A staunch advocate for food empowerment
Cotatiís Food Empowerment Project seeks to improve the quality of nutrition among low-income neighborhoods
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By Dave Williams  November 30, 2012 12:00 am

Lauren Ornelas is all about justice, protecting and respecting the rights of the underdog.

She is the consummate activist, and the Rohnert Park resident is very proud of it. As well she should be.

Ornelas, a native of San Antonio, Texas, has worked with the Texas Dept. of Health on child abuse prevention. She majored at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas in communications and has a minor in political science. She’s spoken at conferences in places such as Caracas, Venezuela and New Zealand. Throughout her travels, one issue continued to come to the fore – food.

Food becomes the focus
“I started to realize a lot of the issues I cared about revolve around food,” she said. “I care about social justice issues, but in terms of what I can do, it all centers around food. Water privatization, environmental impact, immigration and labor issues were all related to food, so I decided to figure out how I could start an organization where the public could get involved.”

Seven years ago, Ornelas founded the Food Empowerment Project (FEP), based in Cotati. The FEP, according to Ornelas, is an all-volunteer vegan food justice organization.

“We work on advocating on behalf of farmworkers to make sure their rights are respected and they’re treated well,” Ornelas said. “We also work on access to healthy food to communities of color and low-income communities.”

Her organization was recently honored with the prestigious 2012 Top-Rated Award by GreatNonprofits, the leading provider of user reviews about nonprofit organizations.

“We are gratified by the Food Empowerment Project for its work,” said Perla Ni, CEO of GreatNonprofits. “They deserve to be discovered by more donors and volunteers who are looking for causes to support during the holiday season.

Food deserts a major concern
One of the major problems in low-income areas is the food desert, which is an area where access to vegetables and fresh fruit are extremely limited. That, Ornelas said, can lead to health issues such as obesity, diabetes and heart problems.

“We wonder why there are higher rates of diseases in these communities…when you don’t have access to healthy foods, your diet is going to suffer,” Ornelas said. “Food deserts exist in Oakland, we found them in San Jose, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we found some in Sonoma County.”

Other major issues for the FEP are the plight of farmworkers and the chocolate industry in west Africa, where slave labor is used to produce some of the world’s finest chocolates.

“What we’ve done is create a list of chocolates we recommend based on where the source of their cacao comes from,” she said. “In west Africa, there are children who are basically slaves for the cacao industry who are beaten or locked in at night, or not paid at all. If it’s not sourced from West Africa, then it gets on our recommended list. We have had companies contact us and ask what they can do to be on our recommended list, and we tell them to switch cacao suppliers.”

She makes an exception for Divine Chocolate, which is based in Ghana but on the recommended list because it is a cooperative and their methods of producing chocolate are acceptable.

The impact the FEP can have on farmworkers is limited, Ornelas said, because everyone in her organization is a volunteer and there are time constraints because of their other jobs. Also, there isn’t a strong enough presence of organized labor on the farms.

“We just can’t do as thorough a job as I’d like with the farmworkers,” she said. “We wish there were a way we could say, ‘buy from this farm, but not from that one,’ but right now we can’t. But one thing we’re doing is encouraging people to buy organic products. It’s not because the farmworkers are treated any better, but at least they aren’t subjected and doused with the chemicals used by non-organic farms.”

She said her group hopes to help provide farmworkers’ children with clothing and school supplies.

A little jail time
Ornelas, like other serious activists, has been arrested numerous times. She puts her count at 12. Once, she was arrested in Rohnert Park for protesting at the Burlington Coat Factory, which was selling fur at the time. But most of her arrests happened in San Francisco.

Her full-time job is working for the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, which tries to prevent electronic waste from being dumped overseas in developing countries. They also are looking at the solar industry for some of the same issues in terms of worker rights, environmental impact and toxic reduction. Still, food justice is her primary goal. “We hope people become more informed consumers and improve the world with their food choices,” she said. “To some people it might be overwhelming, but if they give it a try, they can realize how easy it can be and how much better it feels to know they’re not hurting anyone and doing their best to relieve suffering.”

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