VegNews Celebrates Black History Month: Eugene Cooke

In this exclusive interview with VegNews, food-justice activist Eugene Cooke discusses how a plant-based lifestyle can transform personal health, the food landscape, and communities of color.

Abstaining from the use of animals for food, clothing, entertainment, or for research has always been portrayed as a radical way of living. Those who live their lives by such principles find themselves part of a small but passionate minority, using their everyday choices to advocate and fight for the rights of animals. But some members of this plant-based group don’t have the luxury of making animal rights the center of their lives—they must, at the same time, continue fighting for their own.
 
One such subsect is black vegans. While not receiving the same amount of attention as other members of the plant-based scene, the black community has made, and continues to make, meaningful and important strides in the name of veganism. From the iconic political activist Angela Y. Davis’ work stemming back to the 60s, to David Carter showing the world that a 300-pound NFL lineman can be sustained, and thrive, on a vegan diet—we’re inspired by the accomplishments of black vegans.
 
Every week during February, VegNews is highlighting one black vegan making history now. This week, we’re featuring Eugene Cooke, a food-justice activist, urban farmer, artist, and co-founder of Grow Where You Are—a collective that not only uses veganic practices to turn barren, urban spaces into viable sources of whole foods for underserved communities but provides education to help those in the community learn how to sustain a diet, and life, on fresh, local foods.
 
VegNews: Tell us about Grow Where You Are.
Eugene Cooke:
Grow Where You Are is a social enterprise collective that utilizes urban agriculture as a pathway for educating people about a plant-based lifestyle. I’ve done work around veganic agriculture internationally for the last 15 years, and we offer consultation for individuals, families, and organizations who are ready to build their own food systems and incubate small businesses, whose work is predicated upon the appreciation of local agriculture/agroecology systems. We are here in Atlanta, demonstrating the best practices that can be applied through our consultative services to urban areas globally and reestablishing agriculture as the base of a cultured society.
 
VN: What exactly is veganic agriculture, and why do you feel it’s it important?
EC:
Many vegans are unaware that “organic” food is grown using animal manure, blood meal, bone meal, feather meal, and other ground-up, dried-out animal by-products. This is violent and unnecessary. We compost all the plant matter we grow in our systems and create fertile soil for planting fruit trees, perennial herbs, and seasonal vegetables without those animal inputs or forcing animals to labor in our fields. Human beings are intended to be highest level of consciousness on the plane—surely we can eat without causing harm.
 
VN: Who has inspired you to change the way we eat?
EC:
My agricultural mentor Adonjah Myamura gave me Kirpal Singh’s book Sant Kirpal Singh: Spiritual and Karmic Aspect of the Vegetarian Diet, which helped me realize how rich, delicious food that I personally grow can eliminate so much pain—both external and internal. World renowned holistic practitioner Queen Afua’s book Heal Thyself made clear to me that many of the diseases that the African American community attribute to heredity are actually due to the inherited behavior of eating toxic food and meat. She gave clear instructions for cleansing the system and offered meal suggestions for people in transition.
 
VN: What is the most pressing issue facing communities of color when it comes to veganism and/or the foodscape?
EC:
Specifically, horrific acts like the poisoning of the water supply in Flint, MI, corporate land grabs, the influx of unlabeled GMOs in the food supply, and environmental racism, which proliferates food deserts and fast-food swamps. As it relates to veganism, I would say the illusion of veganism as an elite, expensive, inaccessible lifestyle.
 
VN: You've created 18 urban farms, 14 school gardens, and have planted upwards of 400 fruit trees throughout the US and beyond. You also teach workshops and started businesses to help other local food innovators. What else do you want to accomplish?
EC:
Food sovereignty is the goal for all landless farmers. For that to happen, land ownership is a requirement. Growers must be in leadership in our flourishing local food movement. What I would like to see accomplished is the land being returned to native people and an end to animal agriculture.

Catch our other Black History Month interviews with Dr. A Breeze HarperTracye McQuriter, Clifton RobertsBryant Terry.

Photo courtesy of Natasha Bowens

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