If anything, Haile Thomas' food choices as a child were early indications. In the introduction to her new vegan cookbook, Living Lively, the food activist writes: "I despised the kids menu, and was kind of offended by it." Instead, she adds, she picked off the adult menu, watched Iron Chef on repeat, and enjoyed nothing more than cooking Jamaican meals alongside her mother.
When she was 8, the family learned that her father had type 2 diabetes. His illness, she says, led to a transformation in their attitude toward food: from seeing it as a vehicle for love to something that was life-giving and empowering. By age 10, she was speaking about the link between wellness and food at conferences like TEDx. At 12, she founded the not-for-profit HAPPY to address the need for affordable plant-based nutrition education in underserved communities. All the while, she held down her other job: school.
A long way from those early days of "scaring away friends" with unsolicited advice on eating, Thomas, who is now 19, believes her life's work lies in challenging mindsets and perceptions through food education. But food is by no means the only subject of her activism: She urges us to consider our relationships with other predominant influences like community, education, even social media. "We can use our relationship with food as a strong foundation for refueling this reconstruction," she writes.
Living Lively is more than an activism-based cookbook with delicious recipes; it's also structured like a journal with introspection prompts. "You are your own ride-or-die," Thomas writes. The book, she says, will cheer you on like a loyal sibling. And like someone who looks out for you, the book is focused on helping get the job done, with lists of convenient ingredient swaps and ideas for eating clean on a budget. (Eat seasonal! Buy bulk!)
A couple weeks ago, I emailed Thomas with some of my questions around her work. I also got her to play favorites with her recipes.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Arati Menon: What led to your choice to become vegan?
Haile Thomas: I decided to give the vegan lifestyle a try after coming across an article linking red meat with cancer. I felt called to challenge myself and my family to give a plant-based diet a try. At first, we were purely motivated by the health benefits. Yet as we continued to learn more about the interconnectedness of our plates and the environment and animals, everything became so much more purposeful.
AM: You often reiterate the misconceptions around veganism. How have you dealt with the stereotypes?
HT: Throughout my journey, I've struggled with the negative stereotypes that are often projected onto the vegan community. Yet through this internal conflict, I started to realize that I had an incredible opportunity to redefine what being vegan looks like and create entry points for others to learn about the lifestyle. I believe that compassionate living is the future, and find it essential to speak about white-washed wellness and racism within the food system, but I also love using my platform to reiterate that vegan food is delicious.
AM: I love that this book is more than just a cookbook. Tell us about how you arrived at that choice of making it a "life guide."
HT: Over the past decade, I've had to face challenges around finding my voice, understanding the importance of self-care, setting boundaries, and truly trusting in my unique path. I've realized that my well-being is far more beautifully complex than just what I'm eating or my exercise routine — negative thinking, suppressed creativity, disharmonious relationships can all have profound impact. The fantastic thing about this is that my challenges aren't unique! They are what make us human and connect us all with each other.
AM: Tell us about HAPPY and what drove you to start it at the age of 12.
HT: Reversing my dad's condition without medication — through improving our eating habits — was when I first saw the power of food (beyond flavor) and how it can heal or harm us. During this process, I learned about factory farming, food labeling, food accessibility, and the childhood obesity epidemic. I knew I had to share what I was learning with my peers. For eight years since, we've been providing interactive and fun learning experiences for youth, grades three through six, in diverse communities.
AM: How has that work been challenged by the new reality that COVID-19 has brought?
HT: This year has brought its changes, but I've been grateful for the ways in which technology has allowed us to show up. We've hosted our LIVE interview series with young people making a difference in the world, delivered organic farm boxes to families in partnership with DIG Feeds, and hosted two sessions of Self-Care Summer Camp on Zoom! All of these were aimed at providing the hope and tools for mental resilience.
AM: What is the one dish you've been turning to again and again through the last few months?
HT: The Lively Islander Bowl from Living Lively has been on repeat allllll summer!
AM: If you were stuck with three ingredients on a desert island, what would those be?
HT: Practically: lentils, fonio, and maitake mushrooms. Less practically: matcha, tahini, and vegan Brie cheese.