Black Veganism in the Bay Area, A Path to Better Health?

by Nahima Shaffer

Two patties cooked to perfection, gooey melted “cheese,” fresh lettuce, juicy tomatoes, and caramelized onions all wrapped into a golden brioche bun. You’d think you’d just ordered a double-double at In-N-Out Burger, but believe it or not, this is one of 8 entirely vegan and decadent sandwich options at Malibu’s Burgers in Oakland, CA.

Founder Darren Preston’s inspiration to start the popular Black-owned eatery grew out of his own vegan journey a few years ago. After watching what he describes as a “horrific video” displaying animal cruelty, Preston began to cut out all animal products, including dairy and was surprised by the noticeable improvement in his overall well-being.

“I started it for the animals and then kept going because I was like, oh wow, you’re like, you look good,” he said, reflecting on the subsequent weight loss he experienced after switching to a plant-based diet.

On a trip to southern California in 2019 after visiting another popular vegan restaurant, it occurred to Preston that he could probably make an even better vegan burger with his own touch to it.

“It was like for the first time, I actually felt like I could make a better burger than this. No offense to them. I just felt like I could do this, you know, I do this at home on the regular.” Preston said.

On that same trip, Malibu’s Burgers was born and incorporated, leading Preston to start operating his food truck before deciding to open a physical space in June of 2020.

While Preston sought to add to the small but growing landscape of Bay Area Black-owned vegan cuisine with his own flair and flavor, across the country, an entirely different Black and plant-based enterprise was taking place, one aimed at examining the science behind this diet and its potential to improve African American’s health.

Dr. Samara Sterling, Research Director at the Peanut Institute in Albany, GA, took the lead in 2019 to expand the significantly lacking scientific research on plant-based eating and Black health.

Having eaten a plant-based diet for over 12-years herself while researching diet and health in the South, Sterling discovered that many of the health disparities experienced by Black Americans appeared closely connected to their diets. She noted that, especially when it came to chronic illnesses, these seemed to be connected to individuals eating a lot of red and processed meats along with a high carbonated beverage consumption.

“I became curious about how the knowledge of the benefits of plant-based diets were being integrated within the Black community, and this is when I saw that research was very much lacking in this area,” Sterling said.

This lack of research inspired her, along with Dr. Shelly-Anne Bowen, to publish an exploratory study “The Potential for Plant-Based Diets to Promote Health Among Blacks Living in the United States” in December 2019.

The study noted that African Americans are disproportionately affected by illnesses such as chronic kidney disease, heart disease, obesity, cancer, and diabetes. These outcomes are due in part to genetic predisposition, but mostly to factors such as access to medical care and lifestyle.

Even in the Bay Area, African American residents have the lowest life expectancy of all racial groups. The adoption of plant-based diets, generally associated with a lower risk of cancers and cardiovascular diseases, could significantly improve Black community health outcomes.

“I think that for a long time, plant-based diets and Black culture/heritage just didn’t seem to go together in the same sentence, unfortunately. So, for observational studies, there wasn’t much data there,” said Sterling, about the lack of research in this area.

One exception she noted was the Adventist Health Study-2, which looked at Black Seventh Day Adventists, who are encouraged to follow a healthy lifestyle, including a vegetarian diet, due to their religious beliefs, one of the few instances where Black tradition and plant-based eating collide.

In terms of getting Black people to adopt a plant-based diet, Dr. Sterling argues that restaurants and foods such as those served at Malibu Burger’s menu can be helpful to an extent.

“Some people who are transitioning from a heavy meat diet may use plant-based meat analogs occasionally to help with that transition,” said Sterling. “They may sometimes want the texture of meat, but without the cholesterol and inflammatory compounds. I would say that occasionally including some of these products could be part of a healthy diet, as long as you remember to focus on eating lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, beans, etc. Just remember to think of food as medicine and to treat it that way, “she said.

The concept of food as medicine is often difficult for many to grasp, especially when one of the main deterrents to plant-based eating in the Black community is the reputation that plant-based diets are bland, tasteless, and even expensive.

On the one hand, plant-based foods can be very affordable, especially with whole food options, including beans, rice, and potatoes. However, accessibility is a key issue in adopting a plant-based diet for Black Americans and why Sterling recommends a multi-pronged approach to adopting plant-based diets in the community.

For instance, West Oakland just welcomed its first full-service grocery store, Community Foods Market, in 2019, highlighting the long-lasting lack of access to fresh produce in the neighborhood.

In much of East Oakland, liquor stores vastly outnumber supermarkets, while more affluent Northern neighborhoods such as Piedmont enjoy access to a greater number of grocery stores. For reference, Oakland’s African-American population is around 23.2%, while in Piedmont, Black residents only make up 1.9% of the population.

As Sterling advocates, there needs to be more policies and programs to increase accessibility to fruits and vegetables and bring more supermarkets to underserved communities, especially in food deserts. Alongside increased access to food, Sterling also calls for better healthcare access and more education about plant-based diet benefits.

Restaurants like Malibu’s Burgers certainly help dispel myths that plant-based foods are flavorless, but their products can be on the pricier side. Preston says it’s due, in part, to the markup on niche specialty vegan ingredients needed to make the burgers.

Yet again, Black residents can’t even decide for themselves if they want to purchase such specialty items without access to better food shopping options. Often, there’s a lack of access to even more common and affordable plant-based foods, namely produce.

The Bay Area’s growing number of Black-owned vegan restaurants provide hope to at least a demand for or positive response to this type of cuisine in the community along with nationwide trends. A 2018 Gallup poll identified the plant-based diet trend as growing quite rapidly among Black people, with people of color reportedly consuming 31% fewer meat products than they did the year before.

On who’s leading the Black veganism charge, Dr. Sterling shared that Black millennials are far less reticent to adopting plant-based eating. “As far as age group, millennials tend to be more likely to go fully plant-based than older generations, and the reasons range from health to sustainability to animal rights to environmental concerns. So, there’s definitely some evidence that millennials are leading the pack where that’s concerned,” she said.

As far as dietary interventions go, she is also helpful that plant-based diets are becoming more of an option to black patients as interventions of the past focused more on education surrounding fruit and vegetable consumption along with calorie counting.

“Plant-based diets may have been too bold, so interventions played it safe. But I am happy that we are starting to see a shift in that space, with work from investigators like myself and others who are looking for ways to introduce plant-based diets in Black communities,” she said.

While there is still a long way to go for plant-based eating to be normalized in the Black community more broadly, Preston and Dr. Sterling’s efforts are certainly making strides in that direction.

While changes in communal diet patterns can lead to better health outcomes, one thing is clear: individual efforts can only go so far without systematic changes to insure equitable access to health and educational resources.

With increased research and the proliferation of new plant-based Black cuisines, it is hopeful that as the trend of Black-veganism continues to grow here in the Bay Area and beyond.

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