Interview: Tracye McQuirter - “Veganism is a communal & global act of love, care, preservation, & liberation”
A vegan trailblazer, public health nutritionist, author, lecturer, and 30-year vegan, Tracye McQuirter, MPH, has been named a national food hero who is changing the way America eats for the better. We caught up with Tracye to discuss food justice, feminism and her work to empower African Americans to better health.
First, as someone who’s been vegan for almost 30 years, I can tell you that being vegan is a liberating, joyful, healthful, and delicious way of living in this world! I see it as second nature to living a long, healthy, satisfying life, just like breathing, exercising, loving, and relaxing.
On a more scientific note, as a public health nutritionist, I can tell you that we’ve known for decades that plant foods are the healthiest foods to eat. The research has been clear and consistent for more than 50 years. Plant foods can prevent and reverse heart disease, our number one killer, as well as prevent and often reverse our other leading causes of death and disability, including stroke, diabetes, certain cancers, and obesity. And plant foods can help save the planet and the lives of animals, too.
Unlike plant food production, livestock production for meat and dairy causes more global warming than the entire world’s transportation combined. The methane gas emitted from the burps and poop of billions of factory-farm animals accounts for more greenhouse gas emissions than the carbon monoxide from cars. As I often say, a hamburger damages Mother Earth more than a Hummer does. In addition to damaging the atmosphere, producing animals for meat is a leading cause of degradation and pollution of the earth’s soil and water.
And consumption of more plant foods will help prevent billions of innocent, sentient animals from being brutally produced, raised, and slaughtered to be used as food. Of course, plant foods are scrumptious too! In this day and age, that should go without saying, but I’m saying it anyway. I love good food, always have, and with plant foods it’s even better. Being vegan is a win-win-win, all-around.
In your book, 'By Any Greens Necessary', you describe a talk from Dick Gregory as being the catalyst in your transition to a vegetarian/vegan lifestyle. What was it exactly about what he said that touched you?
Our Black Student Union at Amherst College had actually brought Dick Gregory to campus to talk about the political, economic, and social state of black America. And instead, Dick Gregory flipped the script on us and decided to talk about the plate of black America. This was in 1986, and what we didn’t know was that Gregory had become a vegetarian nutrition guru. We only knew him as a Civil Rights icon and legendary humourist. So his talk was a surprise to all of us.
And honestly, if I had known he was going to talk about vegetarianism, I might not have shown up. I was first introduced to vegetarianism in the 7th grade at Sidwell Friends School in DC (which is where the Obama daughters are now attending). My 7th grade teachers wanted our class camping trip to be all-vegetarian and I thought this was a horrible idea. So, I wrote a petition against it and got a few of my classmates to sign it--but I was overruled.
So fast forward seven years to my sophomore year at Amherst, and there was Dick Gregory talking about going vegetarian. Well, I started to tune him out, but what really grabbed me was that he started to trace--graphically--the path of a hamburger from a cow on a factory farm, through the slaughterhouse process, to a fast food restaurant, to a clogged artery, to a heart attack. I had never heard anything like that before.
Now at the time, I was going through a paradigm shift in my life. I was taking a lot of political science and African American studies classes, and I was learning about imperialism, racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism for the first time or in new ways, and it was changing my awareness and sense of self. I had also decided to stop relaxing my hair and wear it naturally. And it was with this new consciousness that I listened to Dick Gregory’s lecture. So I was ready and open to questioning the way I ate, too. All this was happening at the same time, and looking back, it was a beautiful thing!
So, after Dick Gregory’s lecture, I read everything I could get my hands on about vegetarianism, and I decided to go vegetarian first, and then vegan after about a year or so. There were some stops and starts along the way, which included a safari in Kenya, but folks can read more about that in my book.
Personally, what were some of the physical, psychological and spiritual changes you noticed when you went vegan?
Well, I had gained 25 pounds during my freshman year (the year before Dick Gregory’s lecture) because I was away from home for the first time and could eat anything I wanted. (Did I mention that I hated vegetables and healthy food before I became vegan?!) So after I went vegan, the weight just came off naturally.
Spiritually, I gained greater clarity and sense of purpose, and I took up yoga to deepen my self-discovery and self-care. I also became more attuned to how my body functions by paying attention to how it responded to different foods. For example, my menses became lighter and shorter, and I rarely have cramps.
And I have to say that being vegan for 30 years has given me the template to do other things that I found daunting at first--like becoming a successful author and entrepreneur. It’s a continuous source of inspiration for me in my own life. Like James Brown said, “Sometimes I jump back, I wanna kiss myself!”
You work a lot on issues that explore the intersectionality of veganism and other movements for social justice. In your view, what is it about veganism that promotes harmony in all these areas?
My being vegan, eating the healthiest way I can, is an act of self-love, self-care, self-preservation, and self-liberation. And when I help other people learn how to eat healthier, it’s a communal and global act of love, care, preservation, and liberation. So, how we nourish ourselves is inextricably linked to every aspect of how we live our lives, including being activists in the fight for justice and equality.
Right now, many of us are fighting to end these state-sanctioned 21st century lynchings of black women and men and girls and boys by white police officers and vigilantes that are happening almost daily. According to Operation Ghetto Storm, there were more than 300 of these killings in 2012.
And, at the same time, according to the Centers for Disease Control, there were more than 300,000 preventable deaths of black people in 2010 caused by diet-related chronic diseases, including heart disease, stroke, and hypertensive disease.
That’s 300 and 300,000. Both numbers represent tragic, preventable deaths. So, while this is not a comparison game, it is a call to action around the fact that unhealthful diets are a social and human rights issue, too, since there are state-sanctioned reasons low-income African Americans, in particular do not have access to healthful foods.
That said, we do not want to be active participants in our own genocide. As activists, and everyday folks dealing with multiple forms of oppressions on a daily basis, we are in a heightened state of moving, thinking, organizing, resisting, multi-tasking, and stress. Our immune systems are taking a hit and we need to be sure they’re being strengthened. This is precisely the reason to increase the amount of healthful foods we’re eating right now and on a lifelong basis.
You say that Dick Gregory’s talk in 1986 focused on how unhealthful most Black people (and most Americans, in general) were eating. How does the situation compare now?
Well, the good news is that there are an estimated 3 million African American vegetarians and vegans (about 6% of the black population), according to a 2012 Harris Interactive study. And there are millions more who eat plant-based foods a significant amount of time, as part of the 100 million (or one-third) of all Americans who do.
When I was doing research for my 'By Any Greens Necessary' book, I found that African Americans were 25% more likely than whites to buy organic foods, according to the Hartman Group, which is a leading market research firm. I was surprised, but I really should not have been. Most of us are only a generation or two removed from the South--and not that many more generations removed from West Africa--where are forebears ate organic fruits, vegetables, grains, and beans daily that they grew on their own farms. And, of course, African Americans are pioneers in the plant-based food movement in this country.
In fact, the first all-vegan health food stores and cafes in the nation’s capital were started by African Americans in the 1980s, many of them influenced by their involvement in the Civil Rights and Black Liberation Movements. I actually learned how to be vegan from this community when I came home to DC after that fateful lecture by Dick Gregory in 1986.
Dick Gregory wrote his plant-based classic, Cooking with Mother Nature, in 1974 with Alvenia Fulton, a naturopathic physician who opened the first health food establishment on the south side of Chicago in the 1950s.
Also, the longest-running raw vegan restaurant in the country is owned by Karen Calabrese in Chicago, and the father of gourmet raw vegan cuisine is Aris LaTham from Panama. And Soul Vegetarian restaurants were (until recently) the largest chain of vegan restaurants in the world. There are many more examples of black vegan pioneers, which I’ve written about on my blog. So, eating healthful vegan foods is a part of our cultural heritage.
That said, we still have a long way to go. We’re experiencing an enormous health crisis based on the unhealthful foods the majority of us are still eating today (for a variety of reasons). That’s reflected in the 300,000 preventable, diet-related deaths each year that I mentioned earlier.
How is the food on our plate relative to our social, economic and political situation?
In the U.S., rich and affluent people have access to and eat the healthiest foods, while poor and oppressed people have access to and eat the unhealthiest foods. That’s generally how this country has designed its social, economic, and political systems as it relates to food, and most other basic necessities of life.
We see this played out in food deserts in cities and rural areas across the country, where fresh, healthy, and affordable foods are not available because of no or low-quality supermarkets, farmers markets, and food gardens. What’s available instead are cheap, processed foods from higher numbers of fast food places, corner stores, and carry-outs. This results in unhealthful diets and higher chronic disease rates for about 25 million Americans.
We also see this played out in enormous profits and federal subsidies (corporate welfare) for the food industry, which is one of the largest industries in the country. The USDA provides federal subsidies to the food industry to make the cost of production of processed foods cheaper, resulting in larger profits. The food industry gets these federal subsidies because they give large campaign contributions to members of Congress running for reelection. And the food industry has powerful lobbyists that pressure Congress to maintain subsidies and other federal regulations, and skew the federal dietary guidelines, to favor the food industry.
So what this means is that cheap, processed foods like hamburger mix, white bread, instant macaroni and cheese, and canned string beans are pretty cheap and available compared to fresh, organic fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. And to get us to want to eat this unhealthy food, the food industry loads it with fat, salt, and sugar, and spends more than 35 billion dollars a year on food advertising to influence us to buy it. Seventy percent of that food advertising is for fast food, processed foods, snacks, and sweets. Only 2% of that food advertising is for fresh fruits and veggies. Now which of these foods do Americans eat the most?
The food industry, by way of the USDA, also determines what will be fed to millions of schoolchildren in 95% of public schools and many private schools each day, and what food will be provided to poor mothers and their infants on public assistance, and what is served to the military and the imprisoned population. The food industry, by way of the USDA, also determines what nutrition information gets fed to the media and healthcare providers, and gets placed on the food products we buy in the store. I laugh when people call vegans the food police! It’s the corporate food industry that controls every aspect of what we eat. Until we decide to take back control.
You’ve been actively involved in many health initiatives on both a community and national level. In your experience what is the best advice you’d give others to get these sorts of outreach projects going?
My advice is to research and get in touch with existing organisations that you admire and find out how they’re doing it. There’s no need to go it alone or try to figure everything out for yourself when it comes to starting community classes or designing school programs or even promoting local or state policies to help people eat more plant-based foods. There are more than enough people and organizations doing this work today in creative and successful ways that you can collaborate with and model after to address your own community’s needs.
When I worked with the Vegetarian Society of DC in 2004 to create Eat Smart, which was the first federally funded vegan nutrition program in the country, I had already been doing community cooking classes and lectures in the DC area for about 15 years. So I already knew and had worked with the other folks in the field who were doing the same work, and that made it easier to get the word out about Eat Smart and make it successful. Collaboration is key.
Feminism means different things to different people. What does it mean to you?
I’ve always been a feminist and womanist, even before I could articulate those terms or study them in college. My mother raised us that way, so it’s just natural and second nature to me. I’ve never in my life thought boys or men were superior to me! My mom was ahead of her time in instilling that in us (and in so many other ways) and I’m truly grateful for that.
So, because of this, I have zero tolerance for sexism. None. Just like I have zero tolerance for racism. So you can imagine that I’ve been a fighter and activist all my life, challenging folks left and right since childhood! But this is nothing remarkable to me. As Angela Davis said, “I don’t accept the things I cannot change. I change the things I cannot accept.” Black women are the creators of the feminist movement in this country and the embodiment of it. That’s just how we roll.
What impact does empowering women have on society?
So again, I’m used to being around empowered women. Black women have always been personally empowered to me. This is not something that is given to us outside of ourselves. What we’ve fought for is to have society catch up to us, to bend that arc toward justice.
Now, having said that, I do of course know that sexism, male privilege, this false notion of male supremacy, is systemic in this society and most other countries around the world. And the economic, political, and social consequences are oppressive and exhaustive. Just like with racism.
So, the question really is about changing society, as much as it is about women owning their power. Because the problem with sexism isn’t women. The problem is the institutionalisation of sexism for the benefit of white men. But women can still be personally empowered within that system. Just like the problem with racism isn’t black people. The problem is the institutionalization of racism for the benefit of white men and women. Black people, and for this question, black women, can still be personally empowered within that system. In fact, that is required for us to resist and defeat both of those systems.
How does veganism relate to feminism?
In addition to what I’ve said earlier about feminism, I also agree with Carol J. Adams in her seminal work The Sexual Politics of Meat about the enslavement, rape, and torture of female animals for food as a manifestation of systemic male supremacy--as is the food industry’s relentless conflation of meat with masculinity and strength, and vegetables with femininity and weakness.
Sistah Vegan, edited by A. Breeze Harper, is another ground-breaking book that explores issues of identity, food, health, and society in a series of essays written by more than 20 black women vegans. Both of these books are truly eye-opening and should be required reading for everyone who eats.
Why was it so important to target your book particularly to black women?
Toni Morrison said to write the books you want to read. When I was going vegan, I would have loved to have read a vegan book for black women that was written by a black woman who was a long-time vegan and a nutritionist. That would have been a dream come true. So I wrote that book!
And my sister and I had already started the first vegan website for and by African Americans, and we had thousands of subscribers, so I knew there was a hungry vegan audience for the book. I also wanted to engage with black women directly about liberating the way we think about food and taking back control of our health because we experience the worst health outcomes of any group in the U.S. We have the power to turn this around and I wanted to provide a manifesto to help us do that.
You’ve already achieved so much in your career to date. What’s been the highlight so far?
Thank you. On a kind of large scale, I’m really deeply honoured and proud that I’ve had the opportunity to help grow that number of 3 million-plus African American vegans and vegetarians, in particular, and to help folks from all walks of life and around the world think about, or start, or affirm their vegan journeys. Although it oftentimes feels intangible, it’s made real for me when I get an emotional email or an exuberant hug at a book-signing because someone has let me know I made a difference in their lives. I love that and it always makes me tear up a little (like now).
On a more personal level, the highlight has been without a doubt the fact that my mom and middle sister went vegan with me 30 years ago. And just to talk about my mom in particular, she was 50 at the time. She’s now 79 and still vegan and healthy and vibrant, with no chronic disease issues. And she exercises 5 days a week! She’s truly my inspiration. Like I said earlier, my mom was way ahead of her time and still is.
What advice would you give others on how to promote a healthy vegan lifestyle to their loved ones?
Focus first on you and be an example. Even if you’re a new vegan and you want your loved ones to know how horrible it is for chickens and cows on factory farms, and how unhealthy it is to eat them. Even with all that urgency, my best advice is to focus on you and be an example. If your loved ones ask, then talk, and watch videos, and read books, and go to vegan meetups, and visit vegan restaurants. And if they want to continue, great. If they don’t, just continue on your journey and let things flow organically.
Also, don’t be self-righteous about your veganism. There will always be people who eats less healthfully than you and more healthfully than you, so why judge? (At least not publically!)
I can get away with being a bit more pushy about veganism because it’s my profession, not just my way of life. But in my personal life, I really try not to be judgemental (I used to be very self-righteous in my early vegan days, until I learned better). Nowadays, I try to only offer advice or suggestions when folks have already let me know they're trying to change. That said, I never like to talk about veganism at the dinner table in a mixed group of omnivores and vegans. If I’m asked, I usually suggest we talk about it a little later, if they’d like. This has served me well over the years.
What’s next for you? What other aspirations do you still have?
Well, I’ll be turning 50 next year (I hope that surprises some of you and you look at these photos again in amazement!), and I’m making some transitions in my life, along with the ones that are happening naturally in my body. I’m starting by being more adventurous and bold. I’m also going to write more - more books, articles, plays, poetry - about whatever I want. Writing is my first love and I’m most fulfilled when I’m doing it. It’s kind of taken a back seat to my vegan work in the past, but I’m turning that around. In the meantime, though, I’m working on my second vegan book, so look out for it next year.
I’m also organising group vegan travel trips. I’ve been all over the world as a vegan and I want to share that experience with other vegans and like-minded folks. We have a trip to Amsterdam coming up in June 2016, so stay tuned for that.
Is there anything else you’d like readers to know about?
Just that I hope you’re inspired by my story to start or stay on your vegan journey. It’s a beautiful life and you can do it!
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