When Coronavirus hit the US, Kimberly Renee asked herself, “What can I do to help?"
It didn't take long for the self-taught, plant-based chef to answer that question in a big way. She put her media and marketing consultancy Might Be Vegan to work by kicking off a powerful campaign called Food Love, which delivers free, plant-based foods to people in need. Kimberly launched the campaign on her own at the end of April. The following month, she successfully recruited several partner meal delivery brands and 17 volunteers, who then teamed up with thousands of social workers across the US to direct meals to suitable recipients in the contiguous 48 states and Washington, DC.
We met up with Kimberly online to talk about her passion for plant-based food, food justice, and activism — and how it all came together in the middle of a pandemic to support and empower People of Color with Food Love.
Kimberly: I grew up watching a lot of food TV with my grandmother. As I got older, it became clear that food was my passion — from dreams of starring on the Food Network to cooking meals for athletes and celebrities. But I didn't study culinary arts in school. Instead, I graduated from North Carolina A&T State University with a degree in marketing. After spending several years working as a consultant for some of the largest corporations in North America, I found myself needing to recenter. It's then that I created Might Be Vegan. It was a return to that first love, the love for food and food justice — that is, my belief that everyone deserves access to nourishing, healthy food.
“WHEN I COOK FOOD, I COMBINE INTERNATIONAL INSPIRATION WITH MY SOUTHERN INFLUENCE.”
- Kimberly Renee
The Food Love campaign came about as a direct response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Data showed that People of Color were dying at twice the rate as their White counterparts due to complications associated with COVID-19. The reasons are numerous—from the greater risk of exposure due to the types of jobs more commonly held by BIPOC to their frequent lack of access to quality healthcare and the presence of pre-existing conditions.
An April study revealed that, by that point in time, 90 percent of people who had been hospitalized for coronavirus had one or more pre-existing conditions. Three out of the four listed conditions were diet-related and preventable: obesity, hypertension, and type 2 diabetes. These diet-related diseases are more prevalent in People of Color who are more likely to live in "food apartheid," that is, any area that lacks access to any (or affordable) fresh, healthy foods, such as fruits and vegetables, coupled with a high concentration of high-calorie, high-fat junk foods. Knowing all of this made it more apparent than ever that I needed to focus my time and energy on plant-based hunger relief as a short- and long-term intervention for the pandemic and beyond.
I'm originally from the South. I grew up consuming foods with rich, layered flavor profiles typical to traditional Southern fare that depends heavily on salt and fat (usually from animals).
The dishes that I create these days as a self-taught chef still have this same influence. I take inspiration from around the globe and then "Southernize" it.
I realize that some people — my mom, for example — are not very open to trying new things. Plant-based options are considered "weird." Instead of giving people something new to reject, I give them flavors they recognize, just made with plant-based ingredients or healthier cooking methods.
“AFTER GEORGE FLOYD WAS MURDERED, PEOPLE STARTED TO PAY ATTENTION TO THESE LONG-STANDING INJUSTICES.”
- Kimberly Renee
The toughest challenge with Food Love was just getting started. Many of the brands we wanted to work with didn't believe in the program enough to commit to it. Most either blatantly ignored the message or told me they were helping (gainfully employed) frontline workers.
Sure, the support of frontline workers is critical. But such an effort is not a need. It is a "thank you."
Food Love is about helping the at-risk and homebound, seniors without support systems, individuals going through cancer treatment, and undocumented workers who are in many ways holding up our economy but are unable to get the support they need because they don't have proper ID.
It's about helping folks living in food apartheid and those who don't have the transportation they need to make it to their closest food banks.
We're providing help to those who formerly supported a two-person household, but because of coronavirus now find themselves with college students and young adults back home and extra mouths to feed.
We're supporting people who were already underemployed, who now have reduced hours on minimum wage that barely paid the bills in the first place.
We're supporting families that are falling through the cracks, many of whom are BIPOC.
It took the murder of George Floyd for people to pay attention when someone says, "There's an injustice here, so let's do something about it."
Now brands that had once ignored me are stepping up, asking how they can help.
No, lettuce and chickpeas aren't going to cure coronavirus. But if I can introduce you to a new way of living in your time of need, there's an opportunity for a better quality of life. The food will help in the short term. But maybe the information you receive will save you in the long run.
I'm saying, "Hey, if you want to try to eat more plants, here are some ways that you can do that. Here's my e-book for free. Here are some filling, healthy recipes that are cheap to make and don't require a ton of ingredients. So when you're able to shop, and when you have access to food stamps, these are things that you could buy and eat."
“I can't solve coronavirus. I don't have a magic wand that will erase systemic racism. I can't do it all, but I can empower people to make better health decisions for themselves, and that's really what Food Love is about.”
- Kimberly Renee
One person told us about how her doctor wanted her to eat less meat and more plants, and even to consider becoming plant-based. She needed to lose weight to curtail her type 2 diabetes. Now she's using the vegan recipes we sent her, and it is working (from what I've heard from her referring advocate). Her story confirms what I thought. In areas of poverty, you have a high concentration of these diet-related, preventable illnesses, which are the leading factors for adverse coronavirus outcomes.
I can't solve coronavirus. I don't have a magic wand that will erase systemic racism. I can't do it all, but I can empower people to make better health decisions for themselves, and that's really what Food Love is about. It's more than a hunger relief program; it is about changing people's lives in the long term.