In the 1960s, as Berkeley became a hotbed of anti-war and “hippie” countercultural thinking, Oakland was cooking up something with a slightly different flavor: the Black Panther Party, most famous for its revolutionary politics, which also offered a free breakfast program for local youth.
Erika Hazel, a Berkeley-born and Vallejo-raised vegan advocate, is inspired by these traditions when she thinks about food and health awareness in 2022. As a K-12 school therapist in Oakland, adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco and vegan food blogger, Hazel—better known as “The Bizerkeley Vegan”—has set out to ensure food and health education remain accessible for those who have systemically been excluded from the conversation.
“Demystifying veganism is key to our future,” says Hazel, noting that she wasn’t exposed to the vegan lifestyle at all growing up in Vallejo. She initially became interested in veganism for her personal health, noting a history of cancer in her family that she hoped to reduce with a plant-based diet.
“Big meat factory farming is bad for our environment. We’re a meat-dependent society and it’s not good for us, especially for folks of color. My school is predominantly Black and Latinx, and seeing what they eat, it’s adding to the bigger equation of unhealthy habits.”
Hazel’s work is in line with a long legacy of food justice in the Bay Area. Aside from the Black Panther Party’s efforts, the Edible Schoolyard project brought gardening and food justice concepts to Berkeley middle-schoolers in a program that has since been replicated in New York and elsewhere. Nowadays, this lineage has continued with the recent efforts of local orgs fighting for Berkeley to become the first city in the country to commit to vegan options.
In this light, you can’t dismiss the ongoing journey of a homegrown proponent like Hazel, who shares her love for being vegan beyond her family’s dinner table. For her, the revolution doesn’t begin with what happens in Washington D.C.; it begins with what happens in our bodies, and the foods we choose to eat.