Lauren Ornelas is on the front lines of food justice work. But unlike many food justice advocates, she also champions vegan eating. Ornelas will be speaking at this year’s Maine Animal Coalition Veg Fest, taking place in early June in Portland.

“What separates us from other vegan groups is we look past the impacts on nonhuman animals and look at how our food choices impact human animals,” said Ornelas, who is executive director of the California-based national nonprofit Food Empowerment Project. “We need to extend our compassion to those human beings that grow and pick our food.”

Lauren Ornelas

To that end, the group offers a number of resources and initiatives. It offers a free app for chocolate lovers looking for chocolate produced without child or slave labor; holds regular school supply drives for the children of farm workers; advises consumers to skip palm oil because of its impact on the rain forest and indigenous communities; and raises awareness of labor and environmental problems associated with banana plantations. Its list of recommended banana producers is just four names deep.

The Shame on Safeway campaign it organizes targets the supermarket chain’s restrictive deeds on properties it vacates. Such deed restrictions can prevent other grocery stores from moving into the space for a set number of years afterwards, according to Ornelas. She said the deeds have harmed people of color, seniors and those with low incomes.

The group’s new One Glass At a Time campaign organizes people to stand at intersections holding signs and handing out leaflets urging drivers to stop drinking animal-based milk. (Ornelas charmed me when we spoke by referring to people who can’t digest lactose as “lactose-normal.”)

Ornelas brings her food justice work with her even when she eats out.


“When dining out, the thing I try to find out is if the restaurant splits tips or not,” Ornelas said. “If they do, then I tip a little bit more. I also find out if the dishwasher splits the tips too, and if not, I give some for the dishwasher because they tend to be some of the lowest paid workers.”

Val Giguere, who helps organize the all-vegan festival and serves on the board of the Maine Animal Coalition, has heard Ornelas speak previously. “Lauren struck me because she talks about how lots of fruits and vegetables are harvested by undocumented people who aren’t treated well. It’s raising a level of consciousness about where our food comes from and how people are treated.”

Victoria Moran

Victoria Moran, a best-selling cookbook author (13 books!) and director of the Main Street Vegan Academy, is scheduled to speak later in the day. Moran, who is based in New York City, will be speaking about how choosing vegan meals – even occasionally – creates a better world.

“Every time a vegan lives a day or every time a non-vegan chooses a vegan meal or a pair of vegan leather shoes rather than cow leather shoes, we are ending a tiny bit of suffering in the world,” Moran told me by phone. “We’re voting for compassion. As more and more people make these choices, they ripple out to make the world more peaceful.”

Moran will have her newest cookbook, “The Main Street Vegan Academy Cookbook,” and her classic “Main Street Vegan” available for purchase and signing at the festival.

The day’s final speaker is ecofeminist Pattrice Jones, co-founder of the VINE Sanctuary in Springfield, Vermont. Jones writes about the intersection of racism, sexism and speciesism and how the struggles for LGBTQ rights and animal rights are connected.


“I feel pretty lucky with the speakers we have at our Veg Fest,” Giguere said.

At noon, festivalgoers can buy burritos and Flatbread Company pizza slices featuring the organic, vegan meats from Casco-based Freshiez. Organizers invited Freshiez to cater lunch at the festival because of the amount of buzz the company has generated in recent weeks with its successful Meatless Butcher Box Kickstarter campaign. Other vendors – both local and out-of-state – will sell vegan food throughout the day, including baked goods, mac ‘n cheese, chickpea salad, tofu and smoothies.

The Maine festival, smaller and more intimate than Veg Fests elsewhere in the country, features exhibitors such as animal sanctuaries, animal advocacy groups and educational organizations. It is held in a LEED-certified school that sits across the street from an organic community garden, school garden and orchard.

“Veg Fest is a great opportunity to get plant-based and animal advocacy organizations in one place for a few hours and for people to have access to them in a way they don’t normally have,” Giguere said.

For her part, Ornelas hopes to spread awareness of the people who struggle most to get fresh fruits and vegetables. Ornelas wants people to eat more plant-based food, yet she recognizes it isn’t easy for every person to eat this way. She urges vegans to be more understanding of others and to also realize the limits of the vegan label.

“Just because something is vegan doesn’t mean it’s cruelty-free,” Ornelas said. “If it comes at the hands of slave labor or child labor it isn’t cruelty-free.”

Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at:

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila

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