I’m not sure if I ever expressed my discomfort over the McDonald’s Happy Meals my dad and I shared, but I remember it clearly. The fries and toy were all well and good, but biting into a burger or nuggets always felt like something I had to do to make him happy.
I also knew my mom would be furious if she found out my dad was taking me to eat McDonald’s. She preferred to feed me only organic dead animals. With each bite, I felt I was betraying her and myself — but my dad seemed so glad to treat me to this supposedly happy ritual that I didn’t speak up.
McDonald’s is where I learned to bury my visceral discomfort and assimilate to our carnivorous society. I could tolerate eating flesh, fat, tendons and blood only in the sanitized form of nuggets and patties. McDonald’s was happy to oblige.
That was 25 years ago. The McDonald’s off Fruitvale Avenue in the Dimond District, a racially- and economically-diverse pocket of Oakland, was a relic of my pre-vegan life I never gave much thought to.
Until I returned home recently and noticed it was boarded up. On the door where the McDonald’s logo used to be was a sign announcing a vegetarian restaurant “Coming Soon.”
I popped inside and met the new owner — a woman who’d moved her business from Berkeley, where rent is now too high. She promised me there would be vegan pizza options.
As if that weren’t enough, right next door I found something even better: a vegan restaurant called The Veg Hub that had opened last fall. Owned by an activist and chef named GW Chew, The Veg Hub is a non-profit restaurant that offers free plant-based cooking classes. Chew’s fast and healthy vegan food — priced about what a Big Mac meal would cost these days — is made in-house.
Lest you think these new restaurants are a sign of white gentrification, both are owned run by African Americans. Chew estimates his clientele is about 50 percent African American, and says “every group” is represented in his cooking classes.
Bringing this food to his community is a large part of his vegan activism. He’s seen too many relatives die of diet-related disease before age 60.
“Most of my aunts were heavy, real heavy, like 300-plus pounds,” Chew told me. “The food was delicious, but it was killing us.”
Indeed, African Americans are more likely to die from heart disease, diabetes, cancer and high blood pressure than white people. Linked to meat and dairy consumption, these conditions are often preventable by a whole-food, plant-based diet. Yet more than any other population in the United States, African Americans are likely to live in food deserts where vegan food, let alone fresh produce, is anything but affordable or easy to come by.
“People want to eat healthy. I believe it’s an innate desire,” Chew said. He considers his food the gateway drug to tasty, healthier plant-based options.
That the McDonald’s I grew up with is being replaced with vegetarian and vegan restaurants that are owned locally by people of color gives me real hope.
As do other things. These days, my dad has given up eating most animals, and remains open to reducing his consumption even further. Even McDonald’s just announced it is testing a vegan burger in Finland. Times are changing, as is our idea of what constitutes a truly happy meal.