Veganism in black and brown communities isn’t just about smiling in overpriced yoga pants while sharing images of brightly colored smoothie bowls and dressed up salads for the Gram.
It’s a matter of life and death.
For eight years, Chantele Jones went back and forth about keeping meat in her diet. But a diagnosis of a chronic skin condition in 2012 jump-started her final transition from vegetarianism to veganism. A couple of days after attempting to relax her hair and thinking she had a bad chemical reaction, Jones noticed that her hair started falling out. She felt a small, pea-sized lump on her scalp where her hair had fallen out. Her dermatologist thought she had alopecia areata, a condition that causes hair loss. Jones was given an injection to treat the suspected disorder, as well as antibiotics to help with the infection and address the pain. It helped initially, but by the next month, Jones noticed the lumps appearing again.
The condition got worse – more painful lumps were developing and increasing in size, and Jones lost more patches of hair. After going to two specialists, Jones was finally diagnosed with hidradenitis suppurativa (HS). Inflammation is the cause of the condition, and so Jones’ doctor recommended she start an anti-inflammatory diet. She went on an elimination diet and removed gluten, refined sugars, soy and dairy.
“No lie, I was getting antibiotics like, maybe every two to three weeks, and all those antibiotics killed off the good bacteria in my body so it couldn’t even fight,” says Jones. “I was thinking about all those things, and that’s why I said, ‘okay, let’s get the diet under control.’ Ever since I got my diet under control, I haven’t been back to the dermatologist for that.”
Jones made the decision to eat strictly vegan three years ago.
“Being mindful of what we put in our bodies can make a world of difference,” she says.
Now driven by the desire to create plant-based food that’s also flavorful Jones runs VDaLish, a company that specializes in catering, cooking classes and pop-up dining events. Some of her themed cooking classes include vegan 101, a holiday series that teaches participants who to incorporate family holiday staples like cornbread dressing, yams, collard greens, seitan steak, walnut meatloaf, pound cakes and sweet potato pies — none of which contain meat.
It’s a common anecdote among people of color: that those who decide to transition to a plant-based diet do so for their health. Within the last year, Detroit has been called one of the nation’s most vegan-friendly cities, but the city’s communities of color aren’t necessarily concerned with the hype of news coverage. Instead, they’re increasingly interested in introducing young and older generations a way of eating that they may not be used to or have been leery of – in order to save their lives, and work against a systemic food system that denies non-Caucasian bodies access to fresh food.
In order to do that, food entrepreneurs want to hook people in with recipes reminiscent of what they’re accustomed to, emphasizing the one thing most eaters care about – flavor.
Kirsten Ussery-Boyd and Erika Boyd of Detroit Vegan Soul are famously noted for paving the way in changing how people eat as the owners of the city’s first black woman-owned restaurant serving 100 percent plant-based soul food. They offer classics like the popular soul food platter with mac-n-cheese, tenderly smoked collards, maple glazed yams, black-eyed peas and a cornbread muffin. The Boyds wanted to make food that’s familiar to the black community. Through this approach, the women intend to chip away at the misconception that vegan food is intimidating and lacks flavor. In the five or so years in business, their approach has left an impression on Detroiters and last year the duo opened a second location in Grandmont Rosedale.
And Detroit Vegan Soul is only an example of the plant-based dining options that Detroiters are cooking up.
Paradise Natural Foods is a pop-up experience that features BBQ jerk “burgers” and West African groundnut stew. Mama Suebee’s Kitchen distributes made-from-scratch kale chips, nutty bars, and the best selling carrot supreme spread. The family owned and operated Vegginini’s Paradise Café on Mack Avenue offers vegan chickless hot wings and vegan paninis. Every Friday, guests at the Moor Herbs Marketplace on West Seven Mile can build their own fajita platters, tacos or burritos.
Quiana “Que” Broden aims to “meet people where they are” by educating them on how to incorporate more plant-based meals into their diets through recipe demonstrations on YouTube. As the owner and blogger of Cooking with Que, Broden’s tagline is “a place where vegan and meat eaters coexist.”
“I want to show people how to do it and that it doesn’t have to be complicated,” says Broden, who has been vegan for nearly five years.
Her transition into veganism nearly five years ago was inspired by a diagnosis of sarcoidosis, an inflammatory disease that can cause lumps in the lungs. “There (are) not a lot of black vegan chefs showing you how to cook. You can’t turn on the TV and see that.”
While her most popular recipe is her mac and “cheese,” Broden notes that people are getting very creative.
“Everything that I could eat as a regular person when I wasn’t plant-based, I can create it,” she says.
For Rocky Coronado, owner of Rocky’s Road Brew food truck that sits on the corner of Vernor Highway and Clark, they use their vegan tacos as a conduit for sharing information with customers about food-related diseases.
“Around here, people don’t go vegan for diet reasons or because it’s easily accessible. People are noticing their heart rates,” Coronado says. “Heart disease is the number one killer of Latina women.”
People of color and indigenous communities are all at higher risk for diet-related complications from type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease, cancer and high blood pressure.
To combat those statistics, Coronado offers tacos filled with soy-based al pastor, beef, chicken, as well as a customer favorite of fried avocado with curried broccoli slaw. Every taco comes with a kale salad and is topped with an Asian-inspired chili garlic sauce.
The Austin, Texas native started their food truck in 2015 and relocated to Detroit in early 2017. As the only such business in Southwest selling such offerings, they find themselves taking extra time to educate customers that yes, a meat-free taco can be delicious.
Coronado is in the early stages of opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant called Damelo Café, where their plan is to offer vegan Mexican food with an Asian fusion twist, coffee and pastries, mocktails and smoothies.
“It’s my foot in the door with the neighborhood and saying, ‘hey look at this. It’s not too different from what you’re eating already. It’s inexpensive and organic and a lot of thought and mindfulness went into this,’” Coronado says.
The irony in this idea of introducing communities of color to plant-based diets is that it has been a mainstay in indigenous populations for generations.
Rastafarianism, a religious and social movement born in Jamaica in the early 1930s, focuses on a way of eating called ital. It based on the belief that its followers should adhere to an unprocessed, plant-based diet to increase “livity” and elevate life energy.
The African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem community, established in Chicago in 1966 when black nationalism was on the rise, follow a strictly vegan diet. The Nation of Islam urged African Americans to adopt a mostly vegetarian, whole-foods diet to reject American values and institutionalized white supremacy.
Many Mexican dishes are naturally vegan, such as nopales and ensalada de frutas con chile, but colonized images of enlarged meat-filled, cheese loaded tacos and burritos would make one think otherwise. The early Choctaw Native American diet focused primarily on eating plant-based, only including meat on occasion.
Coronado says they want to eventually develop a decolonized menu, to get diners back toward these traditions.
“This is our original diet,” says Coronado. “It’s about telling people that they don’t have to eat meat for every meal.”
This article was made possible by the Detroit Journalism Engagement Fund, a project of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, that’s working to increase quality journalism and help better inform communities.
Author: Brittany Hutson
Brittany Hutson is a freelance journalist based in Detroit. She has written for Black Enterprise Magazine, Essence Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Shelterforce Magazine, and Diverse: Issues in Higher Education. She is the creator of the blog, Fed & Bougie a destination for stories about food, people and community.