Marielle Williamson Interview

Posted on June 3, 2023

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Questions for Marielle Williamson (print interview) From Sustainable Earth Eating, (Food is Climate June newsletter) 

Jane DeMarines, Executive Director

DeMarines: Marielle, tell me how long have you been plant-based or preferred plant-based milk?

Williamson: I transitioned to a plant-based diet nearly three years ago. I have always preferred plant-based milk over cow’s milk.

DeMarines: Do you find many or most of your classmates do not prefer or cannot tolerate cow’s milk? We know many people are lactose intolerant. Your lawsuit was about freedom of speech, but it was also about discrimination against these students, correct? Have you received any response from the Dept of Agriculture or your school district in California?

Williamson: While not plant-based or vegetarian, the majority of my classmates prefer non-dairy milk to cow’s milk. Having the product in its raw form rather than curdled into cheese or yogurt, allows for what I believe to be an easier connection to the real product—the lactations of a mother cow. I’ve also heard this view from peers. 

This lawsuit aimed to highlight all of the issues associated with dairy milk, but most significantly the impact the promotion of this product has on students. We wanted to bring awareness to the stronghold the dairy industry has over schools participating in the NSLP, while also discussing the prevalence of lactose intolerance in LAUSD schools. We have not directly received a response from any of the defendants.

DeMarines: Did you have support from your fellow students, if so, could you talk a bit about this?

Williamson: Through open discussion, two of my closest friends have become plant-based. Others are slowly transitioning in that direction. These people have given me a world of support.

While the responses of other peers in my grade are mixed, those who have read the articles and asked me about it are supportive. I’ve even had a student tell me that while they do not care about animals, they are now interested in veganism through reading about the human rights issues discussed in the Los Angeles Times. I found this inspiring, as any interest results in the spread of awareness to these issues, and thus a greater awareness to the benefits of a plant-based food system.

DeMarines: I know Deborah Dubow Press filed the lawsuit on your behalf—were you frightened of taking such a visible and bold action ??

Williamson: There was most definitely some anxiety with taking this step. Nonetheless, the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine is an incredible, supportive network I knew would be able to aid me in handling any unexpected concerns. The fear that came with taking this step was overshadowed by support, as well as knowledge of the impact this lawsuit could possibly have for the plant-based movement. 

DeMarines: How has being involved in this action –if at all– influenced your career path, as far as considering a major in college, or career goals or just thinking differently about justice? 

Williamson: Since transitioning to a plant-based diet, I knew I would pursue a career in some aspect of advocacy. For a while I wanted to study food science, and learn to create plant-based alternatives to cultural, favorite, animal-based foods. This lawsuit has inspired me to change directions. I will be attending Duke University’s branch in China, majoring in international relations and public policy. It is my hope to go to law school and work on international food/environmental policy in the direction of a plant-based world. 

DeMarines: Have you had any pushback or negative response from students or others that has been difficult for you? 

Williamson: Negativity for this kind of lawsuit is inevitable. I remind myself that much of the pushback comes from stereotypes associated with veganism, or seeing catchy headlines without actually reading the content of articles. I’m fortunate to have received immense positivity and support from many teachers, friends, plant-based organizations, and strangers on the internet.

DeMarines: How has the media responded to your suit and other actions?

Williamson: For the most part, the media has been supportive. While some headlines reflect a stereotype, I understand it’s to hook readers. Once that attention is caught, the actual content of the pieces is very informative, generally accurately reflecting the intention behind the lawsuit. Grist, the Los Angeles Times, and the nbc interview provided good overviews. A well-known politician even published an article in support, which allowed for greater coverage to a politically differing audience.

DeMarines: Tell me what you hope will be the outcome, since you likely will be out of school when a result occurs? Have you requested damages?

Williamson: We have requested damages of $1, so, technically yes, however the goal isn’t related to money. I hope that this lawsuit continues to raise awareness. Along with the suit, the Physicians Committee is introducing legislation asking that schools participating in the NSLP provide plant based milk to any student who wants it, regardless of an intolerance or medical condition. This lawsuit has, and continues to demonstrate increased support for this kind of legislation. 

DeMarines: What else would you like to mention? 

Williamson: I would like to emphasize that my principal is not at fault in any way. He truly cares about students, and tried his hardest to fight for student voice while being restricted by a discriminatory law put in place by the dairy industry and USDA. This federal law also restricts district nutritionists on milk choices, going as far as affecting water distribution. In other words, water is not allowed to be promoted in schools as it risks interfering with dairy sales. This alone goes to show the extent to which the dairy industry and USDA values profit over the well-being of students.

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