A late blooming vegan, Naomi Hallum didn’t always abstain from animal products. Now the CEO of the nonprofit Million Dollar Vegan, Hallum has turned her passion for plant-based dieting into a career.
We caught up via email with Hallum, who recently relocated to Santa Barbara, to discuss Million Dollar Vegan, her journey with veganism, and the implications of plant-based diets.
Can you tell me a little bit about the origin of Million Dollar Vegan and what motivated you to become involved? I wasn’t always interested in veganism. I stopped eating meat as a child due to my deep affection for the animals I grew up around, but up until five years ago, I still ate fish, eggs, and dairy pretty much every day. Having spent my twenties living in Spain, I was all about the “Mediterranean diet.” But then something happened. My husband, a Lt. Commander in the U.S. Navy, sat down with me to watch a Netflix documentary called Cowspiracy — a film that lifts the curtain on the industries causing the most harm to our planet — and it literally changed our lives. We couldn’t believe how little we’d known about the impact our food choices were having on things other than ourselves, and from there we both decided to remove all animal products from our diets and to start educating ourselves about all of the other issues connected to our food. We watched documentaries like The Game Changers, What The Health, Earthlings, and Seaspiracy, read numerous books, and even took courses in nutrition — and it became very clear to me that I needed to start doing something to help make the world a better place. And that’s what becoming the CEO of Million Dollar Vegan has allowed me to do.
MDV was founded with the goal of helping people understand the connection between the foods they consume and some of the biggest challenges facing humanity today: global warming, deforestation, species extinction, environmental racism, chronic illness, water pollution, zoonotic pandemics, and animal suffering. We achieve this goal through various campaigns, the most famous of which is challenging individuals of significant influence to lead by example in going vegan for one million dollars (hence the name!). With the support of Sir Paul McCartney and Joaquin Phoenix, we publicly challenged Pope Francis to “Fight Climate Change with Diet Change” by going vegan for Lent, in return for a $1M donation to the charity of this choice — and His Holiness responded with his blessing!
Do you have an anecdote of an experience that has significantly shaped MDV’s work thus far? Over recent years, several things have helped shape the mission of MDV. In terms of personal experiences, those include witnessing the Brazilian rainforest disappear as we continue to clear it for cattle grazing (80 percent of deforestation is driven by animal agriculture), finding a dead sea turtle bound in fishing line on my local beach (one of an estimated 4,600 turtles killed every year due to fishing), meeting and interviewing more than 100 people who’ve reversed life-threatening chronic illnesses with a plant-based diet, and living through a devastating pandemic that, like 75 percent of all infectious diseases that have been transmitted to humans, is the result of how we use and treat animals. These experiences not only reinforce the work that I’m doing, but also the mission of MDV in promoting a lifestyle that safeguards humanity, our planet, and all the animals we share it with.
MDV has a mission to deliver one million meals by 2022. Can you explain the inspiration behind this initiative as well as the meal distribution process? Having access to healthy foods is a privilege that many of us don’t realize we have, and COVID-19 has greatly exacerbated the global hunger and food insecurity crisis by leaving millions of people without enough to eat. As an intersectional organization, MDV wanted — and needed — to address this issue. That’s why we decided to funnel our funding into a vegan food aid initiative: one that would bring nutritious meals to essential workers and underserved communities around the world. To make this happen, we buy meals from local vegan restaurants and distribute them with the help of our staff and local volunteers. We recently delivered 1,000 hot meals to homeless shelters, LGBT youth centers, BIPOC communities, aid workers, and hospital staff in Los Angeles with the help of 25 volunteers on bicycles dressed as farmed animals — which was hard work but lots of fun! We’ve also delivered thousands of meals across Latin America, Europe, India, and Africa. Through these giveaways, we aim to empower people to help prevent future pandemics — most of which, historically, have come from animals and animal products — and also demonstrate that vegan food is not only accessible and delicious, it’s actually key to building a safe, equitable, and sustainable future for our children.
Why is MDV’s mission important for everyday people? Consuming animal products is often described as a “personal choice,” but it supports industries driving issues that affect ALL of us: from climate change, racism, and soaring healthcare costs to global pandemics and the death of our life-sustaining oceans and rainforests. Contrary to popular belief, going vegan is also very affordable. Studies have found that it’s about $750 a year cheaper than a meat-based diet. That being said, I totally understand people’s resistance to changing their eating habits, because it’s something they enjoy and have done a certain way their whole lives. I was also one of those people who said they could “never go vegan” and who felt veganism was “too extreme” and “too difficult.” But having now been vegan for five years, I can honestly say that it has done wonders for my health, allowed me to fall in love with recipes, foods, and flavors that I’d never even tried before, and given me a great sense of purpose. My only regret is that I didn’t try it sooner. We all live in a world where we’re bombarded with horrifying reports on issues we feel helpless to combat. Most of us have no idea about the impact we, as individuals, can have on those issues simply by changing what we consume. That’s why I feel that MDV’s mission to educate people is really important — because it ultimately empowers people like myself who want to help drive positive change in the world but don’t know how to.
What is MDV currently working on? We’re about 360,000 meals in to delivering one million meals around the world, so working with vegan restaurants and local community groups to get meals to those that need them is a big focus of ours right now. We’re currently delivering meals in 18 countries and counting. We’re also planning to launch another $1M campaign through which we’ll challenge someone very famous and influential to go vegan for a month in order to draw attention to the social justice issues perpetuated by what we consume. Because of the ongoing pandemic, we can’t yet confirm when that next global campaign will launch, but I promise you’ll be hearing about it from all angles when it does!
What impact has MDV’s work had thus far, and what does the campaign hope to accomplish in the next few years? Since launching in 2019, we’ve inspired more than 160,000 people to go vegan with our support. We’ve produced hundreds of videos and online resources in eight different languages, and through those, we’ve educated and empowered millions of people around the world to make kinder, safer, and more sustainable food choices. We’ve also raised thousands of dollars for animal sanctuaries, donated thousands of meals in over 100 different cities, and worked with many famous individuals. It’s been a wild ride!
You can see a roundup of our achievements in this video.
Going forward, we’d like to inspire even more people to choose vegan — whether that be for their health, the animals, the environment, or simply because they want to try out something new. We’d also like to support small-scale animal farmers in transitioning toward more sustainable plant-farming. There are fewer American farmers today than there were during the Civil War, despite America’s population being nearly 11 times greater. This is not an accident; it’s a business model of large corporations. The ultimate dream of the industrialized animal agriculture is for “farms” to be fully automated, which is why transitioning toward plant-based foods and sustainable farming practices would create many more jobs than it would end. Even if people don’t feel like they can go vegan full-time, we want to support them in doing whatever they can. Going vegan for one meal a day, or one day a week, can be very powerful.
Is there one challenge that stands out to you as the biggest obstacle to MDV’s work? The main obstacle for us is combating all of the misinformation that’s out there and trying to inspire change in a world that is generally very resistant to change. But finding commonality among our many differences — in our shared desire for a safe and equitable food system and a livable planet for our children to grow up on — helps us to get our message across. The second obstacle is proving to people that vegans don’t just eat lettuce! Our food giveaway initiative has been great for that, because after one bite of what today’s vegan restaurants have to offer, people are absolutely hooked!
What is your favorite aspect of MDV’s work? I love that MDV’s approach to advocacy is both inclusive and nonjudgmental. We are not here to offend people, but to inspire them. We don’t coerce people; we inform them. And we aim not to divide, but to unite. All we’re really calling for is for people to act with kindness and integrity, and with an increased duty of care toward others. We’re promoting a global shift to plant-based food systems as a practical means to creating a more compassionate, sustainable, and equitable world — a world that defends the right of children and future generations to a viable future.
Has moving to Santa Barbara influenced and/or inspired your work at MDV in any way? Absolutely! I love Santa Barbara. The collective effort of the people living here to keep our beaches and oceans clean, to rid the city of single-use plastics, and to help combat climate change is really inspiring. I also love the wide variety of creative and delicious vegan food that’s on offer, and I’m really excited to work with restaurants here on food giveaways for the local area. Satellite, Modern Times, and Oliver’s of Montecito have some of the best vegan food I’ve ever eaten. When you live in such a naturally resplendent corner of the world, it makes your desire to protect the natural world even greater. It certainly has in my case.