NEWARK, NJ — While most Newarkers are either picking up or handing out free Turkeys ahead of Thanksgiving 2019, one group is inviting the city to reject the meat-loving holiday tradition altogether. 

Hip Hop is Green New Jersey, an organization dedicated to bringing the holistic health movement to urban communities through music and programming, hosted the second installment of its Vegan Thanksgiving Dinner in the North Ward on Saturday, drawing a group of Newarkers to explore a new way of celebrating a national holiday with carnivorous consumption at its center. 

Chapter leader Rose Scott, a nurse for the New Jersey Department of Human Services by day, said much like the mainstream narrative of Thanksgiving as a whole, urban communities should approach the idea of meat as a festive must-have from a different vantage point. For Scott and her organization’s team leaders, the mission is less about spreading hardliner vegan dogma than it is creating pathways for people of color, especially youth, to make healthier lifestyle choices.  

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“The goal is to implement holistic health and help people transition to a healthy lifestyle through cultural and educational events and programs,” said Scott, who went vegan cold-turkey about six years ago. “It’s very important for community leadership to be part of it and to connect so that we can offer wellness to the community.”

With more urban farming and natural lifestyle companies popping up around the city, HHIG’s mission is one that’s spreading, Scott said. AEROFARMS in Newark provided the greens for Vegan Thanksgiving.

According to the organization Newark Cares, hypertension and diabetes are two of the most common health conditions in the city, disproportionately affecting the black and Latinx populations. The Center for Disease Control reports that black Americans are twice as likely to die of heart disease than whites and 50 percent more likely to have high blood pressure. Latinx communities suffer a 23 percent higher rate of obesity, a 24 percent increased likelihood of high blood pressure and a 50 percent higher death rate from diabetes compared to the white population. 

These issues are compounded by a lack of access to quality affordable health care, particularly for people who are undocumented. Newark Cares estimates that only 2/3 of the city is covered by insurance, with many of those who make up this population relying on Charity Care, Medicare and other social insurance programs. Scott said in her experience as a health care professional, there is very little attention devoted to holistic solutions or nutrition.

“At University Hospital, they have a [Burger King] right in the lobby. That’s crazy — if you have a person who just had heart surgery and there’s a fast food place in a hospital, it’s enabling,” said HHIG team leader Peter Ortiz. “Once you show people that they can control their health by making changes to the way they eat, and they hear stories and examples who have been able to reverse [disease], it’s empowering.”

Dox Diggla, a hip hop artist and meditation teacher who owns the holistic health service MED-ed, is one such plant-based convert who says changing his diet helped him overcome the statistics. At 23 years old, the lifelong Newarker was diagnosed with high blood pressure and kidney failure, putting Diggla on a path to dialysis by age 30. 

With doctors at a loss as to the cause of Diggla’s condition, he began losing his vision and eventually went blind in his left eye at 28 from an imbalance in his renal gland. 

“They said I would never be able to improve my kidney function beyond 17%. All the foods I grew up eating that I thought were so healthy — rice, all those carbs, fried chicken and fish — all those things we eat without thinking about what it’s doing to our system,” he said. “It all created a powder keg. I was not supposed to be able to fix anything, just tolerate it and take these medications for as long as possible.”

Today, a healthy, plant-based Diggla uses events like Vegan Thanksgiving to engage both sides of the aisle in an effort to show non-vegans that great food and flavor are possible without harming the body. Diggla and HHIG strive to meet people where they are, and in cities like Newark, music and local institutions like churches and schools allow the organization and its leaders to leverage the city’s culture to carry out the mission.

Heather Maner, a teacher at KIPP Academy and HHIG member, said she sees firsthand how poor diets and a lack of healthy options in schools detriment students’ academic performance and self-image. In Newark, where more than half of students rely on school for two meals a day, many will go without any healthy foods for extended periods of time, according to Maner. 

“I want our kids to be healthy. There are about one in four kids in my school that have chronic illness, such as diabetes or something of that nature, and I see them struggling with academics and how it impacts them. In terms of people working through their trauma, especially in middle school, I see my kids struggling with self-confidence. I see myself in them when I was younger. I was really overweight,” Maner said, adding that switching to a plant-based lifestyle helped her lose more than 70 pounds within a year.  

Through individuals like Maner, HHIG is able to deliver its message directly to its audience. Scott said she introduced Maner’s students to vegan macaroni and cheese to great fanfare, showing students that they do not have to sacrifice their favorite foods to improve their diets. 

While veganism is often seen as inaccessible in urban environments, or that it betrays cultural culinary traditions, Ortiz says that mentality overlooks fact. Creating a sense of community through Vegan Thanksgiving and other HHIG events is a major part of making a real difference in the health outcomes of the city’s populace. 

“We’re out here to show that it’s not just a ‘white thing.’ It never has been. If you look at the history of plant-based eating, a lot of communities in Africa have plant-based diets. Everything that has been made here, our volunteers put together. It’s not expensive,” Ortiz said, citing his vegan version of the Puerto Rican holiday drink, coquito, as evidence. 

He added that Vegan Thanksgiving is an opportunity to show people who may live in food deserts, or areas lacking grocery stores, that much of what’s available to them can be made vegan. HHIG is also a crucial touchpoint and support system for individuals looking to make the change.

Going forward, Scott said she hopes to grow HHIG and bring it to other areas of the state. She is focused on making a larger impact by lobbying for state-mandated nutrition education for doctors and nurses, whom she says typically fail to explore holistic options to treat patients. 

As for HHIG’s presence in Newark, she has plans to stage Vegan Thanksgiving for many years to come and continue showing Newarkers that anyone can adopt healthy changes into their lives. 

“Not everyone will transition in the same way. Not everyone comes from the same cultural background. Newark is a melting pot of different people and cultures. In meeting people where they are, you get more buy-in and compliance rather than pointing a finger,” she said.