Central Coast-based Food Empowerment Project informs and equips locals to make healthful, impactful choices

Photo courtesy of the Food Empowerment Project
FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Lauren Ornelas hopes to use the Food Empowerment Project, which recently moved to San Luis Obispo, to inspire and inform people about where their food comes from and how to live healthy lives.

When you take a bite out of a sandwich or sip on a coffee, how often do you think about where that food comes from?

It’s a question that served as the genesis for lauren Ornelas (Ornelas does not capitalize her first name) when she founded the Food Empowerment Project.

“I founded the Food Empowerment Project in 2007 as a way to connect various injustices in the food industry and not only inform people about them but give them tools to help make a difference,” Ornelas said.

The company originally began its work in Santa Clara County before relocating to San Jose in 2021. Now based in San Luis Obispo, the Latinx-led organization has made its 2023 mission to inform local residents about where their food comes from, why it comes from there, and whether it’s ethically sourced.

“We are new to SLO but overjoyed to be here,” Ornelas said with a laugh. “But we do feel our work is important, especially for a community that is focused on nature conservation and having a powerful impact on the climate crisis.”

Although based in SLO, Ornelas told the Sun that the Food Empowerment Project began its current work on the Central Coast when it raised funds for children of farmers in Santa Maria. She credits that early connection as one of the driving reasons why the project chose to make the Central Coast its home. 

The Food Empowerment Project has four core values—focusing its education efforts on these topics, according to Ornelas, because they are the ones that often impact people without their ever realizing it.

The first is the concept of practicing veganism for the sake of animals.

“There is so much cruelty in the world today, and for those who have access to healthy foods, not consuming animals is a way to lessen that,” she said. “It is good for them, the planet, and your health.”

But sometimes being a vegan is difficult in certain cultures, and that’s where the Food Empowerment Project offers a solution through their specialized recipe websites. According to Ornelas, these websites are designed to offer different cultures from around the world access to vegan recipes that make use of ethically sourced ingredients.

“As a proud Xicanx, it’s important to me to create [these websites] to show our foods without animal ingredients while still embracing our culture,” she said.

The Food Empowerment Project currently has websites for Mexican, Filipino, Laotian, and Chinese food, which all offer some form of translation to the respective languages to make the sites as accessible as possible.

Another core value is education and support regarding farmers and farmworkers.

“In my family, we were raised to respect the [boycotts when workers were striking] and so including farm-working justice is an important part of our work,” Ornelas said. “Farmworkers feed everyone.”

She said that the Food Empowerment Project organizes a yearly school supply drive for children of farmworkers and advocates for legislation and regulatory changes that benefit farmworkers. 

An additional core value focuses on how the Food Empowerment Project can end what Ornelas describes as food apartheid—or the Caucasian dominance of access to healthier foods, which are less accessible to people of color.

“Just as important as the rest is our work on lack of access to healthy foods in Black and brown communities,” she said. “We do physical surveying on the availability of fresh, canned, and frozen produce and other information [as well as] focus groups to help us understand the barriers each community faces and what they see as potential solutions.”

Ornelas said that locals can visit foodispower.org for more information on the various programs the Food Empowerment Project is developing as well as how they can get involved in its causes.

“We truly hope to connect with those in the community who are interested in any area of our work,” she said. “We know that the more we work together, the stronger we are to improve the current food system and make it more just for all beings.”


• The Santa Barbara County Association of Governments (SBCAG) launched a planning effort to update the Coordinated Public Transit-Human Services Transportation Plan. The coordinated plan is the region’s blueprint for planning, funding, and coordinating strategies to serve people with disabilities, residents 65 years or older, veterans, economically disadvantaged, or limited English speakers facing transportation hurdles in getting from one place to another. The aim of collecting feedback is to identify opportunities and recommendations to improve mobility and the efficiency of the public transportation network in Santa Barbara County. Feedback can be provided by taking an online survey or attending online listening sessions on Oct. 12 at noon, Oct. 16 at 10 a.m., or Oct. 17 at noon. Email [email protected] or call <a href=”tel:1-805-961-8900”>(805) 961-8900</a> to register to attend.

Reach Staff Writer Adrian Vincent Rosas from the Sun’s sister paper, New Times, at [email protected].

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