Having a child during a global pandemic may sound daunting to some, but Lemel Durrah—founder of plant-based food service Compton Vegan—says he’s been preparing for this day for quite some time. In fact, he even closed down his ghost kitchen in West Los Angeles in order to spend more time with his budding family.
“I shut down my restaurant so that I could be close to my family and just give them all my attention and all my energy,” he tells LIVEKINDLY over the phone. Just moments before our interview, Durrah had been FaceTiming with his wife as she changed his newborn son’s diaper.
Although he’s no longer serving up vegan soul food out of Colony food hall, a smart kitchen that houses multiple food companies, he says he’s still been busy building his business so that his son can inherit a thriving legacy. He partnered with On the Go LA—a service that provides food trucks to local entrepreneurs—to get his plant-based comfort food dishes to hungry Angelenos. He’s also crowdfunding to open his very own brick-and-mortar restaurant in Compton.
“Everything that I’ve been working toward with my business has really been to pass down to the next generation,” he says. “And I’m just fortunate enough to be able to have a son to pass it down to.”
To accomplish this, Durrah has been busy planting seeds—quite literally. He has his very own community garden, nestled on the grounds of his former middle school. There, he’s been growing an array of vegetables, such as collard greens, kale, peppers, cherry tomatoes, and carrots, for the past year and a half. He wants to grow enough veggies to supply his daily operations. But he’s also keen on teaching younger generations about what’s in the foods that they eat.
“I want to start a program where kids can understand the whole process of a seed to a plant, a seed to a vegetable, and understand the nutritional benefits of the food that they’re eating,” he says.
Planting seeds of change
Durrah is proud that his community garden is busting stereotypes some people have about Compton. The city is perhaps best known to the world through the lens of entertainment—think films like Straight Outta Compton—which is not always representative of Compton or its people.
“When people think of Compton, they think of popular rappers or they think of various gangs. Nobody’s really thinking of Compton as a place where you can grow food,” he said in a video for Upfield Global’s mini-documentary series, A Better Plant-Based Future. “For me to have plots of land in a community garden at my middle school—it just speaks volumes to the change that we’re experiencing in the city,” he added.
Known as the Hub City because it’s geographically centered in Los Angeles County, Compton is one of the county’s oldest cities—becoming the eighth overall city in the county to incorporate in 1888. As of the 2020 U.S. Census, the city had a population of nearly 98,000, predominantly comprised by the Latinx community at around 67 percent. The African American community made up a little over 30 percent of the city’s population.
Despite being the headquarters for major supermarket chains like Food 4 Less and Ralphs, the city of Compton is a food desert, an area marked by a lack of access to healthy, plant-based foods. And while healthy food is difficult to find throughout the city, finding affordable healthy food is even harder. Inexpensive, unhealthy foods are easy to find, though. Thus, Compton is also a food swamp, an area with an abundance of low-nutrition, fast food options.
Poor nutrition throughout the area has its repercussions. According to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, only 12.7 percent of adults consume five or more servings of fruits and vegetables each day in the area. A 2015 survey by the department found Compton was also marked by high rates of obesity and diabetes.
It’s no coincidence that low-income and BIPOC communities have far fewer supermarkets than their high-income, white counterparts. Stacy Mitchell, co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, told CNN that supermarket chains are purposefully choosing not to open locations in these areas. “[They] have a demographic location profile that prioritizes communities that are not low income and not African American,” she explained. “The outcome has a racial bias.”
The reluctance to open supermarkets in BIPOC communities may be due to stereotypes that these areas do not generate enough sales and struggle with crime. “White people don’t think Black people spend money, and they weren’t willing to invest in predominantly Black neighborhoods,” Michael Nutter, the former mayor of Philadelphia from 2008 to 2016, told CNN.
As a result, food deserts are created. “By bypassing Black or low-income communities, (national and regional supermarkets) exacerbated the problem of easy access to healthy food,” Anne Palmer, director of the Food Communities & Public Health program at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, told CNN.
Making ‘Compton Vegan’
Spurred by these statistics, Durrah says he not only wants to change the misconceptions people have about his hometown but also change the way people think about food.
He tells LIVEKINDLY that his goal is to acquire more land in the city of Compton. “I want to encourage more people to jump into these community gardens and start to grow their own food,” he says.
“Seeing a seed go to a sprout and from that sprout to go to a vegetable or plant, it’s a euphoric feeling,” he adds. “And I want more people to experience it.”
Durrah is also working to cultivate growth and change outside of his community garden. Through Compton Vegan, he’s made it his mission to eliminate racial inequities in healthy food distribution by bringing healthy, plant-based foods to underserved communities like his hometown.
But although he’s built a rather robust menu of vegan soul food offerings like catfish nuggets, shrimp, and jackfruit ribs—Durrah hasn’t always been a chef. His previous positions ran the gamut from high school basketball coach to substitute teacher, school book salesman to life insurance agent, and even avionics inventory control clerk for SpaceX.
In 2014, he went on a Daniel Fast, a 21-day religious fast that encompasses eating only foods that grow naturally from the earth. Durrah surpassed the 21-day mark, eating plant-based for 40 days and 40 nights. “My mind, body, and soul had changed during the fast. I knew what was best for me moving forward was to continue living the lifestyle I had just developed,” he said during a 2020 TEDx Talk entitled “You Design You: Passion & Purpose”.
After going plant-based, Durrah added the title “chef” to his already extensive resume. Purely self-taught, he spent hours reading labels at grocery stores to better understand different ingredients. He also learned about plant-based eating on the internet—watching talks by herbalist Dr. Sebi and trying out recipes he found on Pinterest.
In 2017, Durrah sold his first plate of food. “[It was to] my younger brother, Eugene, who wanted to support,” he said during his TEDx Talk. “Nevertheless, I was on my way.” And in 2018 he decided to leave his job as a teacher to pursue his dream of running a vegan soul food mobile delivery service full-time. He took Compton Vegan all over Southern California. He sold his food in cities from Portland, Oregon across the country to New York City and even outside of the country, setting up shop at a vegan festival in Toronto, Canada.
During his travels, Durrah realized that healthier food choices weren’t just needed in Compton, but in all cities around the world. “There’s a real need for healthier eating choices. Even more so now with more awareness being shed on healthy eating,” he says.
He explains that access to plant-based foods is especially needed in food deserts like Compton. “There is a disparity between the healthy eating choices in the inner city compared to more affluent neighborhoods where you’ve got a Trader Joe’s and Sprouts,” Durrah continues. “For cities like Compton, you don’t have a Whole Foods or anything anywhere close.”
Durrah says he feels it’s his duty to bridge this gap. “It’s just put more of a responsibility on my shoulders to not just be an option, but to try to bring businesses into the community and continue to just educate the people on the necessities of changing their diet, changing their lifestyle, and adding more years onto their life,” he explains.
Creating a lasting legacy
Although the current pandemic has set back his time frame, Durrah says he still plans on opening his own brick-and-mortar restaurant. He’s also looking into writing his own cookbook and launching his own cooking show.
And having a little one looking up to him has only sharpened his focus on his mission of bringing quality plant-based foods to marginalized communities. “I can’t change the world, but I’m gonna do my fair share,” he says.
But it’s not just good physical health that he advocates for. Durrah also regularly speaks out about the importance of maintaining one’s overall mental well-being. He says that with everything going on in the world, it’s also important to foster emotional wellness.
“If you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t be able to take care of anybody else. And we’re living in a time where a lot of people need help,” he continues.
Overall, Durrah hopes to be a source of inspiration for others to live their purpose and follow their dreams. “I’m a living example of dreams becoming a reality, of hard work and dedication turning into residual manifestation and opportunity meeting preparation,” he says during his TEDx Talk. “No matter what you’re going through right now, the road to a better you starts today. Because we all have the power to bring our dreams to reality.”