On Thursday night, the Michigan Animal Respect Society hosted a talk titled “Intersectionality and Veganism” by Lisa A. Smith, focusing on the prevalence of a plant-based diet in the Black community and the importance of intersectional representation in the veganism movement. The talk was attended by about 50 people. The lecture was a part of the second annual Veg Week, a week-long event hosted by MARS in co-partnership with MDining, UMSFP and VegMichigan to educate and celebrate a plant-based diet and lifestyle.
Smith, a nutritionist, entrepreneur and University of Michigan alum who graduated in 2005, began her talk by introducing the concept of intersectionality as the overlapping of many identities, and its importance in the vegan conversation. Smith discusses numerous groups, focusing on race, gender and socioeconomic class. Smith also explained how four percent of people with an income of less than $30,000 are vegan.
“Four percent … have an annual income of less than 30,000 (dollars a year),” Smith said. “Veganism, in some communities, is assumed as elitist, and there’s often times a lot of push back saying that ‘you have to be rich to eat this way.’ But we see that the highest percentage of individuals who identify as vegan have a household income of 30k.”
After introducing statistics surrounding veganism and its prevalence in the U.S., Smith discussed the underrepresentation of people of color, specifically Black people, in mainstream veganism, which is largely considered a white movement. She presented a screenshot of the Instagram page of Ripple Foods, which is a popular dairy-free plant-based milk company. The page included at least four pictures of people, but none of them were people of color.
“The lack of people who look like them or brands who represent them becomes highly discouraging (to POC),” Smith said. “And they find themselves turned off by the entire prospect because they don’t see the content, the education or that anyone is talking directly to them.”
Smith became vegan for health reasons, which, according to her talk, is the reason most vegans do. According to Smith, chronic illness is much more abundant in the Black community, and most of those diseases — like heart disease and diabetes — are what she considers “food-borne, lifestyle” diseases. Thus, Black Americans are “forced” to arrive at veganism, or else they’re told they will require a procedure or lifelong medication.
To support Black Americans going through the transition to veganism, an “extremely white space,” Smith founded a plant-based support group in Detroit. After an overwhelming, positive response, she created the Black Health Academy in 2017, a company that works to eradicate chronic diseases in the Black community through a plant-based diet and lifestyle and connecting the community to people of color that work in the health and wellness field.
The Black Health Academy holds community nutrition classes in Detroit and expanding cities, but also has an online platform to make veganism more accessible and affordable to anyone who searches for these resources. The online platform has four different sections, or “schools,” on various topics of the conversation: chronic disease prevention and reversal, physical fitness, plant-based nutrition and mental health. The BHA posts new content every Wednesday to one of these schools, such as cooking videos, workout tips or educational lectures.
MARS hosted other events to celebrate Veg Week, including a five-course, zero-waste meal, discussions on the environment and sustainability, and plant-based nutrition.
According to MARS President Jacalyn Webster, LSA junior, the week was planned to acknowledge the veganism movement, and acknowledge it is happening for very important reasons.
“We hope that we’ll inspire audience members to consider eating more plant-based,” Webster said. “And if they already are, to consider becoming more of an advocate for the cause. All of our events have been open to everyone. We’re really about inclusion and having no limitation to being a part of our events or club.”
Education sophomore Emily VanHaitsma attended the talk and appreciated the dialogue Smith brought up surrounding privilege and the veganism movement.
“I really appreciated how she stressed the importance of recognizing our privilege,” VanHaitsma said. “And what we can do to ensure that we provide equal education to everyone, especially health and nutrition education.”
VanHaitsma enjoyed the lecture and felt a plethora of emotions leaving the event.
“I felt angry that the vegan space is so white-centric,” VanHaitsma said. “And thus denies people of color their deserved representation in this community. I also left feeling inspired after seeing all the amazing work that Lisa is doing, and knowing our society is beginning to move towards a more equitable and accessible plant-based health community.”