Activist & Founder of Chilis on Wheels
This Thanksgiving Michelle is feeding a thousand hungry people in Tompkins Square Park. She is the founder of Chilis on Wheels, a nonprofit that provides vegan chili to people in need of a warm meal. As a passionate animal rights, environmental, and social justice activist, Michelle shared her thoughts on community and compassion with Chroma Kitchen.
How did Chilis on Wheels get started?
The first day was Thanksgiving of 2014. It started with 15 meals that I just made in my kitchen. It was so harrowing outside—the first snow of the season, and something in me was saying, “You gotta do this. Even if it’s just once a year. Do.”
And from there, I thought, “I have to do this once a month.” And then after that, “Every week.” So this is where we are now. Every Saturday at 1:00, here at Tompkins Square Park, we give out 100 to 200 meals.
Why is it important to have a vegan option available to the community that you serve?
We serve people who are vegetarian, pescatarian, or even vegan for diverse reasons: religious, ethical, health...We have a lot of people who come every week, and they tell me how glad they are that we’re here, because no other soup kitchens have vegan options. They tell me even the salads will have some kind of dressing that makes them not vegan.
We're all one community, so we all eat together, and we all give thanks together.
Veganism often gets written off as an elitist diet. What’s your perspective on that conversation?
I’ve been vegan for 15 years. I’m from Puerto Rico. I’m low income. A lot of emphasis is put on mock meats and all these new products that are coming out, which do make it pricey. Necessarily so, because they’re small companies & they don’t get any government subsidies. (Non-vegan food is less expensive—not necessarily because it is cheaper to make—but because it is heavily subsidized.) So, a way to get around that is just not to consume all those super processed products.
My diet tends to consist of whole foods: beans, rice, vegetables. So that’s what I try to bring in to these meals, and that’s what I’ve exposed a lot of people to, here in our community: how to be vegan on a low budget, and how to be vegan without sacrificing your cultural identity.
In Puerto Rico, it’s a meat-heavy culture, but the animal that people are eating is not what makes their food cultural. It’s really the flavors and the combinations of vegetables. So you can keep the staples. Keep the sofrito. Keep the flavors—those are the things that make the food cultural.
What do you have planned for this Thanksgiving?
Right now, we’re organizing our Thanksgiving feast, where we hope to feed 1000 people on Thanksgiving day from 12:00 to 2:00. At this point, all donations are going towards the supplies: catering trays, sterno cans, that sort of stuff. We’ve received donations from several vegan restaurants that are supporting us and from several companies like Tofurky, Field Roast, and Hampton’s Creek.
We’re making it potluck style as well, so people can bring a vegan dish or eat vegan dish. It’s all about removing the sense of “us” and “them”—who is serving, who is taking. We’re all one community, so we all eat together, and we all give thanks together.
Chilis on Wheels started as a way for me to teach my son, Ollie, about compassion towards people.
Why did you begin eating a vegan diet? For animal rights? For health reasons? For the environment?
Primarily out of compassion for animals. We are a vegan family, and then Chilis on Wheels started as a way for me to teach my son, Ollie, about compassion towards people. It just all ties together.
What are the challenges of raising a kid on a plant-based diet in our non-vegan world?
Kids are naturally compassionate people; they have that instinct to try and protect others, to be friendly and nice. The hardest part of navigating the non-vegan world is when it comes to family members that aren't vegan—explaining they’re not “bad guys.” Your grandma is not a bad person, she just hasn’t made this connection yet. You know, kids see things as very black and white. It’s hard to teach the grays.
You’ve been vegan for 15 years. In that time, how have you seen the landscape around veganism change?
This is another era. When I went vegan, I had never even heard the word. Ever. Never. I had never heard the word "vegan" at all.
And now, you go into a bookstore and there will be two bookcases filled with vegan cookbooks. It’s great. New York City—you can’t go more than two or three blocks without seeing a vegan restaurant, which is amazing. Coffee shops have soy milk! Also the cheeses...let’s be real. Vegan cheeses 15 years ago were not very good, and they just keep getting better and better.
At the end of the longest day, what do you crave?
I am Puerto Rican, so at the end of a long day: rice and beans with plantains and stir fried tofu, some sofrito...that sounds so good.
For me, everything is about compassion, and empowerment, and community.
What are the ways that you would like to expand Chilis on Wheels?
I never have a chance to make sweets, because I’m always making the chili, but having a sweet component would be really great. People go crazy when we have cake, things like that. So that would be really nice.
Our dream of dreams is to find a brick and mortar place, where we can actually have a kitchen and serve there as well. That way people can feel safer and we can have a lot more volunteer opportunities.
We actually have an announcement coming up on Thanksgiving day of our next steps.
You've previously worked in adult literacy, immigration rights, and reproductive rights. How does that experience inform the work you do here?
For me, everything is about compassion, and empowerment, and community. All these other issues are the same thing: immigration, hunger, poverty. You name it. It all comes down to coming together as a community and having respect and compassion for everyone—including animals. There may be other people who can better articulate the political nuances and overlaps, but for me, it’s a simple as that.