Friday, May 11, 2018

10 Questions: Vegan Rockstar with Ellen Jaffe Jones...


Ellen Jaffe Jones
is just one of my favorite people, a powerhouse of vitality, enthusiasm, confidence and an infectious passion for vegan outreach. She also happens to be one of the most inspiring people I know, proving to the world that we can age without getting old. At 65, Ellen is a prolific author and a high-achieving athlete, motivating people around the world with her passion for living her best life and encouraging the same joie de vivre in others. I am honored to feature Ellen Jaffe Jones as this week’s Vegan Rock Star. 

1. First of all, we’d love to hear your “vegan evolution” story. How did you start out? Did you have any early influences or experiences as a young person that in retrospect helped to pave your path?

My aunt died of breast cancer in our home when I was 5. She had come home from the hospital to die and suffered a painful, agonizing death. I remember my relatives crying and wailing. It was traumatic. My cousin, a year older than me, was left motherless and has suffered all her life as a result.

I almost died of a colon blockage when I was 28. It was more painful than natural childbirth three times. The ER docs said they’d never seen a blockage so large and that I would need to be on meds the rest of my life. It was the same year my sister developed breast cancer and I thought, “I’m way too young to be on any medicine the rest of my life.” I was a TV investigative reporter and figuring out the truth about food became the investigative reporting job of my life.

I ran to health food store and read all 5 books on fiber, because that’s all there was then. My mom and my other sister would go on to get breast cancer. I was the only adult female without. We became part of the original Myriad Genetics breast cancer gene studies. I drove my sister’s blood samples to the airport where it was flown in a refrigerated container back to the Nevada research site. They wanted to exhume dead bodies of other relatives. My family didn’t approve that. The results of the study developed the now routine genetic testing for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 breast cancer genes. Since only 10% of all breast cancer is genetic, geneticists have told me that 2 of the 4 cases in my family were environmentally triggered because they were late in life.

As is the case with many women my age, I went macrobiotic first, then vegetarian, and as the writings of Drs. Neal Barnard and John McDougall surfaced, then vegan. When I became pregnant, again as was often case in my era, we were told our unborn children needed whey protein for brain development. I was also told to do some things differently or I would become like everyone else in my family who by then, had all developed heart disease, diabetes and eventually, Alzheimer’s. I began to think I had been born into the sickest family in America. As the youngest of 3 daughters, I spent my childhood in hospitals for weeks at a time watching relatives suffer and die. I kept thinking that there must be a better away.

I often get asked, “Why do you run?” The answer always: I run from disease. I had been told that breastfeeding helps to prevent breast cancer. Since my sister had breastfed her 4 children 6 months each, I figured I would have to do it a lot longer if I stood a chance of beating the odds. I became a La Leche League leader, the volunteer international non-profit that takes the middle of the night calls, “my baby won’t nurse.” I would make house calls to help new moms and newborns, and lead monthly meetings on how to breastfeed. I was asked to speak at national conferences on how to balance a career and motherhood. As the lights started going off about how our own species specific milk was the best for our brain and body development, I began to raise the question of the why La Leche League cookbooks were full of meat and cows’ milk recipes. “We can’t mix causes,” I was told. “Breastfeeding is controversial enough.” Indeed it was. I lived in St. Louis, where a woman was arrested in a shopping mall parking lot for breastfeeding.

I served veggie burgers at school and ate vegetarian, then vegan again when I divorced and was on my own. As a TV reporter, I attended the St. Louis Animal Rights Team meetings. I arranged news coverage when I could, but saw how male managers would only give AR issues coverage when PETA was protesting in faux furs and little coverage at fur stores in January. I boycotted circuses with my babes in arms, literally in baby carriers. As it comes full circle, ever since I’ve been on the vegfest circuit, I’ve been begging my St. Louis START friends I haven’t seen in 20 years to organize one. It’s finally happening this August, and I’m honored that they’ve chosen the hometown girl to speak. In 1986, a St. Louis newspaper did a story showing the beans and grains on my kitchen counter with the headline, “TV Consumer Reporter Wants to Open Healthy Fast Food Chain.” They quoted me, “I’m not really a health nut.” But I totally was that and was always on the defensive, reacting to the label my family had already given. I was viewed as the black sheep by some. One relative made fun of my apple crisp. It was a fine morning years later to see PCRM using that same recipe from one of my books on their website for a Thanksgiving menu. Four of my cousins, seeing what happened in our family, have now gone vegan.      

2. Imagine that you are pre-vegan again: how could someone have talked to you and what could they have said or shown you that could have been the most effective way to have a positive influence on you moving toward veganism?

If more of the medical information and research was available then, it would have been a no-brainer. There are so many movies and books available now that weren’t then. When doctors or nurses tell you that if you don’t consume whey protein during pregnancy, your babies will have brain damage, that was tough. One thing I share now that gets attention. Women who used to beat me like crazy 10 years go in races aren’t even running anymore. They’re all meat eaters and they’ve told me “I just can’t run anymore because of my hip (fill in the blank…knee, ankle, toe) from arthritis.” Well-documented research now shows that meat-eaters get arthritis. Animal protein inflames the joints. A vegan diet, known for its alkaline, anti-inflammatory properties keeps aging joints well-lubricated and functioning. More and more senior athletes tell me at races now they have become vegan for this reason. Whatever gets you there. 

3. What have you found to be the most effective way to communicate your message as a vegan? For example, humor, passion, images, etc.?

Writing and speaking. Telling my story, which I knew early on was pretty rare, any way I can. I was known during my career at Smith Barney as a “marketing maven.” I focused on socially responsible investing and helping clients avoid companies that tested on animals. I told my story there. I was such an oddball in the Morton’s Steakhouse crowd, colleagues shared they thought I must be working as an undercover reporter for “60 Minutes.” I have been a pretty average runner since I began making lifestyle changes at 28. When I moved to Florida, I started competing again and discovered that many meat eaters my age, as I mentioned earlier, were developing arthritis. Much to my surprise, I started placing in my age group, something I’d never done decades before. My pace was fast enough that I got asked to be an assistant high school girl’s track and field coach. I had been a trained PCRM (Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine) Cancer Project cooking instructor and brought food to workouts. The kids liked the food so much they asked me to do classes in my home to teach their parents how to cook vegan.

At Smith Barney, I began thinking that nobody had ever crunched the numbers on every single recipe in a cookbook. In 2008, I began tracking prices as I had as a consumer reporter tracking the Consumer Price Index. The idea of Eat Vegan on $4 a Day was born. Because I was a first-time author, I was turned down for an entire year before my publisher said “yes.” We have now done six books, with a seventh in production. People ask me, “How do you crank out a book every year?” Easy, I say. I used to write, shoot, produce and edit six stories a day in Des Moines TV. A book a year is a luxury.

I’m always brainstorming new myths to bust in my books. I also say that #runningismyactivism, as I like to hashtag. I spent a bit of money to produce some very bright, run-friendly, moisture-wicking shirts with my book covers on them. At races, runners would come up to me and stare at the “Eat Vegan on $4 a Day” cover on my shirt and say, “Right…” Or “How?” I saw that it was an opportunity to engage others. I started selling my books at races, and then a few race directors asked me to table at the post-race parties just to offer an antidote to the bacon races and food. Yes, there are “Bacon 5Ks.” Drives me crazy. I then started training and qualified (not easy to do) for the National Senior Games. I ranked nationally in sprinting in 2013, and did really well in 2017 placing 3rd in the USW65-69 4x100 meter relay 5th in the 800M, 7th in the 1500 and 400M. I wore my “Eat Vegan” shirt at Nationals, and am meeting more athletes who tell me they too, are vegan now. I also have “decorated” my veganmobile with the largest magnets Vistaprint has to offer. Each magnet is one of my catchy book covers that my publisher designed. Every time I’m out, someone stops and asks if I’m a catering service. Next life. But I do sell books out of my trunk that way. ;)

4. What do you think are the biggest strengths of the vegan movement?

Our growing numbers and appealing to the good in us all. As Anne Frank said, “In spite of everything, people are really good at heart.” The power of social media for sure. Every time I posted the powerful short clip, “Dairy is Scary,” I would get several people commenting under the video, “OK, that did it. Never going back.” There are so many great videos and movies out there now that don’t lie. Once those images are part of our brain and hearts, we hopefully don’t ever go back. Research suggests that those of us who go vegan for the animals tend to not revert as much as those who chose veganism for health. But often, people who become vegan for health do connect the dots to animals and the environment. However we get there, it’s all good. Younger members of our movement are our future. Young people grew up in the YouTube generation, so those numbers are growing. The videos of the youngest children connecting with their earliest feelings of compassion is helping older generations to reconnect with those lost, beautiful feelings. The videos of the worst kind of animal abuse are out there, too. You can’t turn your head and pretend you didn’t see. It’s hard to stick your head in the sand these days if you are open to watching.

5. What do you think are our biggest hindrances to getting the word out effectively?

Money. “60 Minutes” and other news magazine shows have done stories on the powerful meat/dairy lobbies that pay big PR firms to get their propaganda out. The most annoying to me was as a running coach/personal trainer, I got invited one year to a conference where a seminar was offered, “Marketing Chocolate Milk to Children: The Ideal Recovery Drink.” I checked the Dairy Council’s website and they blatantly said that this was their current campaign. I have crossed finish lines where the Dairy Council has provided free milk cartons to every finisher. Gag! The meat/dairy industry stands to lose lots of money in this war. As we are learning about our US election process, big money is paid to try to use propaganda to sway the masses without disclosure of the source or who paid for the indoctrination attempts.

These are scary times and as with everything, I recommend sticking to reliable, truly “fair and balanced” media outlets that have been doing great reporting jobs for decades. We also need to recognize that we come to the table with different agendas. A little more singing of “Kumba Ya” is in order so that we don’t conquer and divide with all of our different messages. The meat and dairy industries would love nothing more for us to implode over some of these disagreements. The animals don’t have time for us to figure out some of the minutia that consumes our daily arguments. Pick battles carefully.

6. All of us need a “why vegan” elevator pitch. We’d love to hear yours.

05 ride: “It’s best for your health, the health of the planet and environment.” :15-:30 ride: Adding to that, read The China Study, watch “Forks Over Knives” and “What the Health,” or read anything by the most respected vegan doctors. We know so much more now with all the technology and research. If you need any help developing your athletic or sports program, join my vegan runners page or message me.” If it is a running or other appropriate venue, I’ll often say, “I’m a nationally ranked sprinter and have placed in 134 (or whatever the current number is) 5Ks or longer for my age group ‘just on plants,’ and I’m 65. Sometimes I’ll flex my biceps and say, “Does it look like I have a protein deficiency? Do you know anyone who has one?” At this point, the reaction always is some form of “wow.” I have wrestled with using my body and health to make my point. But in doing cooking classes, I learned that many people, especially as we age, get desperate on their deathbeds and are focused on dealing with the kinds of ills and issues that going vegan can really help. The truth is, I’m always looking for ways into people’s hearts and minds. I happen to be OK at running in a running community where the meat and dairy industries have paid heavily to poison minds. We all should use our passions, time and strengths to fight this uphill battle.

7. Who are the people and what are the books, films, websites and organizations that have had the greatest influence on your veganism and your continuing evolution?

Ruth Heidrich and her books have been my athletic role model. She’s overcome so much. I have the deepest admiration for Dr. Neal Barnard who is president of Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. I heard him speak in St. Louis in the early days and knew he had a powerful message and delivery. After I left TV, I was delighted that he took me up on my offer to do media training for his staff and other health care professionals. I was surprised at his openness, humility and incredible, endless ability to listen to others and help them with their issues related to veganism. He would bike to the office at dawn and still to this day works tirelessly at everything he does. There are way too many to mention, but the usual cast: Any books, movies, and videos about or done by Dr. John McDougall, Dr. Michael Greger and, and T. Colin Campbell’s The China Study, “Forks Over Knives” “Earthlings,” “Vanishing of the Bees,” “Peaceable Kingdom.” Dr. Joel Kahn, the cardiologist I invited to write a few medical chapters for my Vegan Sex book, is also doing a great job of talking about the research showing the lower body/upper body blood flow connection. I wrote after experiencing a lifelong history of partners who had erectile dysfunction, followed by a vegan who was totally the opposite, that ED is the precursor to heart disease, and what’s good for the heart is good for other parts.

As a general rule, I’m careful not to recommend websites or individuals who trying too hard to sell things. While it’s important, if possible, to make a living doing your passion related to veganism, if it’s too hard a sell, like with anything, the public thinks you’re selling snake oil. At a recent vegfest, the booth next to me had someone yelling, “Coconut water…hydrate or die!” Two days before, Dr. Greger had just released his video complete with research, as always, saying water was every bit as good, and certainly way cheaper than coconut water. Generally, if you eat the whole plant, or part of the plant in its natural form, you don’t need to spend money on some processed form of it or donate to huckster who is looking for a fast buck. Generally, vegan websites and vendors are awesome. But do your research and ask, as we were trained in reporting to do, “what’s really being sold here? Who is making money and why?”

There is also a current controversy about mailing lists. With the collapse of Facebook from 20,000 who used to see posts to now, 20, if you’re lucky, content providers are relying more on their email distribution lists. They ask others to share mailing lists. You have to have a “large enough list” to qualify for others to share their lists with you. It’s making for some strange bedfellows excluding great messages with smaller lists and including some flimflammers who have never spoken on the lecture circuit but are awesome at high-pressure sales. I have been encouraged to “partner” with some of these folks to increase my sales. I won’t do it if the message isn’t right. Residual reporter’s righteous indignation, I guess. I was never in this for the money. That makes a huge difference.

8. Burn-out is so common among vegans: what do you do to unwind, recharge and inspire yourself?

I have spent way too many decades getting radiated on airplanes. Recent events emphasize what most frequent flyers experience: diverted, cancelled flights, turbulence or sudden drops where you’re pretty sure you’re gonna die, and the stress of flying in general. I hate it more and more. Despite a flawless immune system on the ground, when I fly, I often get what authors call, “plane flu.” It’s that hacking, sneezing person next to you you can’t turn away from in time. Start the clock ticking and 72 hours out, you had whatever that person had. I love what I do, so I try never to whine. But I think few understand how grueling travel is. My publisher says most authors are introverts and hate to stand at his table all day. I was shocked to find that most authors speak, sign books and leave. I’ve always thought that since my publisher paid my way, I needed to earn my airfare and stay at his table to help sell books. Not to mention getting the messages out. As environmentalist author of Comfortably Unaware, Dr. Richard Oppenlander says, we should have been vegan yesterday for the environment. And my add, for the animals and our health. I know that the world we are handing to my daughters and their generation is in dire straits. But too much negativity and pessimism won’t do anyone any good either. I try to go to the beach once or twice a week when not on the road. I’ve been reading lots about negative ions found around moving water, which are positive influences on humans. I also believe we can’t say we’re environmentalists unless we are out there in nature, observing what animals need from us. And of course, running. As one of my fave shirts says, “Running is cheaper than therapy.” The endorphins released from any aerobic activity is all good. Oh. And walk away from social media occasionally.

9. What is the issue nearest and dearest to your heart that you would like others to know more about?

Vegfests. They change lives. I see it all the time. They are one-stop shopping with riveting movies, videos, speakers, and tasty food that teach the masses in one single day that any food can be veganized. Because of the great effort of my publisher, I have been very lucky to have spoken at so many vegfests since 2011. My publisher does time-consuming work getting books shipped and setting up and disassembling his booth. It is literally, backbreaking work. In his 70s, he could easily retire. But he chooses not to and never will. He also spends a lot of money to be a sponsor and to hopefully gets some of his authors invited as speakers. He is one of the rare publishers who still pays our way to some events if our books do well. He has helped so many authors in our movement get their start. I hear from some in my audiences, “I don’t read books for recipes. Can you do more videos? That’s how I get information now.” While I’ve always done lots of videos, it makes me sad that books are fading in popularity. At a vegfest I went to recently, not a single author was invited to speak. If we don’t support authors who are usually not some eye candy, flash in the pan, with an off-the-wall, outrageous presentation, some of our most powerful messages won’t be heard. It takes so much time to write a book. As my publisher says, writing is easy. It’s the selling that’s the hard part.  Every publisher I know has a hard time finding authors for this very reason. Vegfests are so important to organize and attend. They are life-changing events. I volunteered at the Pay Per View booth at our Tampa Bay Vegfest and was blown away by how many people started crying and got it. At another vegfest I atteneded, I kept hearing, “I had no idea we had this many vegan people in town.” I promote vegfests endlessly, especially when I’m a speaker. I got introduced by the organizer of the San Diego Vegfest at their inaugural year with, “I invited Ellen to to speak here because I thought she had an entire staff doing social media. I was so shocked to find out she does everything solo that had to meet her just for that.”

10. Please finish this sentence: “To me, being vegan is…”

…the most important and powerful thing we can do as individuals to save the planet. If you look at the numbers and science, fish are gone by 2050. Before that, the plankton are gone. Plankton is the main food source for fish and our main source of oxygen. As others have written, when fish are gone, we are gone. We need to spend every waking moment communicating the science, research and the simple solution: going vegan now.

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