Exclusive Interview with Krystil Smith – Humane Society of the U.S.

| 06/02/2014 | Reply

Kristil Smith Humane Society of the USWe were lucky enough to be able to catch up with Krystil Smith, the Educational Outreach Coordinator with The Humane Society of the United States.

A huge part of Krystil’s job is to promote “Meatless Mondays” at K-12 public schools, colleges, and universities. This sistah is bringing awareness to students and faculty across the country about the benefits of a plant-based diet, working hand in hand with school officials and institutional food providers to give students nutritious, non-meat menu options every week.

The Humane Society’s “Meatless Monday” program is supported by several prestigious and influential health organizations, including John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Kaiser Permanente, The American Institute of Cancer Research, The World Health Organization, and the United Nations.

Curious, I wanted to know more about the career path which landed this dynamic young woman at The Humane Society, what her professional and social goals are, and how she feels about plant-based eating for African Americans.

BGV: Can you share with our readers your personal path to veganism? What happened in your life that motivated you to give up meat?

Krystil: I saw a documentary called I AM AN ANIMAL while at home with my family in Houston over Xmas holiday. We got popcorn and sat down to watch it. We all thought it would be some extreme folks doing crazy things, and that it would be humorous. But my experience was different and very interesting.

From the moment the movie came on, the things the PETA people were saying about animal rights really connected with me. I was taken aback by the things I learned about farm animal cruelty, animal testing, the circus, the meat processing industry – it was all new to me. Ultimately, I was the last one watching the movie, but I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. The film contained video after video of footage taken undercover at farms.

Growing up in Houston, I’d never questioned where I got my food from, and how it got on my plate. I just knew it was good. I never challenged myself to question it. The images we see are a pretty red barn with a white picket fence and animals walking around freely, but that isn’t reality or what I saw in the movie.

I’ve always loved animals and what I saw didn’t sit well with me.

The next day I woke up and someone was cooking breakfast. There was no big fanfare, no big epiphany, all I knew is “I won’t be eating meat today.” About three days later I ran into a soror in the airport, and we ordered something to eat. I told her “you know, I think I am a vegetarian”, and that was that. Since seeing those videos I never ate meat again.

I knew I should be vegan, but didn’t want to waste my mac and cheese. So over the next six weeks or so, I weaned myself off dairy products, and went vegan. I’ve always considered myself to be a thoughtful, protector of animals. My emphasis for making this change was for animals. Over the next three years I did vegan outreach, and protesting. Then I went to law school to do it full time. I am licensed, but I don’t practice.

Not a health food vegan at all, unfortunately. Just now getting to that level. I am probably as of two months ago much more health conscious. Before that I admit I ate purple Doritos, Tofurkey sausage, and Boca burgers.

BGV: Wow, I know that took your family by surprise. I lived in Houston for 5 years in the late 1980s and NOBODY was a vegan. A meal with no meat? Blasphemy! Meals consisted of a half slab of some sort of animal, served with a side of canned or fried vegetables and white bread. How has your family adjusted to this drastic change?

Krystil: Lots of my family members struggled with the transition. They saw everything happen and know why. However, they minimized the truths in the movie – they didn’t even finish watching it. As for my change, they didn’t think it was going to be sustainable. They were constantly asking me “are you still doing that vegan thing?”

It was frustrating to me because every month I would get more and more involved with animal activism, and it became a much bigger part of my life. Luckily they are remote, but I was uncomfortable with the push back. The protein question came up over and over again: “Where you getting this, where you getting that?”

Ultimately, I set up a meeting with them, and I made a vegan meal. I made the seitan myself. I told them “This is serious and a very big part of me.” I credited my parents for raising me to think critically and question everything, being compassionate and logical, to fight for what I believe in, and to be outspoken. “Those qualities are what is leading me. I can’t get it out of my mind.”

They appreciated it after that talk. I was a big meat eater, this is new and different, and I get that it’s hard for them to adjust to. But I asked for their support and I got it. Now there are always alternatives at family meals, and they are always willing to try things. Took them awhile to transition. Meatless Monday is much more tenable for them. They get it now.

My brother and his family do Meatless Monday, and they look forward to it. My brother understands now that there are a lot more foods he can eat, and it’s expanding their palate. They’ve seen some health benefits too – my sister-in-law’s cholesterol has gone down. Meatless Monday is a beautiful thing they can do with me.

BGV: As you reach out to schools to institute Meatless Monday, how have you been received? Have there been areas of contention, or is everyone receptive to the change?

Krystil:  The kids really like it – they like something new; children really embrace it. Or just indifferent, not much fanfare, but they still participate. Either they love it or are rather neutral. Some food service directors fear that people will stop buying food on Mondays. Los Angeles, the second largest school district in the nation, actually saw an increase in food purchases on Monday. New York City is the largest district – I’m working on them!

BGV: Health is, however, the reason for many people to make the switch to veganism, even though they care about animals as well – that is a secondary motivator. Have you collected any data on the health of the students before and after instituting Meatless Monday?

Krystil:  I think it’s important to share that The Humane Society didn’t start Meatless Monday. We’ve been promoting it for the past three years, but it was revived by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in 2003 as a way to focus on reducing saturated fat intake, reduce risk for preventable chronic diseases, and to reduce dependence on animals. Meatless Monday was actually started during World War 1 as a voluntary method to reduce meat consumption at home, to save it for our soldiers in battle. It was utilized again during World War II. Currently, Meatless Monday is in effect in 34 countries, and millions of people participate in it.

We haven’t collected data specific to our program, but we DO know that 1x a week meat intake is associated with a 15-20% reduction in the chronic diseases mentioned above. Going meat free just one time per week does that, and will drastically reduce risks for those chronic diseases lie strokes, diabetes and heart disease.

I can tell you about myself as well.

When I first went vegan my physician was concerned. She said “I’m not going to tell you not to do it, but let’s just do this.” So she ran some blood work and a battery of tests. My cholesterol was down, vitamins were good. Vitamin D was the only one lacking, which is the case with many people I was told. I’d lost weight. Without even trying I’d dropped more than 30 pounds. My Dr. was surprised and happy.

BGV: With obesity rates climbing, along with diabetes, heart disease and hypertension, especially in the black community, how can parents make a difference for their children and themselves?

Krystil:  We are at the highest rate of risk for all those preventable diseases. We really need to develop better eating habits at a younger age. As you get older, it becomes harder to turn your health around. Plant-based eating works. There was a study on Black 7th Day Adventists. Over 20,000 black seventh Adventists (vegetarians), and their risk of diseases was so much lower than other blacks eating a traditional diet.

This is important because the trends for health in children are going in the wrong direction. In 1980 when I was born there were zero cases of childhood Type II diabetes; however, just 30 years later in 2010, there were almost 57,000 documented cases.

Unless the obesity epidemic is reversed, 1-in-3 children born after 2000 (and nearly half of Latino and African American children), will develop Type 2 diabetes in their lifetime. High levels of saturated fats found in meat is tied to obesity.

We can change children’s lives by promoting the idea of actively reducing meat once per week. By getting children to eat plant foods — Brussels sprouts, quinoa, beans — you’re getting them accustomed to things like having a salad without drowning it in dressing. These are really good habits to have and will carry on into their lives.

Obese children are likely to become obese adults. Being obese will put you at risk for those diseases. Ingraining better eating habits and exposing them to better food is the parent’s responsibility. Children are just as happy eating a bean and rice burrito as they are a beef and cheese burrito. They won’t develop the need to have meat all the time. You’re developing a healthy habit in your children.

As a child my vegetable was a slice of tomato and 2-3 slices of iceberg lettuce in a sandwich, where we are looking at much healthier meals now. Cheese pizza with veggie toppings vs. loading them down with meat. Even eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is a way to vary what you’re eating and avoid animal flesh.

Our children should know that they’re going to be healthier by not eating meat. A well planned, plant-based diet means you’re eating the best foods. Experts say that food is medicine. We don’t have to look to pills and surgeries to cure these diseases, just bigger servings of fruits and vegetables.

BGV: What would you say are the three biggest challenges to instituting Meatless Monday in schools? Have you encountered much resistance?

Krystil:  For the most part people are receptive to meatless meals. It has not been a lot of push-back or vitriolic at all. Admittedly, some people are reluctant because of a lot of changes in the school food arena. They feel they already offer options.

Our focus is to highlight and promote those options at least once per week. Kids skip over the fruits and vegetables and go straight to the chicken nuggets. Yes, it’s being offered, and the schools are serving it, but they aren’t taking the time to explain the benefits to the children. Dedicating one day a week to get them to try something new and not have burgers and nuggets is the goal. Kids can look forward to it and understand why it’s happening. By the time they are six to seven years old, meatless eating one or two days per week can become a healthy habit for them.

BGV: Do you have information for the students to share with their families about meatless eating? Handouts and brochures for example? Recipes they can try at home maybe?

Kristil:  We don’t do a lot of community outreach, but have worked with parent groups that fight for school changes. They want to eliminate vending machines and reduce sugar levels in food offerings. They’ve been very receptive to the idea of eating more fruits and vegetables and taking a holiday from meat. And yes, we have brochures and Meatless Monday recipes. We provide the information to the school for distribution, we don’t go directly to the parents.

BGV: How did you come to work for The Humane Society? It’s such an unusual post for an African American since culturally our diet is heavily meat-based. I’m really curious.

Krystil:  Good question! Well, I’m a part of the Farm Animal Protection Department. We are the national organization that looks for big victories and strike at the root of animal cruelty – factory farms (animals produced in mass quantities for human consumption).

We’re always looking at ways to reduce the impact to animals on factory farms, and reducing high demand for meat products is one way. As the Meatless Monday program was getting legs, we made the decision to get heavily involved with institutions that buy a lot of food/meat products – including K-12 public and private schools, hospitals, large corporations with cafeteria settings (IBM and Google for example), and colleges/universities. We wanted the staff, administrators and students to be exposed to some sort of promotional healthier eating program.

With schools I was brought on to help specifically with Meatless Monday by meeting with food service directors as part of the meat reduction program. We’re able to tap into an audience of young people and really expose them to the idea that they can have a whole meal without meat, that it tastes good, and that they can help the environment and help animals.

I think one of my strengths in this job is that I had just graduated from law school and have a MA in Environmental Law and Policy. I can speak to the environmental impact, degradation of environment, and whole agricultural business in general. I work in partnership with RN who addresses the health benefits of veganism, and two other superstars in animal welfare background.

BGV: You’ve given our readers a lot to think about, and I want to thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. Please share your final comments and your favorite recipe!

Krystil: People in general, particularly the black community, should educate ourselves about the many health benefits of a vegan diet, but also it’s social justice role with respect to improving the lives of animals. It would be great to see more blacks involved in the animal rights movement. And I’d like people to stick with it! I often see people go vegan, then after they heal themselves lose the weight, get out of dire straights, they go back to eating bacon and fatty meat.

We as black people can grow to accept veganism as a way of life. We can all embrace this. Lot of people of color are lactose intolerant … more than any other group. It’s natural for us to avoid meat and dairy.


Krystil’s Favorite Food: The Big Vegan Bowl

Meatless Monday on the Humane Society website

Meatless Monday on Johns Hopkins website

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Category: Veganism and African Americans

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