National food hero launches new plant-based, whole-foods effort to encourage healthier nutrition in Black communities.
For activist and speaker Tracye McQuirter, more than three decades of embracing a vegan lifestyle, with a focus on plant-based, whole-foods diets, culminates in a special celebration this May. This is the 10-year anniversary of the publication of her book, By Any Greens Necessary, which was the first vegan diet book for Black women and highly influential in promoting the lifestyle among the African American community since. “We have come a long way. We have done a lot, but we have so much farther to go,” says the public health nutritionist and vegan trailblazer, who is marking the occasion with the launch of 10,000 Black Vegan Women, a movement to bring awareness to the benefits of the animal-free lifestyle.
Advocating a Plant-Based Lifestyle
“Although the movement is growing and there are many Black people who have gone vegan, particularly women, in the last decade, we still are facing a health crisis,” says McQuirter. “There’s still far too many of us who are eating unhealthy food for a variety of reasons, and I wanted to reignite this movement.” While many health organizations focus on the Black community, she brings attention to the fact that they don’t focus specifically on plant-based nutrition. With Black women experiencing the worst health outcomes when it comes to stroke, heart disease, diabetes, certain cancers and unhealthy weight, she states they have the most to gain when eating the healthiest foods available.
Research shows that before the 1970s, Black Americans were eating more fruits, vegetables and grains than any other demographic in the country and carrying along those food traditions when migrating to northern cities. This included food-growing practices relying on grains, fruits and vegetables as meat and dairy weren’t affordable. After the assassination of Martin Luther King and the rebellions that followed, the federal government provided subsidies to fast food companies to create franchises in Black communities. This caused an onslaught of such outlets targeting low-income Black communities with food that was cheap, available, and convenient. The advertising targeted Black people, providing jobs for teenagers and adults.
Communities wanted these places for the economic opportunities that were otherwise not available. This completely changed the way Black people in cities ate and aggravated chronic diseases. Recent studies have shown that the Black community is the fastest-growing demographic when it comes to veganism. McQuirter attributes her own introduction to veganism to human rights activist Dick Gregory and a large black vegan community in D.C. that had some of the very first 100% vegan establishments. “There’s always been a stream of Black people who have been eating vegan, plant-based and vegetarian alongside this mightier ocean of those who were already on the fore. We have this cultural tradition and heritage of being in the vanguard.”
Accommodating Better Nutrition Needs
McQuirter views health and nutrition from a social justice lens and has observed the cumulative effects. She also points out the huge shift in terms of what’s available at restaurants and grocery stores now, with people understanding that everyone can eat vegan foods as a baseline. What she hopes to see as part of the increase in the interest and enthusiasm around plant-based diets is that people will start to eat more whole foods rather than packaged foods, realizing that it’s healthiest to eat from scratch. “We are in the nascent beginner stage that we are focused on vegan versions of things that we ate as omnivores,” she says. “Eventually more people are going to recognize that they feel better actually when they eat healthier foods.”
The biggest challenge is information on how to make this practical, she shares. “How do you cook the food, what do you buy, how do you make it affordable and delicious, how do you make it quick and easy. These real practical cooking skills that people have by osmosis as omnivores but don’t have when it comes to veganism. It’s like learning a whole new language of cooking.” The other barrier, of course, is whether or not the food is available in a community and if that neighborhood is experiencing food apartheid where there are no places where you can conveniently buy healthy food. She explains that people are organizing around that in various ways such as growing food in their homes and yards and creating co-ops.
Propelling the Movement Today
Given the current pandemic experienced worldwide, McQuirter states this is the perfect time to eat a whole-foods, plant-based diet. She encourages whole grains as staples and frozen fruits and vegetables (fresh is best if available). Simple and quick foods are best bets and if people want comfort foods during this highly stressful time, they can still do vegan versions that are healthy and cholesterol-free. For those who rely on eating out, her recommendation is Happy Cow, an online service that has the largest listing of vegan, vegetarian and vegetarian-friendly restaurants in the world. With the new movement, she is launching a 21-day fresh start program from May that will repeat monthly. She also offers a free two-day Weekend Vegan Jumpstart for beginners.
“Going vegan opens up your palate to a world of cuisine that you might not experience as an omnivore eating the standard American diet,” she says. Compared to when she began on this journey, McQuirter believes things are better now, with more awareness around healthy eating. Her life’s work has resulted in many milestones, including co-founding the first vegan website by and for African Americans with her sister, Maria McQuirter, in 1997, directing the first federally funded vegan nutrition program in the country and being inducted into the U.S. Animal Rights Hall of Fame in 2019. Says McQuirter, “This is my life and passion, and I will always be doing this work in some way because there is a need for it, and I am an activist.”