What Veguary Is, and Why It Matters, Explained

Afro-Veganism, otherwise known as Black Veganism, is growing. Here’s how the movement is connecting people to their roots.

Two women eating plant-based food

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One of the most common misconceptions about veganism is that it’s just for privileged, affluent Americans. In fact, diverse communities — especially those from the global African diaspora — have been using plant-based dishes as cultural staples for centuries. Since 2020, the U.S.-based group Afro-Vegan Society has offered a program called Veguary during  Black History Month to celebrate these cultural and culinary traditions, and “create a pathway to vegan living for people in our community.”

What is Veguary?

Started and led by Afro-Vegan Society, Veguary offers support to the Black community to make plant-based lifestyle changes during Black History Month. As North America celebrates the diversity and cultural significance of Black culture during February, Afro-Vegan Society aims to show how plant-based living doesn’t mean sacrificing your heritage. The program offers a way to make plant-based choices in ways that can connect even more to your roots and improve your overall health.

Black History and Meat

Black history is intertwined with food. In the U.S., soul food — the home cooked meals passed down through generations through African-Americans predominantly living in the South — is a particular point of pride. Foods like fried chicken, pork, fried fish and mac and cheese are more than just recipes. They represent a tradition of resilience for a community that was forced to create recipes based on the unwanted leftovers of others.

During the transatlantic slave trade, millions of enslaved Africans were brought to North America to produce gruelling amounts of manual labor and domestic chores. Food provided to enslaved people were scraps left by their owners. Soul food was born from enslaved people making the best of the otherwise unwanted foods. Pork is the most notable example. Enslaved people were often tasked with the slaughter and preservation of as much of the pig as possible, with the most desirable cuts of meat given to slave owners. As a result, the enslaved people had to make do with what was left: pork intestines became fried chitterlings, pig stomach became hog maw, pig cheek fat became hog jowl, and pigs feet were often pickled for later. Enslaved people combined African cooking techniques to create flavourful dishes and passed these recipes down for generations.

For many in the African-American community, the act of preparing soul food — especially the act of reclaiming the “undesirable” meats — is a way for people to reconnect to their roots and be a part of a community. Veguary offers space to reconsider how we can still connect to this community while simultaneously valuing animal ethics and health.

Growth Within the Vegan Community

The demand for plant-based options has skyrocketed over the last decade. In 2010, UK-based publication The Guardian predicted that the next generation would be full of meat-free fine dining. As of 2023, there are at least 20 fast-food chains offering vegan options to consumers. And according to Bloomberg Intelligence, the plant-based food market is expected to hit a value of $162 billion USD by 2030.

Yet even though most restaurants now offer at least one meat-free option, data shows that people in the U.S. still strongly associate the plant-based movement with whiteness.

Daniel L. Rosenfeld, a PhD candidate at UCLA, led the study which noted that the stereotypes surrounding racial identity and food could influence people to shy away from a plant-based diet.

“Food and race are two constructs with deep roots in culture,” Rosenfeld said in an interview with PsyPost. “If strong racial stereotypes exist about vegetarianism, and if those stereotypes could deter certain groups of people from eating plant-based foods or if they could make people feel ostracized in certain spaces because of their race, then it’s vital to come up with ways to combat existing stereotypes and to change the narrative surrounding what it means to eat plant-based foods.”

Understanding the Historic Diversity of Meat-Free Dishes

Research strongly suggests that the typical Western diet focuses too much on meat consumption, but many other cultures rely on plant-based staples such as grains, beans and rice, and have done so for centuries. Despite the stereotype of vegans as an upper-class population who have the privilege to choose a pricey veggie burger over a beef one, the reality is that meat is considered an affluent luxury in the majority of the world.

Plant-based foods have been a cultural staple across West African countries for generations, for instance. The average meal includes the region’s Indigenous crops like sorghum, pearl millet and cassava. West Africans have spoken out about how plant-based meals are accessible because of the diverse amount of plants and grains naturally growing in the region, describing it as a “misconception” that cultural dishes can’t be meat and dairy-free. For the younger generation then, many don’t see plant-based as just a diet, but as a way to connect with traditional African roots. Prior to colonization and Western influence, the average diet across the African continent considered meat to be a rarity.

Race and Climate Justice

For many Black Americans, going vegan isn’t just taking meat and dairy out of your diet: it’s an active political and ethical choice. It goes without saying that climate change is felt all over the world, regardless of race or status. However, data shows that the effects aren’t felt proportionately. New data shows that Black Americans are feeling the negative effects of climate change more than other communities. This is partly due to geographic location: around half of all Black Americans live in the 11 states most likely to experience extreme weather hazards from climate change. Black Americans are also more likely to live near toxic facilities, breathe polluted air, live near coal plants, or be in a community with waste from fossil-fuel infrastructure. As the climate crisis worsens, experts predict that people living in the Global South — particularly in Asia and Africa — are the most at risk of being exposed to negative effects from weather and pollution, all because of global warming.

Climate change is also linked to our food systems. Certain foods — like dairy and meat — are highly resource-intensive and create more greenhouse gasses than plant-based food production. Over 60 percent of the world’s nitrous oxide emissions — a gas 296 times more potent than carbon dioxide — come from animal agriculture. Humanity’s constant reliance on animal agriculture is harming the planet while contributing to things like biodiversity loss and water pollution.

Afro-Veganism then can also be seen as a form of protest against industrial agriculture, as it rejects the current societal norm of centering meat and dairy products. Black and Indigenous vegans have often described eating a plant-based diet as a method of decolonization, seeing both people and animals as living in an interconnected network. Between the British Agricultural Revolution and the Industrial Revolution, early versions of factory farms came after European colonization. For Black vegans, rejecting meat and dairy is a way to connect to their pre-colonial heritage through food.

Black Americans More Likely to Go Vegan for Their Health

Black-owned vegan restaurants are popping up all over the country. New data shows that Black Americans — and Black women in particular — are going vegan at a faster rate than any other group. For some, cutting meat and dairy is a cultural choice. But for others, it’s about health. A 2020 study of mortality rates among African American women found a link to increased consumption of red meat. Another study, published the same year, found that Black women who eat more processed meats are at an increased risk of developing pancreatic cancer than any other ethnicity. Plant-based diets are also associated with diabetes prevention, a lifelong condition which affects African Americans at a 60 percent higher rate than other ethnicities.

Trying Veguary for Black History Month is a way to connect people to their heritage. Whether it’s for health, environmental or cultural reasons, more Black Americans are going vegan than ever before.

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