talking about civil rights, but when he began bringing other social justice issues together. “When he started talking about the janitors struggling in Chicago, when he started talking against the war in Vietnam, that’s when they got scared of him, because he was widening his circle of people he was working with. He was expanding that circle of compassion to other beings. I feel that when we do that, we will be so much stronger.”