Veggie Advocate & Plantain Enthusiast
Leolin Bowen is an Outreach Coordinator for Food & Nutrition at The Humane Society of the United States. She is taking the cafeterias of Chicago and the midwest by storm.
What does your work for HSUS look like?
I work with organizations to help them add more plant-based meals to their menus. It’s definitely a new way to approach animal advocacy. We’re one of the few organizations focusing on institutional change, and we work with everyone from schools—K-12 and colleges—to hospitals, nursing homes, prisons, and the military as well. The majority of the time I spend in one-on-one meetings with decision makers—food service directors, sustainability coordinators, or dieticians—talking to them about the benefits of eating plant-based, learning about their programs, and educating them about the resources that we have to offer.
They're already motivated to provide healthier, more sustainable meals for their students.
How do those conversations go?
For me, it’s important to know what their goals are. I spend a lot of time learning about their program—figuring out if they’ve tried offering more plant-based options before and if the benefits of incorporating plant-based options have even been on their radar. At the end of the day, when I leave, they’re the ones who have to put it into effect, and I want to build solid relationships with them to assist them along the way.
I've found that school food service directors in particular are really interested in offering nutritious meals for their students, but they may not have resources; they may not have the time, so they’re willing to at least hear me out and see the ways that we can assist them.
If they want to add in just a few plant-based options a week, then we can plan for that. If they have plant-based options already, but nobody’s taking them, then maybe that’s an issue with marketing or education. If they want to launch a Meatless Monday campaign, then we can help them get that started. They’re already motivated to provide healthier, more sustainable meals, so it's a matter of menu planning, knowing how to cook vegetables, and getting students to try them.
If you cook it, they will come. Lead with the food and make your message fun and inviting.
What are some of the most gratifying aspects of this work?
We offer two-day advanced culinary trainings with professional chefs, and I love seeing them be surprised that plant-based food taste so good. We typically don’t use meat analogues, so it really is just purely plant-based. Witnessing their excitement that this food can taste so amazing and watching them realize that plant-based meals really are something that they can work into their service is so incredible.
What do you wish more people knew about plant-based eating and veganism in general?
Well for one, I’m a curvy woman, and people are often surprised to learn that I eat plant-based. There is a misconception that if you are vegan, you will look a certain way. People don’t realize that we come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. And of course, what shocks me still is that people don’t know how good the food tastes.
And how much vegans love food.
Haha yes, all my friends who are plant-based—all we do is talk about food.
Do you mostly kick it with other plant-based people or are you lonesome in a crowd?
A lot of my closest friends are plant-based. And that isn’t intentional, but the events that I go to and the work that I talk about just draws people to me who are much more conscious about their food. Either they already were plant-based when I met them or they’ve gone vegan since meeting me.
What is the black vegan community in Chicago like?
It’s great! And that’s another thing people are surprised by: black vegans do exist. A lot of my friends are people of color—so, not just black, but Latino and Asian as well. There are so many people of color who eat plant-based, and that is something I hope more people are becoming aware of.
The animal rights movement seems to lack diversity—is this perception accurate?
It would be great to see more diversity in the animal rights movement. When there is a lack of diversity in any social justice movement, communities and viewpoints are being missed. In general, black people are dealing with a lot of other issues: racism, financial insecurity, police brutality—all these other things that overshadow the also important issue of animal rights. But there are still numerous people of color who do care about the animal rights aspects of eating plant-based.
No one wants to be shamed into making a change, and if they do make a change based on shame, it's not going to be a long-term change.
For example, have you heard of David Carter, the 300 pound vegan? He focuses on both the animal rights and the health aspects of veganism, and he works in food deserts across the country, similar to the Westside and the Southside of Chicago, which are predominantly black or Latino neighborhoods. If you really want to reach a certain demographic, the message will come across better if you’re from their neighborhood or if you look like the people you're talking to. So it’s important to get more diversity in this movement, because we're missing a large group of people who could make a positive change for animals and who need healthier food—who could really benefit from this message.
Right, because there aren't enough folks who can deliver the message in a meaningful way.
And it’s not just this one issue: everything is blended together. It’s easy for us to say, “well, just eat more fruits and veggies,” but if you live in a neighborhood without a grocery store, where the only open store is a liquor store—and they only sell old apples and bananas—it’s not so simple.
At the end of the day, we're all trying to be compassionate people.
Do you have any thoughts about how the animals rights and the health movement can be more inclusive?
If you cook it, they will come. Lead with the food, and make your message fun and inviting. No one wants to be shamed into making a change, and if they do make a change based on shame, it’s not going to be a long-term change. Draw them in with the good parts, because at the end of the day, we’re all trying to be compassionate people.
It’s also important to let people know that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing, at least in my opinion. There are incremental steps that you can take that move you on a more compassionate path. I wouldn’t want anyone to get discouraged or not try it at all, because they feel like they would have to be perfect. No one is perfect.
Are there any resources that you like to point people to when they’re interested in exploring this?
We have a guide to meat-free meals on our website with tons of recipes. My colleague, Eddie Garza, just came out with a cookbook called ¡Salud! Vegan Mexican Cooking, and I’m so excited about it! That book is going to reach a demographic that might not otherwise see themselves represented in this movement.
I want him to know that there is a different way to eat.
Speaking of how delicious plant-based food can taste, what is your favorite meal at the end of a long day?
My mom is from Belize, and my son is half-Colombian, so I love Latin foods. Rice, beans, avocado, veggies tamales...and I’ll always take plantains. I love that type of food. It’s cheap, quick, and easy, and it’s so comforting. It reminds me of being home with my mom.
Are you raising your son vegan? Are you letting him feel that out for himself?
He is six now, and for the first 2 1/2 years, he was raised 100% plant-based. Now, I co-parent with his dad, so my son eats plant-based when he’s with me. When he’s with his dad, he eats whatever they eat. And they’re veg-friendly, so that helps.
But I’m always trying to give him opportunities to try new foods. If we go to the grocery store, and he picks out some fruit or vegetable—even if it’s $5/lbs cherries—I’ll buy it. I’ll cry a little at the price, but I’ll buy it for him, because as he gets older, I want him to know that there is a different way to eat.
What gives you hope in this movement?
It’s working with kids and seeing them excited about trying veggies. I was just visiting Detroit public schools, and they do meatless days two times a week throughout the whole school district. They have a couple of green houses there, the kids are growing their own food, and the fruits and veggies taste really good. These kids are smart; they’re compassionate; they speak up. If they can do it, we can do it too, and we need to do it—to give them something to look up to, something to carry on.
You can find Leolin Bowen and links to her writing on Twitter at @leolinbowen. For more resources and information on HSUS’s work helping institutions create healthy sustainable menu options, check out forwardfood.org