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Exclusive: Meet the women urging Kamala Harris to go vegan

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Members of the JIVINITI coalition explain why they’re petitioning the US vice president to go plant-based, and what its global implications are.

It took Americans 2,979 days to put a man on the moon. It took India 456 days to become the first Asian nation to reach Mars’s orbit. There were three key factors at play: underlying motivation, a personal pledge and national pride. Space exploration is, at its core, a quest for human survival. So is a vegan planetary reset.

At least according to Nivi Jaswal, founder and president of The Virsa Foundation, a Boston-based non-profit organisation supporting plant-based communities. Jaswal’s foundation spearheads the JIVINITI coalition, a group of female-led social organisations, many of them BIPOC. The coalition’s flagship campaign calls for US vice-president Kamala Harris to go vegan, and help pivot the country to a plant-based economy.

Her cosmic comparison is designed to highlight the effects and achievements of purpose-driven leadership. JIVINITI’s Plant Powered Kamala campaign intends to inspire similar appeals, open letters, petitions and position papers towards veganism for leaders internationally.

virsa foundation
Nivi Jaswal, founder of The Virsa Foundation.

The coalition launched its petition in December 2020, and it already has 27 members. Jaswal is of Indian heritage. Harris is half-Indian, half-Jamaican. Her position as a multiracial American woman in power is synonymous with the JIVINITI coalition. “You’ll find a glimpse of her roots, culture, entrepreneurial purpose, and purpose-driven ambition in all of us,” Jaswal tells me. “And this includes not only all coalition partners of colour, but also those of white caucasian descent.”

She argues that Harris’s going vegan would influence similar actions not just around the US, but the world. “It will also pave the way for, as it has for all of us, a personal and visceral understanding of the misogyny of an animal-based economy besides, of course, its inequity and unsustainability.”

That’s a powerful statement. Misogyny in the animal agriculture industry is a widely-known yet often overlooked topic. “Female animals in the food supply chain, particularly the egg and dairy industries, are victims of the reprehensible hijacking of their reproductive systems,” explains Katrina Fox, founder of the Vegan Women’s Leadership Network.

She calls body autonomy a key factor in the campaign for women’s rights. “So it’s imperative that women advocate for the vegan lifestyle to ensure liberation is achieved for all females.”

vegan business media
Katrina Fox, founder of the Vegan Women’s Leadership Network.

Women are more likely to be obese and severely obese than men in the US. One in six Black and LatinX women reported not having enough food in the last week. The effects of food insecurity on women are statistically worse. Fox argues that, in many cases, women are responsible for accessing and preparing food for their families, so evidence-based knowledge of plant-based nutrition is key.

Last October, nutritionist Tracye McQuirter launched a campaign to make 10,000 Black women go vegan, to fight the health injustices experienced by Black women in the US. Perhaps it’s efforts like this that make African-American women the fastest-growing vegan demographic in the States.

But P Angelicia Simmons, founder of the Fannie Lou Hamer Institute for Advocacy and Social Action, points out the key issue: many Black women are unaware that a plant-based lifestyle is neither hard nor expensive. And if Harris adopted veganism, she would likely campaign aggressively for the most underserved populations of Black women.

Read our interview with Tracye McQuirter about her 10,000 Black Vegan Women Movement.

Simmons says it’s important for education to be heavily centred on the vice-president’s support: “To some Black women, her demonstration of a vegan lifestyle, without specific messaging of inclusion to the underserved population of Black women, may prove ineffective, as she is still an unattainable goal for some who reside in these communities.”

flh institute
P Angelicia Simmons, founder of the FLH Instititute.

She feels the media has been complicit in the misleading messaging of good health and how to achieve it, calling veganism “very whitewashed”. While a nutritionally well-balanced vegan diet is healing, she says that selective media messaging makes it seem unattainable.

Simmons explains why there are health disparities in Black and Brown communities: the issues are just as environmental as they are “food-choice driven”. “The result of years of systemic racism is taxing on the body,” she says. “When women have to be more concerned with how, when and if they will eat versus what they will eat, there is a problem.

“Food is meant to heal, but how can you heal when a system forces you out of your homes with gentrification, underfunds the schools your children attend, places you in jobs that pay only minimum wage, and constantly uses you as ‘political gaslighting’? With all of these stresses and some that aren’t even named, the Black and Brown woman’s body plays host to a multitude of diseases like high blood pressure, diabetes, providing the catalyst for a Covid-19.”

She continues that oftentimes, the entire group is forgotten in policymaking. “There is a dark saying in the Black community: ‘When white people catch a cold, Black people have pneumonia.’ Well, unfortunately, Covid-19 is our pneumonia,” she tells me. “The question is: does anyone even care?” And as part of the JIVINITI coalition, she hopes Harris brings about change.

Jaswal explains that ‘JIVINITI’ is derived from two Sanskrit words: ‘jiv’, which means ‘life or aliveness’, and ‘niti’, which translates to ‘path, rules or method’. “JIVINITI is the ‘path towards aliveness’, which is synonymous with the vegan ethic,” she says.

Deriving the name from Sanskrit is interesting; it communicates the movement’s international roots. The coalition notes that Harris’s influence extends beyond America. One of its UK members is petitioning Boris Johnson to adopt a vegan diet. It’s also evident in the presence of Jeeva Bhavana. Founded by Julie Wayne and Madhavi Kolte, it’s an Indian farm transition NGO fighting the animal agriculture industry.

Farmers and veganism have a dicey relationship. While many like Jay Wilde are transitioning to plant-based agriculture, many more scrutinise the lifestyle as an attack on their livelihoods.

Jeeva Bhavana doesn’t see it as an ‘us vs them’ dichotomy, instead helping them truly assess their current practices, especially financially. “We show how they can improve all the facets by adapting veganic agricultural practices,” says Wayne.

Find out how Jackie Norman, a member of the JIVINITI coalition, went from dairy farming to vegan activism.

Poverty and food insecurity are rampant in India, which is home to almost 18% of the world population yet a quarter of the world’s hungry. It’s also a top exporter of food grains and has the world’s largest cattle population — and the biggest dairy industry. While India’s farmers are already protesting new laws introduced by the Modi government, the nation is “actively diverting nutritious staple foods for direct human consumption in India to foreign markets, and also promoting cultivating crops to feed animals instead of humans”.

 

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This drives up staple food prices. “Taking the animals out of the agricultural equation means that many more crops would be cultivated for humans and would be much more affordable,” notes Wayne.

But how does the US vice-president’s diet affect farmers in India? Wayne says Harris’s Indian roots make her “a daughter of India”. “Most Indians are proud to see her in this position of power — and in the United States, no less — and recognise her role as a game-changer.”

Wayne tells me that Indian women can especially identify with her, recognising their role — just like the rest of the world — as the drivers of societal change. “We believe that women will certainly want to emulate Kamala Harris’s commitment when they understand how a plant-based diet is key towards ensuring good health. This will have a positive impact on the entire plant-based movement in India, without a doubt.”

So how does the JIVINITI coalition plan on helping the vice-president make the switch?

That’s where Naomi Hallum’s Million Dollar Vegan comes in. It’s the same campaign that challenged Pope Francis to go plant-based in 2019, in return for a million-dollar charity donation. It also posed the question to Donald Trump when he was in office. While those campaigns were unsuccessful, Harris’s acceptance is a lot more plausible given her past comments about meat and the new administration’s focus on climate change.

Read our interview with Vegan Evan, the 10-year-old activist who challenged Trump to go vegan.

million dollar vegan
Naomi Hallum, founder of Million Dollar Vegan.

“By making our vice-president aware of what animal-based diets represent, she can make more conscious decisions about what she eats and what she promotes, and lead by a better example,” says Hallum.

The organisation helps people maintain their nutrient uptake and shows the type of meals you can enjoy without animal products. “We’d offer this guidance to the vice-president too, in addition to the support of our medical specialists in monitoring any improvements in her overall health she might experience as a result of going plant-based,” Hallum explains, “and the support of amazing vegan chefs, should she wish to learn how to veganise her beloved sausage cornbread recipe.”

But what happens if Harris joins the Pope and Trump in not going through with the challenge? Fox says the petition is just one part of a larger campaign. While she recognises that going vegan is a personal decision for the vice-president, she draws focus on the JIVINITI coalition’s open letter to the Biden-Harris administration.

It calls for deindustrialising animal agriculture, employing the highest-standard scientific tools for medical research, and ensuring the Covid-19 Task Force’s promotes whole food plant-based diets in its Pandemic Nutrition Guidance. Fox also emphasises looking into the National Nutrition Guidelines to show Americans must cut back on red meat, as well as ending systemic racism as part of the aims.

“The broader goals of the campaign are for coalition partners to model the change we seek from our national leaders and ensure these important conversations reach a wide audience to influence and inform public opinion,” she says. The vegan businesswoman adds that, given the youth of the coalition and the government, and the chaotic transition in January, the increasing visibility of the coalition partners working with marginalised communities across the world is a success in itself.

jiviniti coalition
Photo: The Virsa Foundation

Jaswal says vegan media has played a hand in the early triumphs of the JIVINITI coalition. But ignorance by larger mainstream media organisations has been disappointing. “We believe that every drop in the ocean counts and for the mainstream media, I’m certain these issues are now fast becoming the biggest elephant in their newsrooms,” she tells me.

The campaign is certainly gaining traction, with support from Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and Progressive Party USA. Jaswal is calling on the media and the US government to look into the “overwhelming data” available on planetary health, public health and environmental racism. “They cannot continue to ignore the fact that an animal-based food system is responsible for a global pandemic and shadow pandemics of domestic violence, food insecurity, public health, especially among persons of colour.”

The Jiviniti program is actively looking for nonprofit fundraisers to fund its global research and donations to help influence policy action on climate and food justice for underserved communities.

Anay Mridul
Anay is the managing editor of The Vegan Review. A journalism graduate from City, University of London, he was a barista for three years, and never shuts up about coffee. He's passionate about coffee, plant-based milk, cooking, eating, veganism, writing about all that, profiling people, and the Oxford Comma. Originally from India, he went vegan in 2020, after attempting (and failing) Veganuary. He believes being environmentally conscious is a basic responsibility, and veganism is the best thing you can do to battle climate change. He gets lost at Whole Foods sometimes.

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