The sky turned overcast Thursday afternoon as people lined up in the McKinley Park parking lot in south Stockton to receive free groceries and vegan-friendly Mexican cuisine.

But the weather did not deter the spirits of volunteers as they handed out food and smiles to those who made their way to the corner of 8th and South El Dorado streets for the “Fight for Food Justice!” event.

Carlos Bryant, co-owner of the Las Maris Vegan food truck and catering business, spearheaded the event and took great pride in being able to bring an internationally-renowned — and recognized — animal rights organization like PETA to little ol’ Stockton. 

“I’m really excited,” said Bryant, who served attendees vegan chicken burritos and watermelon agua fresca at no cost. “And I feel like if we can do this, we can do so much more.”

Bryant was joined by PETA workers as well as Stockton City Councilmember Kimberly Warmsley and America’s Got Talent winner Brandon Leake, both of whom have spoken out about the prevalence of food desserts in the city of Stockton and advocated for change.

PETA says it’s been teaming up with local vegan restaurants and food justice advocates to bring this vegan food giveaway to cities across the country as part of a national campaign that calls on government officials to stop subsidizing the meat, egg and dairy industries with taxpayer money. Delana Barrett, PETA traveling campaigner, said the government should instead invest those “billions of dollars” in incentivising grocers to stock more fresh produce and other “humane” meal options.

“They’re destroying the planet and needlessly killing millions of animals every single year,” Barrett said. “We want everyone to have access to healthy, delicious, cruelty-free vegan foods.”

Stockton resident Gina Guerra, who lives near Oak Park in south Stockton, heard about the event on social media, where she follows Las Maris Vegan.

“We’ve been wanting to try them, so we came over,” Guerra said, adding that she tries to stay away from companies that mistreat animals. “Vegan food has come a long way. It tastes so much better. You can actually eat it without feeling you are missing anything.”

Both Barrett and Warmsley pointed out that Stockton is one of many communities affected by food insecurity and that vegan food options should be widely available to everyone. 

Though she is not a vegan herself, Warmsley noted that in the face of climate issues and recent inflation in food prices nationwide, pointing particularly to the skyrocketing cost of eggs as an example, eating meat may not always be a viable option for everyone. The south Stockton representative said many people are also still recovering from the financial effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the recent record-breaking storms that caused widespread damage and flooding in the area. 

“People don’t realize how inexpensive it is to eat healthier, to … eat (non) meat options,” Warmsley said of why she partnered with PETA for this vegan food giveaway. “We want to make sure that the communities that need it the most also are provided that service and that opportunity.” 

It’s also about understanding what is going into your body and promoting a healthier lifestyle, she said, as well as meeting people where they are through mobile options.

Stockton resident Karolina Segura said she was just passing McKinley Park and saw volunteers passing out vegetables. Each person was given a green, PETA-logoed reusable bag filled with fresh fruits, vegetables, shelf-stable tofu and dried lentil soup mix, as well as bilingual leaflets highlighting the benefits of vegan eating and “healthy, affordable recipes.”

“I thought they were selling them, but they said they were giving it away,” Segura said. “I think something like this is so good because our community right now needs help. It’s nice they have come out to help us.”

Leake joined volunteers to hand out groceries to the dozens of residents who lined up Thursday afternoon. He said the eastern and southern areas of the city are in a perpetual food desert and noted the importance of a food justice event like this. 

“Being able to have a group come out here and not only just provide food but healthy food, for people to be able to come grab, take home,” Leake said. “The only next step for us now is to make sure that we start teaching these food classes to our young folks to learn how to cook these types of items.”

Warmsley says that south Stockton in particular doesn’t normally have a lot of access and selection to these kinds of foods.

“So we want to make sure that we’re encouraging our state and local officials to invest in bringing more healthier retail in areas like south Stockton that have suffered for a very long time,” she said.

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