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Changing Attitudes About Beef Are A Threat To Kansas City's Black Cookouts

Michelle Tyrene Johnson
KCUR 89.3
At a vegetarian and vegan festival catering to black Kansas City-area residents, vendors cook up meatless meals.

Nicole Jackson came to the first Midwest SoulVeg Fest to get some inspiration on her slow path to being a vegan. She admitted that as a black person who grew up going to events centered on meat, it’s easier said than done.

“Sunday dinner after church, the cookouts, the barbeques, where we are just gathered by food that pulls us together,” said Jackson, who is from Olathe, Kansas.

Credit Michelle Tyrene Johnson / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Nicole Jackson attended the Midwest SoulVeg Fest, held in the 18th and Vine district in October.

Those habits were started by people who aren’t alive anymore, she said, but the cultural traditions live on and are complex, especially when meat production is a factor in climate change.

The black community’s cookout tradition doesn’t have to change, though, Gigi Jones said, especially with all the plant-based meat substitutions out there.

“I can still have my food the same way? I can still have my fries? We can still grill out and cook out and have fun and chit-chat it up and show each other love,” Jones said.

She said one of the ways to appeal to more black people is to use more inclusive messaging. That’s why she called her first vegan festival, which was held in October in Kansas City, Missouri, the Midwest SoulVeg Fest. She says about 2,000 people attended.

“The language has to be there for us to say, ‘Oh, this is for us. Oh, they’re talking about us.’ So when I use social media, when I use certain tools now, I make sure that language is not racially biased,” she said.

Credit Michelle Tyrene Johnson / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Gigi Jone, pictured at KCUR's studios, started the Midwest SoulVeg Fest.

Jones – also known as Gigi the Vegan – said she tries to teach people about healthy eating options, such as how to cook tasty food and detox the body of unhealthy food. But it’s also personal: She was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2015 and says that going vegan is a big part of why she’s cancer-free today.

“I’m not one of those radical vegans. I’m really not,” she said. “It’s my own personal journey, but I do try to help people to understand the impact it has on our environment.”

According the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average American eats more than 220 pounds of meat a year. And livestock emissions likely play a role in climate change.

Related: Climate Change 101 — A Kansas City Scientist Explains What's Going On

Timothy Searchinger, a professor and researcher at Princeton University, said while it’s complicated, the bottom line is that the world is warming faster than it should due to greenhouse gases.

He also said that the connection between meat consumption and climate change in part boils down to the use of land.

“Beef is the most land hungry form of food and basically for the world to be able to feed itself without clearing dramatically more forest the wealthy have to moderate their demand for beef,” he said.

Compared to the rest of the world, Searchinger added, the wealthy category he’s referring to includes America’s poor.

“I mean if everyone in the world ate as much beef as the average American,” he said, “we would need another planet.”

The proverbial black cookout might be the subject of jokes and think pieces alike (and it's not the same as Kansas City's affinity for barbeque). But, as Jones said, plant-based burgers and hot dogs won’t eliminate the cookout. Not the food, nor the family or the laughter. 

Throughout the month of November, KCUR is taking a hard look at how climate change is affecting (or will affect) the Kansas City metro region.

Michelle Tyrene Johnson is a reporter at KCUR 89.3 and part of the public radio collaborative Sharing America, covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Kansas City, St. Louis, Hartford, Connecticut and Portland, Oregon. She can be contacted at michelle@kcur.org.

Michelle is a reporter covering race, identity and culture and is an assistant talk show producer.
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
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