As Black folks reimagine soul food, plant-based eating is on the rise

For Black Americans, eating greens is becoming about a lot more than massive pots of collards, mustards and turnips. 

While the pandemic has disproportionately affected Black and brown communities, some have found restitution by incorporating more fruits and vegetables into their diets and, in some cases, switching to plant-based diets. 

A recent Pew Research Center survey shows that 8 percent of Black Americans identify as strict vegans or vegetarians, compared to just three percent of the general population.

As more Black folks search for ways to reimagine their favorite foods as vegan, Facebook groups like Vegan Soul Food provide a judgment-free zone for plant-based inspiration, tips, restaurants and recipes.

The group was created about two years ago, but after March 2020, when the pandemic began, its membership ballooned from 400 members to more than 272,000 and growing. Black women make up 90 percent of members. 

“A large majority of the members in the group are not vegan. They do not classify themselves as plant-based either, but they are very interested in vegan foods. And because we have made it such a safe place for people to explore, share and learn about plant-based foods without judgment or shame we are finding more people that want to be a part of our community,” said Brooke Brimm, founder of the Vegan Soul Food Facebook Group. 

While all types of plant-based eating are welcomed in the group, it was created to celebrate the enjoyment of soul food.

“Many years ago, I read an article on how soul food was killing Black people. After reading this, I thought ‘I eat soul food all of the time,’ we have to learn that you can still enjoy soul food without killing yourself because you shouldn’t kill yourself for food,” Brimm said.

Brimm attributes the success of the group to the pandemic and people wanting to find more ways to improve their health by eating more fruits and vegetables. 

SPINS, a wellness-focused data technology company based in Chicago, reports that sales of plant-based food that directly replace animal products have grown 27 percent from $5.5 billion in 2019 to $7 billion in 2021. This report shows a direct increase in sales for plant-based foods during the pandemic.

Brimm has continued to evolve with the rise of plant-based lifestyles by publishing three cookbooks. Her recently published book, “Vegan Soul Foodie Recipe Guide: Dishes So Decadent You Can Serve to Meat Lovers,” is among Amazon’s top New Releases in Soul Food Cooking, Food & Wine category. Brimm wrote the book to connect meat-eaters to more vegan options.

Brimm recently spoke with Reckon about the success of her Facebook group and cookbooks, Black veganism and its impact on the South.

What inspired you to create the Vegan Soul Food Facebook group?

At the time, I was in many other Facebook food groups and I didn’t love what I found in the vegan groups because it was a lot of shaming. I also didn’t like what I found in the other food groups because it was a lot of meat and still a lot of shaming. So I decided I was going to start a group that was a vegan soul foodie group that was about food and not about lifestyle, vegan politics, or health because we should all choose our own health path.

The group has barely been up for two years and over a quarter-million people agree with me that we should have a safe and fun place to enjoy vegan soul food.

Plant-based eating has always existed but what do you feel has made it so different and trendy in the 21st century?

I think what has changed is younger people are more socially conscious. When I first went vegetarian in college I was socially conscious, I wanted to change myself and the world. I had all of this idealism that I have kept going for 30 years. 

Younger people also feel more friendly toward animals and push more for self-care. Self-care definitely wasn’t a term when I was in my 20s. You just sucked it up and moved forward. Young people are looking at life in a more holistic way and seeing that they need to take care of themselves from the inside to the outside and take care of the planet too.

At the same time that young people are pushing for greater care of the world, we have baby boomers who used to have an idealized mindset and even were vegetarian or vegan. But then they got jobs and raised children and now that the children are gone, I am finding that the older baby boomer generation is looking to pick back up some of the ideals they had as young people.

We also have people who are tapping into that natural intuition of ‘what can we do during this time [pandemic] for our health’?

Being from Atlanta, what do you feel sets the city apart when it comes to vegan food options and accessibility from the rest of the South?

In the heart of the West End area in Atlanta, it is well known for conscious Black living and it has this one restaurant called Soul Vegetarian that has been around since 1979. Within that 5 mile radius in the West End Area, we have other vegan and vegetarian restaurants like Slutty Vegan, Tassili’s Raw Reality and Wadada Healthy Market & Juice Bar. And the heart of these all came from the conscious community as it grew.

For the South, some would consider it as a lot of accessibility to vegan food but we [Atlanta] are still not there yet because the food is very expensive. That same conscious community used to offer vegan and vegetarian food that was affordable and we have moved away from that idea and it is now very costly.

Accessibility is more than being around you, it is also a price point and some places have started to see Black veganism as a trend and it is being exploited.

How do you feel a lack of access to plant-based options has contributed to a stigma of fruits and vegetables in Black and brown communities?

Traditionally more than 130 years ago a lot of Black people lived on farms, had their own garden, were sharecroppers, or had a rural lifestyle. Soon after people started moving into cities because of the newly industrialized world, so they didn’t have as many gardens or access to fruits and vegetables. And with moving into the city and having new jobs came this idea of 20th century “balling”. Now eating a good steak was associated with affluence and having a lot of meat was also associated with affluence.

I remember my father feeling that all was right with the world when he saw his freezer filled with meat. I can also remember the day before payday when we had no meat and were eating lima bean soup and bread. A part of the stigma is associating meat with money and that is an American way.

Now affluence is associated with vegetarianism and veganism, so if you’re affluent you can afford these special, exotic and organic ingredients. The stigma is also if all you have is McDonald’s then you’re broke. And if you’re not affluent then you probably don’t even know that veganism is associated with affluence, because you’re probably still living in [a mindset of] ‘meat is money.’ 

For example, when people got their stimulus check, the big joke was crab legs. Everybody was balling out on crab legs; they weren’t balling out on carrots though. 

What’s some good advice you would give someone who is trying to incorporate plant-based meals into their diet?

Start with adding more fruits and vegetables into your diet and also get to know your aromatics like onions, garlic, peppers and celery as a seasoning. A lot of times your family may already use that as a seasoning in addition to animal essence.

Tip: If you go out to eat at a soul food place you can have a whole vegetarian plate and you may not miss the meat. Most of the soul food restaurants in Atlanta do not put pork or meat in the vegetables and you don’t miss it.

The Reckon Report.
Sign up to receive the Reckon Report newsletter in your inbox every Tuesday.