“Start with your mind first, and your mouth will follow.” This is advice Tracye McQuirter ’88 often gives about switching to a vegan diet. “The most important first step that I teach is to be crystal-clear about why you’re going vegan,” says the nutritionist. “Is it for your health, the animals, the environment, spirituality, social justice, faith, a combination of these, or for other reasons?”
McQuirter started thinking about these reasons for veganism at a 1986 lecture at Amherst by civil rights and human rights activist Dick Gregory. He had given up meat, eggs, dairy and other animal products in the 1960s as part of his commitment to nonviolence, with guidance from Alvenia Fulton, a prominent naturopath who had opened a health food center on Chicago’s south side in 1958.
Tracye McQuirter ’88
Major: Black studies
“African Americans are pioneers in the plant-based food movement.”
“African Americans are pioneers in the plant-based food movement,” says McQuirter. And in the years after Gregory’s talk, she became one such pioneer herself. Amid what she describes as Washington, D.C.’s “large and thriving Black vegan community” in the late ’80s and ’90s, she transformed her own diet and began giving talks and cooking demonstrations at schools, churches and other community organizations. She went on to earn a master’s in public health nutrition. With her sister, Marya, she founded the first vegan website for African Americans, BlackVegetarians.com, in 1997, and an animal rights organization for people of color called Justice for All Species in 2000.
Three decades later, she is focused on the nationwide crisis in Black women’s health. According to the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women campaign, nearly half of all African American women have heart disease, and 50,000 die from it every year. Recent years’ reports from the Centers for Disease Control indicate that, compared to white women, Black women are 60 percent more likely to have high blood pressure, and are at increased risk of stroke and diabetes. And now COVID-19 is killing African Americans at a disproportionately high rate.
Systemic white supremacy is the root cause of these health disparities, McQuirter says, citing studies published in Human Nature and Science about the stresses of racism and discrimination in health care services—and the fast-food industry’s targeting of Black communities exacerbates the problem. The best long-term solution “is for organizations and individuals to continue working to end these structural injustices.” But she also urges Black women to take control of their own health through a plant-based diet, which—along with exercising at least 30 minutes a day, being smoke-free and maintaining a healthy weight—can reduce the risk of developing chronic diseases by almost 80 percent, according to research published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.
That’s the idea behind her new 10,000 Black Vegan Women initiative, through which aspiring vegans will get shopping lists, meal plans, cooking videos and online community support. McQuirter said in August that nearly 7,500 women had signed up for the free program (at 10000BlackVeganWomen.com), well on the way to her goal of 10,000 by the official launch this fall. “I email weekly tips and guidance to help people transition to vegan foods in the meantime,” she says.
In an April 28, 2020, profile by Courtland Milloy in The Washington Post, McQuirter speaks of the many mothers she’s advised, who all want to nurture their own health and the health of their children: “When you give people the information, they will find the vegan food store; they will find the community garden and the farmers market. They will find a patch of earth and start growing vegetables; put a pot of soil on the balcony and start growing herbs.”
10,000 Black Vegan Women marks the 10th anniversary of McQuirter’s first book, By Any Greens Necessary. “I wrote my second book, Ageless Vegan, in 2018, with my 83-year-old mother, who went vegan with me 33 years ago and is still vegan and going strong,” she says: Mary McQuirter exercises six days a week and, unlike her elderly siblings, has no chronic disease.
“Helping people go vegan so they can live a long and healthy life they love is my passion,” McQuirter says. “I will be doing this work for as long as I can and as long as it’s needed.”