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According to research and poll data, which highlight the unequal impact of the pandemic on the African American community, more and more black people in the United States are turning to plant-based diets to reap health benefits, and a number of pioneering founders are establishing vegan brands across fashion, skincare and food, as the community increasingly aligns itself with the growing global veganism movement.
A 2019 Gallup Poll showed that nearly a third of black people in America have reduced meat, compared to about a fifth of white Americans, underlining a growing trend: the rise of African Americans turning to vegan lifestyles.
One of the leading African American faces of the vegan food movement in the United States is restaurateur-pioneer Pinky Cole, founder and CEO of Slutty Vegan, a vegan burger chain based in Atlanta, Georgia whose outlets often have queues of eager customers. Her trendsetting creations have helped create a demand for plant-based comfort food and Cole who is busy opening more Slutty outlets, is one of the few dining chains that actually grew during the pandemic.
She recently made headlines after being named to the the Forbes ‘Women Of The Next 1,000’ List for her philanthropy work. Last May, Cole joined forces with Impossible Foods, the Californian food tech famous for its plant-based meat, to donate thousands of meals to essential workers.
Cole helped demonstrate that the demand for tasty vegan food from African Americans was there all along, and she has said that she hopes that veganism becomes a staple in inner-city communities and through her work, she aims to continue to raise awareness about vegan food and its benefits.
In an interview with Nation’s Restaurant News, Cole, who has been vegan for over a decade, recognizes that veganism is typically associated with wealthy white people. “Offering menu items with names like ‘Sloppy Toppy,’ ‘One Night Stand,’ ‘Ménage à Trois’ and ‘Hollywood Hooker,’ Slutty vegan’s concept goal is to make plant-based dishes more accessible — and, fundamentally, to break down barriers.”
Though her brand name may seem controversial, Cole has explained that Slutty Vegan has no sexual connotation, but rather she uses the term to explain ‘the ultimate euphoric experience’ from eating a plant burger.
Back in 2016, data from Pew Research found that 8% of black Americans identified as vegan or vegetarian, compared with 3% of all Americans, a not insignificant difference. What people are looking for is help to make the switch. And one person addressing this need is vegan Tiktok star Tabitha Brown.
Growing up in North Carolina, Brown was intimate with the pain and sadness that comes with health issues, Brown says she dealt with undiagnosed chronic autoimmune pain for several years, and she has shared that many of her family members died young from cardiovascular issues, including her mother who battled amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
Health issues plagued Brown’s life until one day when her daughter showed her the Netflix documentary What the Health, which discusses the link between diet and disease. Once she made the link between the food on her plate and her health, Brown decided to try a plant-based diet for 30 days.
She immediately started experiencing the health benefits of her meat-free eating in her daily life and after nearly 30 years of consuming animal foods, Brown permanently made the switch to a vegan lifestyle.
Today, she is an avid poster of vegan recipe videos on her various social media channels, her Tiktok page has over 4.7 million followers and she counts over 3.3 million Instagram followers. Her success has translated to a range of opportunities, including an upcoming vegan cookbook, her first, which she hopes will help thousands of African Americans in her wider community make the shift to a vegan diet more easily.
Another leading voice is Tracye McQuirter, a nutritionist and well-known author of ‘Ageless Vegan’ and ‘By Any Greens Necessary’. In celebration of the 10th anniversary of the latter, McQuirter committed to help more than 10,000 black women go vegan, offering them a 14-day meal plan, a 54-page guidebook as well as a range of workshops. Her efforts paid off (15,000 women signed up) and was regarded as one of the most important initiatives to promote veganism in the black community.
A key reason that African Americans are turning to vegan diets is health, and the pandemic accelerated this connection. The impact of COVID-19 has been disproportionate across the black community, leading to an increased awareness around how plant-based diets can help tackle obesity and diabetes.
African Americans tend to have a higher rate of pre-existing chronic conditions and diseases such as diabetes and obesity as compared to the wider U.S. population, so plant-based diets can be an important way for patients to improve their quality of life.
One recent large-scale study suggests a correlation between plant-based diets and gut microbes that help lower risks for heart disease, obesity and diabete. Another study, led by the National Cancer Institute in the U.S., found an ‘inverse association’ between higher consumption of plant-based foods and heart disease mortality rates.
Apart from the issues around food and health, a rise in intersectional activism is spurring more people to think about their consumption choices. People in the black community who are passionate about social justice, animal rights and environment issues are finding that a vegan and sustainable way of life is more aligned with their interests, be it with products they use or clothes they wear.
Recently, actress, activist, and entrepreneur Jada Pinkett Smith announced she was debuting a new vegan beauty care brand, Hey Humans, who said of the launch: “What really inspired me was my kids, Willow and Jaden, who have educated me around the environment and the necessity to really shift habit in the way we consume.”
Available at Target stores across the U.S., the products include a body wash, a body lotion, deodorant, and toothpaste- all priced under US$6 per item in an effort to provide affordable and sustainable care products to all.
The products are 99% plastic-free and have only been tested on humans apart from being derived from upcycled, ‘high-performance’ and ‘effective’ components.
Apart from black celebrities coming forward to show their support for the movement, awards and acknowledgments are also helping to get the word out.
In the fashion world, black-owned fashion label Telfar was awarded ‘Fashion Design of 2020’ from London’s Design Museum for developing a vegan-leather, gender-neutral shopping bag that aims to redefine the stereotypical concept of luxury fashion being only white, privileged, and aspirational.
Founded in 2005 in New York City by Liberian-American designer Telfar Clemens and his business partner Babak Radbo, the brand has a tagline ‘Not for you – for everyone’.
The bag is symbolic of the brand’s community-led outlook and has garnered love from celebrities such as DJ Solange Knowles, actress Issa Rae and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Author Carol Tulloch said of the brand: “[They] magnify the importance of black style. Telfar Clemens believes in ‘living your fashion life’ – that is, being who you are on a day-to-day basis.”
Even established celebrities like Beyonce, Lizzo, and tennis star Venus Williams have jumped on the plant-based bandwagon. Along with her husband Jay-Z and her trainer Marco Borges, Beyonce famously launched a plant-based meal delivery service and even made global headlines for gifting free tickets to a fan who commited to ditch meats and adopt a vegan lifestyle.
Lead image designed by Green Queen Media.