For Just and Equitable Food Systems: An Interview with Brenda Sanders

Brenda Sanders is a vegan food justice activist who works in marginalized communities of color to create a viable alternative to animal-based food systems. By offering education classes around veganism, interactive cooking demos, and resources to improve people’s access to affordable plant-based foods, Sanders is helping people make healthier, kinder, and more sustainable food choices.

Sanders will be speaking at AHA headquarters on Thursday, December 19 from 6:30-8:30pm. Her talk, titled “An Animal Lover’s Guide to More Sustainable Eating,” will examine the layers of injustice built into animal-based food systems and explore the ethics of eating a plant-based diet. If you can’t join us in person, her talk will be livestreamed on AHA’s Facebook page. I had the opportunity to ask Sanders about what drives her work for veganism and food justice, the solutions she’s creating to combat oppressive systems, and her advice on how humanists can make positive changes.

Meredith Thompson: What does veganism mean to you?

Brenda Sanders: To me, veganism is a way of living that rejects animal use in all its different forms.

Thompson: Veganism is sometimes mistaken for simply a dietary preference. Can you expand on the connection between veganism and food justice? What does it mean to be a food justice activist?

Sanders: For many people—especially low-income people of color—there are significant barriers to living vegan. Lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as dairy and meat alternatives are among the many roadblocks that prevent the most marginalized communities from changing their consumption patterns.

Being a food justice activist means identifying the root causes of insecurity in the food system and working to address those issues.

Thompson: You’re the founder and Executive Director of Afro-Vegan Society, co-founder of Thrive Baltimore, co-creator of Vegan SoulFest, and a co-owner of The Greener Kitchen. Can you speak a little about what you are accomplishing through this work and why community based activism is important?

Sanders: In Baltimore, we are connecting with low-income people of color at the community level with the information, resources and support they need to begin making nutrition choices that are healthier, kinder and more sustainable.

Community-based activism is absolutely vital to connect with people in low-income communities of color and creating viable solutions to the many barriers that prevent them from transitioning to vegan living.

Thompson: Through your work, you create real life solutions to oppressive systems. Can you share with us some of these solutions and the impact they’ve had in your community?

Sanders: Many of the communities I work with have been targeted over multiple generations with unhealthy foods and other products that have contributed to the many health disparities that exist in these communities. Through our work, we’ve been able to provide tens of thousands of people with information about how to make healthier, more Earth-friendly choices, as well as expanding their access by connecting them directly to more affordable,healthier food options.

Thompson: Through Thrive Baltimore, you run a series of workshops called the Plant-Based Jumpstart. What do you teach in your classes?

Sanders: Each week of the four-week Plant-Based Jumpstart program, we provide our participants with information about the different aspects of vegan living—from plant-based food preparation, to health and nutrition basics, to the environmental impacts, and the systemic mistreatment of animals.

Thompson: You’ve said if people want to become more active in their communities, they should start with food. How important is food in our communities and personal lives, and how can we use it to make change?

Sanders: Food is one of the most important components of culture and tradition. People plan their lives around meals, and we spend a large part of our days either preparing to eat food, eating food, or thinking about what food we’re going to eat. In activism—especially in marginalized communities—it’s important to understand what foods they feel connected to and to offer those foods when engaging with people at the community level.

Thompson: What are the biggest barriers for communities and individuals seeking more plant-based options?

Sanders: The biggest barriers for low-income communities of color are accessibility, affordability and relatability. When plant-based foods are in abundance in their communities at prices they can afford and in a form they recognize, people in marginalized communities consume more plant-based foods.

Thompson: What are the biggest challenges in your work?

Sanders: The biggest challenge I face in my work is the fact that I’m working against food systems built on deeply-entrenched inequity and blatant racism.

Thompson: The American Humanist Association defines humanism as “a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism or other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good.” Do you think humanists have an obligation to become involved in food justice activism?

Sanders: I think humanists have a responsibility to educate themselves about food justice issues and to consider either getting directly involved or supporting others who are already involved in making our food systems equitable and just.

Thompson: A lot of the concepts you’ve covered might be new to some of our readers. If they were interested in getting involved and learning more, how do you recommend they start?

Sanders: There are already people all over the country—and indeed all over the world—doing food justice activism. Find out who those people closest to you are and support them!

Thompson: What is next for you and your work? What does a vegan future look like to you?

Sanders: The next stage of my activism is to replicate what we have done in Baltimore in other cities around the U.S. As far as a vegan future is concerned, I can only see that happening once humans change our minds about animals. Until we see animals as thinking, feeling, reasoning beings worthy of our moral consideration, the most I can hope to see is a world where everyone has access to a food system that provides equal access to foods that allow us all to be healthy and thrive.

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