Black vegans are carving their own identity – Kansas City Pitch

Posted: December 10, 2020 at 7:55 am


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The Wild Burger at Gigis Wellness Cafe. // Photo by Zach Bauman

Its not just white hippies.

Gigi Jones is talking about Kansas Citys vegan communityplant-based diners in a notorious Cowtown. The communitys growing fast, and the vegan restaurant scene is growing to meet them. And its Black restaurateurs and diners who are leading the charge.

Jones is one of several Black entrepreneurs to open a vegan restaurant or catering business in KC in the last couple of years. She works as a health and wellness coachstage name, Gigi the Veganand opened her first restaurant, Gigis Vegan + Wellness Caf, in Westport this July.

Jones has witnessed a surge of interest in plant-based eating recently. But the scene wasnt always so rosy. When she first went vegan in 2015, she felt alone. I was the elephant in the room, she says. I felt like within my community that I was the first vegan ever. I know I wasnt, but I felt that way.

Gigi Jones. // Photo by Zach Bauman

Jones worked hard to promote plant-based eating locally, teaching workshops at health-food stores, and expanding her client base. But she knew Black diners needed a targeted approach. Last November, she started Midwest Soul VegFest, a vegan food festival focused on the Black community. More than 3,000 people attended. (COVID-19 put a damper on a repeat festival this year).

I think the face and the culture [of veganism] is changing, Jones says. Right now, people are seeking better, healthier lifestyles, and Im grateful to be a part of this movementand it is a movement.

Gigi holds a salad. // Photo by Zach Bauman

The movement appears to be national as well as local. According to a Pew Research Center survey from 2016, Black Americans are almost three times as likely to identify as strict vegans or vegetarians than white Americans. Mainstream perceptions of veganism have been slow to adjust. Type vegan into any stock photo site, and youre still likely to be greeted with variations on a theme of Thin White Woman Trying to Look Through a Cucumber.

For a long time, those perceptions guided local restaurant offerings. Sisters and business partners Arvelisha Woods and India Pernell were inspired to open Matties Foods in part because they couldnt find any restaurants that catered to them. Like Jones, the pair first went vegan in 2015.

At the time, we had Fd and we had Caf Gratitude, says Woods. The restaurant scene was like a desert. No one African-American was vegan that I knew, no one was talking about it. And when we went to Caf Gratitude, I didnt even really understand the menu. I was like what is that? There was nothing I can even pronounce.

Mild Nachos at Matties. // Photo by Zach Bauman

Woods says she understands the motives behind those menu choices nowbut she still craved the comfort foods shed enjoyed before she switched to a plant-based diet. She wanted mac and cheese. She wanted nachos.

The real deal, echoes Pernell. I was tired of leaving hungry.

The pair started making and selling jars of vegan queso at pop-ups and food festivals. Then they launched a successful food truckMatties Vegan Eats. This September, they updated the name to Matties Foods and moved to a brick-and-mortar restaurant in east Brookside. The new menu features nachos, burritos, and brisket sandwiches. The restaurants motto is emblazoned in neat cursive on a bright mural wall: Comfort food made smart.

Arvelisha Woods (left) and India Pernell (right) of Matties. // Photo by Zach Bauman

Dropping vegan from the restaurants name was intentional. Although we are vegan, I dont feel like we embody the vegan brand or the vegan message, says Woods. Sometimes [vegans] can be very cruel, especially to newcomers. Whatever your journey is, whatever your start is, I am celebrating you. And sometimes the vegan community doesnt do a lot of celebrating because we do a lot of condemning.

Were not all mean, Pernell adds, and both she and her sister laugh. Listen. We are not all mean.

Matties Vegan Eats. // Photo by Zach Bauman.

Woods and Pernell arent alone in ditching the vegan label. The term has a history that doesnt necessarily resonate with many Black diners. Although people around the world have been eating plant-based diets for centuries, it was white animal rights advocate Donald Watson who coined the word vegan and founded the Vegan Society in 1944.

Because of that history, its easy to conflate veganism in general with animal rights activists in particular. But doing so collapses the diverse concerns of vegan eaters, who dont fall neatly into one ideological bloc. Some people eat vegan for climate and sustainability reasons, others for weight loss or health or religion.

None of the business owners I spoke to for this story referenced animal rights as their primary motive for going vegan. Although reliable survey data are scarceand rarely capture details on raceanecdotal evidence suggests Black vegans are far more likely to cite health concerns as the main driver of their diet. Which invites the question: Why arent animal rights groups connecting with Black vegans in the same way?

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It may not help that some groups have coopted the rhetoric of anti-racist activism in clumsy waystake the PETA-sponsored (and ultimately rejected) Super Bowl ad in which cartoon eagles and bears and mice take a somber Colin Kaepernick knee to a breathily hummed national anthem. Cries of speciesism, however well intentioned, can come off at best as tone-deafat worst, as blatantly dismissive of anti-Black racism and the ongoing struggle for human rights. And white-led animal rights organizations cant seem to keep the tofu-egg off their face for long.

Top: Kimberly Vincents vegan Hot Wings. // Photo by Zach Bauman

But the most likely explanation is a simpler one: Black Americans just have bigger fysh to fry. Jones, Woods, and Pernell all started eating vegan due to health concerns. So did Kimberly Vincent, the owner and chef of Topknotch Vegan Vittles. Vincent was inspired to start selling her plant-based riffs on soul foodSouthern-fried jackfruit bites, chicken wings, fried fysh sandwichesin 2018 after her own success curing digestive issues with a vegan diet.

We have a lot of sick people, Vincent says. A lot of people are figuring out because we have a high rate of high blood pressure and diabetes, they can change the way that that runs in their family. Instead of being a statistic, they can change that.

The statistics back her up. According to the CDC, Black Americans are far more likely to have hypertension, asthma, diabetes, and heart disease than white Americans. They have a higher mortality rate for most cancers, and theyre likely to die at a younger age than their white counterparts from all causes.

Kimberly Vincent, holding her vegan Chicken & Waffle of Vegan Vittles. // Photo by Zach Bauman.

In the face of these disparate health outcomes, Black health-care consumers also receive disparate treatment. Several studies have documented that Black patients are less likely to receive major procedures and therapies even after controlling for insurance status, comorbidities, and the severity of their condition. Theyre also systematically undertreated for pain. Its no surprise that many are looking for answers outside of the traditional health-care system.

Theyre being a little more compassionate toward themselves and a little more aware now that we have control over what we put in our bodies, says Pernell. I think now its like Oh, well let me just at least try it. Let me look into it.

Black health matters, says Jones. When we look at our health, you know, not only do we not receive the same information from a physician the way that our [white] counterparts would, certain things, certain foods affect us more.

Adding syrup to the vegan Chicken & Waffle // Photo by Zach Bauman

In that vein, Black-owned vegan restaurants have offered a community-based answer to a community health crisis.

In Black communities, there are as many dialysis centers as there are liquor stores, says Woods. Theres things that are not good for us being implanted in our areas. So let me use produce to make something better for my family. I think thats why youre seeing more vegan restaurants that are Black-owned popping up.

Although Vincent is operating Topknotch Vegan Vittles as a ghost kitchen for nowpreparing meals for curbside pickupshes likely to be another major player in the restaurant space soon. COVID-19 has disrupted some of her plans, but she says opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant is her ultimate goal.

In my mind, I have to change the perception that people have of vegan food and show them, yes, its vegan, yes, it can be delicious, yes it can be good. Even though I serve soul food, I can say that its a healthy soul food. Thats how I feel that it can impact the Black community. Thats how it IS impacting the Black community, because it looks good, it tastes good, and they can relate to it.

The proliferation and success of vegan restaurants in Kansas City suggests that that perception is indeed changing. Vincent notes that a large portion of her clienteleshe estimates 40 percentdont identify as vegan. At least, they dont identify as vegan yet. Some of them are interested in making healthier choices but not ready to commit to eating plant-based full time. Others are just attracted to the food. Vincent posts frequent photos of Topknotch dishes on her Facebook and Instagram accounts to show customers that vegan food isnt just grass and twigs.

Woods and Pernell say they serve a lot of non-vegan customers at Matties, too. And all of the entrepreneurs I spoke to say their customer base is diverse. Its definitely not just white hippies.

I think that people are waking up, says Jones. I think things have shifted. I believe that the African American community is starting to wake up and know that its time for a change.

On twitter @lizcookkc

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Black vegans are carving their own identity - Kansas City Pitch

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December 10th, 2020 at 7:55 am

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