Only three percent of Americans consider themselves vegan, but black Americans are the fastest-growing demographic among vegans, according to a 2016 Pew Research study.
Case in point: South Florida.
Here, vegan entrepreneurs like John Lewis — “the Badass Vegan” and CEO of nutritional-shake company VeganSmart — have been at the forefront of the scene for more than a decade.
In a recent video, Lewis criticized vegan brands that have been radio-silent about the ongoing protests that followed the killing of George Floyd, who died at the hands of police in Minneapolis.
“Yes, I’m vegan, but I’m a black man first,” he said, pledging that he would no longer support companies that don't take a stand.
Sean Russell, another prominent local vegan voice, initially went plant-based to improve his health, then realized the benefits are multiple. "I now do it for health, environment, animals, and love for myself and others," Russell says.
Since launching SoFlo Vegans in 2017, Russell has hosted more than 200 events. “We started off by hosting monthly potlucks, happy hours, and speaker events,” he says. “Our goal is to make South Florida a global hot spot for veganism.”
Sean also takes an active hand in mentoring his young nephews, ages five, nine, and fourteen.
“As a black person, by proxy, I am also spreading awareness," he says. "I get to be an example of what can happen if you go vegan. During this time of introspection, I realize that I get to become the best version of myself. I get to step up what I’m doing. As a black man, vegan, and entrepreneur, I want to be a positive role model for my nephews and future generations that look like me.”
And as Russell notes, vegan culture transcends race. “There are plenty of examples of the black community embracing veganism way before it became the trendy thing to do," he says, citing the Ital lifestyle associated with Rastafarianism and vegetarianism in the Seventh Day Adventist Church. "Of course there are slight differences in terms of beliefs and practices, but at its core is a fixture of plant-based food."
Russell also points out pop culture's role in promoting a plant-based diet.
"There are certain voices on the global stage that carry more influence than others," he says. "For example, Beyoncé and Jay-Z briefly going plant-based several years ago and other black celebrities using their platform to advocate for the animals. RZA from the Wu-Tang Clan is a great example of someone that’s been a strong voice in the community for years. Most recently Kevin Hart said he went plant-based."
Like many who are making professional pivots owing to the COVID-19 quarantine, Russell has taken this time to work on new projects that align with his mission. Soon after hosting the first SoFlo Vegans Virtual Expo in April, he teamed with several South Florida restaurants, including Patricia and Rahein Jones of the New Vegan in Delray Beach, on a new meal-delivery concept called Vegan Express that covers the tri-county area.
The web-based delivery service expands the market reach for participating South Florida vegan restaurants, offering customers more than a dozen restaurants to choose from, along with locally made products, for a flat-rate delivery fee of $5.99.
“We are going to be able to cover a much larger market and give the opportunity to other vegan restaurants to deliver to customers that are normally outside of their delivery range,” Patricia Jones says.
The New Vegan has earned its reputation as one of South Florida’s go-to vegan spots, having served an estimated 300,000 meals since it opened seven years ago. The neighborhood restaurant offers an unintimidating environment perfect for those transitioning toward a plant-based diet. “Our tagline is, ‘You don’t have to be vegan, to eat vegan,’ because we want people to know that everyone is welcome here,” says Rahein Jones.
Starex Smith, who has spotlighted black-owned vegan businesses like Awash Ethiopian, KC's Healthy Cooking, and the New Vegan on his blog, the Hungry Black Man, calls the Joneses "good people."
Yet all the good will in the world hasn't immunized South Florida's black vegan community from systemic violence and police brutality.
During a phone interview for this story, Rahein Jones apologized for not being able to meet at the restaurant. "We had an anti-police brutality event," he said. "I’m not sure if you knew my cousin — he was killed in a police-brutality incident. We had to set up some food.”
Jones' cousin, Corey Jones, a 31-year-old drummer, died in 2015 while waiting in his disabled vehicle after leaving a gig. A plainclothes police officer approached Corey Jones' car on the highway exit ramp. Within seconds, Officer Nouman Raja of the Palm Beach Gardens Police Department fired six shots, striking Jones three times, killing him.
After the shooting, Raja falsely claimed to investigators that he had identified himself and shot Jones in self-defense. His claims were disproved by an audio recording of the fatal shooting, and Raja was convicted of manslaughter and attempted murder last year. He is serving a 25-year sentence.
Earlier this year, former San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Anquan Boldin, another of Corey Jones’ cousins, recounted the story in a Super Bowl TV spot highlighting the NFL’s Inspire Change initiative. Boldin is the co-founder of the Players Coalition, a nonprofit dedicated to social justice and racial equality.
Corey Jones' memory is honored at the New Vegan through a recipe he helped create. “It was initially his dirty rice, which we renamed on the menu as Corey’s stir-fried rice,” Rahein Jones says, explaining that the popular dish is made with organic brown rice, mixed vegetables, and the restaurant's house-made chickpea patty.
Rahein says that without his cousin Corey, there would be no New Vegan. “There isn’t one corner of this restaurant that Corey didn’t touch. A lot of people know his music side, but he also had a food side.”
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