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Haile Thomas Wants to Share the Joy – and Power – of Plant-Based Eating

At 20, the activist, author, and nonprofit founder just opened her first restaurant and is finding yet another way to build community through food

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At the age of 20, Haile Thomas is already running out of space on her business cards. Last month, the nonprofit founder, sought-after public speaker, community organizer, Instagram influencer, and cookbook author added restaurateur to her lengthy list of accomplishments. Along with family members, Thomas opened Matcha Thomas in Beacon, NY on May 21, serving an array of teas along with vegan and gluten-free fare.

Like so much of what Thomas does, the cafe is cheerful and full of deliciousness – but all in service of a purpose. She sells products sourced from BIPOC-owned small businesses, works with vendors that practice ethical and sustainable practices, and encourages customers to participate in charitable giving projects.

Thomas, who labels herself a “wellness and compassion activist,” previously founded The HAPPY Org, a nonprofit that has already worked with more than 90,000 youth. In 2020, she published Living Lively, a combination cookbook and manifesto about strength, self-care, and the importance of building healthy, resilient communities.

We spoke with her about how she made the connection between food and empowerment and what she’s learned from her first decade of activism.

Recipe: Make Haile Thomas’s Islander Lively Bowl.

You became interested in cooking really young. What inspired that?

My mom has always loved cooking. And so I was taught to cook really early on, around five years old. And so just being in the kitchen has always been very natural to me. I’ve just always been a foodie, loved trying new things and getting to just have those different experiences. And I was inspired by Food Network and watching all the classic shows with my mom! That was my favorite pastime.

My family is Jamaican. Both of my parents are from Jamaica and I just always grew up with this really expansive view of food, or an expansive experience with food. Just through our culture, I was really already very accustomed to bold and different flavors and using, quote-unquote, ‘unique’ ingredients, and just having a mature culinary experience, I guess.

When did that shift from just being a kid enjoying great family meals and starting to think about health and nutrition? 

The health and wellness aspect didn’t come into my life until my dad was diagnosed with type two diabetes when I was around eight years old. Due to his diagnosis, he was prescribed this medication that just had terrible side effects, internal bleeding, and potential death. And even if he did take that medication, it had no guarantee to really heal him from his condition or to reverse it. So our family really took it upon ourselves to do some research and see if there were any alternative healing options. And that’s really when I became fully became aware of food’s potential to heal or harm us.

Before that, for the most part, we ate for flavor and just whatever really tasted good. Some of the traditional dishes that we enjoyed weren’t typically the healthiest, and they didn’t really center vegetables or whole grains. It was a lot of white rice and meat and gravies and sauces. And while it was all delicious, of course, health was not at the center of our plates, for sure. Learning about this incredible healing power of food and of plant foods specifically, really led us down this path of learning together as a family.

Within about a year of working on swapping out different ingredients, eating more vegetables, reducing red meat significantly, we were able to completely reverse his condition within that year. And so I was just blown away by really having this real life example of just how powerful it is to care for your body and to cook with intention and also to have this awareness of food education.

Once you saw that success within your family, how did you then take the step of sharing what you were learning with others?

I thought, “Oh my gosh, everybody needs to know about this. And all of my friends need to know about this.” And I was confused why it wasn’t an essential thing for me to learn in school. I was lucky enough to even have physical education class in elementary school, but there was never any mention of eating healthfully or anything like that. We just ran around or did the pacer test and that was about it.

And so I thought, “Well, maybe I can be the one who shares this information and can share my love and really the joy that cooking brings me and share that with my peers.” That’s really where my advocacy began and I just started looking for ways to get involved in my community.

One of the things you talk about is how you had to learn to see through all the confusing messaging, particularly coming from corporations and powerful interests, about what we ‘should’ eat – or what a ‘good’ body should look like. 

Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s a really great conversation to have, to be able to be aware of the many contradictions within our society and within the consumerism that’s pushed onto us by so many companies. I think it’s important to realize that interconnectedness in order to empower ourselves and decide for ourselves what we wish to define as our own standard of health or beauty, or even just simply taking care of ourselves and knowing our body is beautiful.

The messages out there keep people in a cycle of doubting and hating themselves, their bodies, what they look like, how they feel, and trying to live up to this almost impossible standard that deeply impacts mental health and our own self image. And through that, it continues to fuel all the other industries. Diet culture and all of the weight loss powders and detox teas and everything. It’s still pushing this same narrative of a certain body type – only one body type – is beautiful or acceptable. And then that contributes to those negative mindsets. Often times that can also then contribute to emotional eating and developing eating disorders.

It’s all very sinister, unfortunately, how these industries play into each other. I think that as we collectively realize the ways that we are marketed to, and understand the messages that are sent out to us, that they don’t actually have to resonate if we decide for ourselves that we wish to live our lives more authentically, more intentionally. I think that’s really where there’s power.

I think that as consumers start to wake up and set a new standard for themselves, the companies actually have to follow suit. So instead of companies setting the standard for us, we are now doing that for them.

Could talk a little bit about what you call the Seven Points of Power and how finding a plant-based lifestyle helps you enhance those points of power?

Interconnectedness is so important on any health journey. Initially, when I really started out, I was just focused on food and nutrition and thought, “If you eat healthfully, you’re good,” but as I got older, I quickly realized that there were so many elements of my own life that I just wasn’t nurturing at all. That was significantly decreasing my own sense of well-being mentally and even physically in some ways. Stepping back and looking at my life and what was actually contributing to my joy, to my fulfillment, to my mental health, and really just making me feel whole as a human, I realized that there were so many different areas that I needed to actively be aware of and pour into as much as I could and really have engaged with myself in that process as well.

The Seven Points of Power are really just inspired by these key areas that I’ve seen in my life that, when they’re depleted, it really makes a big difference. And when they are really being replenished and nourished, also makes a huge impact on my life. I’ve seen this in the lives of so many others around me and my family, my friends, activists and entrepreneurs out there.

The seven points are wellness, thoughts and mindset, relationships, social media and societal influences, education, world perspective, and creativity and community. I think we can find ourselves either really lost or super fulfilled in those areas, or even find we’re pouring too much into one of the areas and it’s just about finding balance. Exploring each of those areas and seeing what our special formula or our special recipe for wellbeing is.

And that’s really what Living Lively encourages. It’s meant to be a journey of experimenting, of exploring yourself and the world around you. Those are really the areas that the book highlights and there are so many micro areas within each as well, that could go on and on.

Sometimes we hear in a conversation, someone says, “Oh, I’m a vegan,” or “Oh, I eat plant-based,” or and there can be backlash from people who see that as bougie or inaccessible for a lot of people. How do you convey the value of a meat-free diet to a diverse audience?

I do think that vegan and vegetarian lifestyles have this reputation or stereotype around it, that it is inaccessible and that only wealthy people can afford to eat plants. But I think it’s really important to remember that what we call veganism today has actually been rooted in cultures all around the world for generations and generations. This is nothing new. This is not a new concept or way of living. It’s just been rebranded through this influencer lifestyle and this trendiness. I feel it is slowly losing that air as so many more activists are speaking out about the connections between what’s on our plate and the environment and what’s on our plate and social justice issues. And really, as we continue to expand the conversation, diversify the conversation, we’re also diversifying veganism and vegetarianism’s accessibility as well. We’re really showing the expansiveness of eating this way.

And I think that as we continue on, veganism just as a concept, is definitely becoming more approachable. Of course, there are systemic barriers within our system that make it much harder for marginalized communities to access fresh and healthy foods.

Luckily through incredible nonprofits that are working in those communities, they’re making getting access to fresh produce something that is not just a dream, but an actual reality. Incredible or business organizations like Harlem Grown or even Green Bronx Machine, some of my favorites, that are really actively working to make this possible, to make it a real reality for people to be able to eat nourishing foods and to have that whole experience. And that’s so beautiful.

I think that when community just steps in and reframes these narratives, it’s so powerful. It’s important to remember that veganism has so much potential to unlock this really incredible compassion within each of us. The next level of vegan or plant-based lifestyles is really including human beings in that compassion as well, really having grace for each other as we’re learning and growing, as we’re trying to take care of ourselves and the environment, and make our communities better. I think that compassion can really expand and just hopefully people are able to then make choices that feel good for their bodies, that work for their financial needs. I hope they’re able to access the things they need to be able to engage with this lifestyle, and also have community support on that journey.

So ultimately I think, slowly but surely, we are coming back to realizing the roots of veganism aren’t as shallow as it may seem on the surface and that there are so many really rich cultural connections, and really significant things that we can learn from indigenous cultures and all around the world that have practiced plant-based practices.

What has opening your first restaurant been like? 

It’s been a dream of mine and my sister’s as well to have a little place that’s just super peaceful where we can serve up vegan and gluten-free treats and lattes. It’s called Matcha Thomas. We serve wellness drinks, even boba with a wellness spin on it.

I think it’s super cool to be able to take all of the things that I talk about and teach about on social media or through classes and programs, and really bring it into a brick and mortar space and to just cultivate an experience all around that really feels nourishing for people. And so far it’s been really great and we’ve been getting awesome feedback so we’re just really excited to continue to grow in that space as well.