Compton native Lemel Durrah grew up in the heart of a food desert surrounded by fast food chains with the only options being burgers, fries and fried chicken. It took a traumatic divorce for him to discover the power of finding community through food. He left his corporate job and set out to leave a legacy for his family by bringing healthy food to his underserved neighborhood, where fresh and nutritious ingredients aren’t always prioritized. Durrah became the Compton Vegan.
“I went through a mental, physical and spiritual cleanse,” Durrah tells L.A. Weekly from his Colony kitchen. “I tore myself down to build myself back up. The process that I followed was a fast where everything I ate came from the earth. No animal products or by products. I did that for about 40 days. When I was done with the fast I went back and started eating and drinking things that I was accustomed to, but my mind and body had changed. At that point I decided to be a plant-based individual for the rest of my life.”
The Compton Vegan started out as a small catering business in an effort to bring healthy options to his neighborhood and soon expanded to food festivals. He’s now delivering out of the Colony kitchen with hopes of opening a small restaurant in Compton. Along the way he’s accumulated a devout following of vegans, meat-eaters, pescatarians and flexitarians from all over Los Angeles with his plant-based soul food specialties like jackfruit ribs and a Buffalo and mac bowl made with his own Compton Vegan Ranch dressing.
On a mission for a better plant-based future, Durrah is featured in the Upfield docuseries A Better Plant-Based Future. The docuseries demonstrates how sustainable, healthy diets can be accessible and enjoyable. He transformed a vacant lot near his middle school, Vanguard Learning Center, into a community garden of nine 15×18 foot plots filled with collard greens, sage, squash, corn, carrots, watermelon and some rosemary.
“When people think of Compton, they think of popular rappers and various gangs,” he says in the documentary. “Nobody’s really thinking about Compton as a place where you can grow foods.”
To launch the platform, four mini-documentaries showcase community leaders from around the world pioneering plant-based eating and living. The features focus on the idea that plant-based diets can be accessible to everyone, including those the inner city.
“At one point in time at the beginning of civilization we had to cultivate our land in order to survive,” Durrah says. “As a people we have gone so far away from how we started, depending on others to provide us with the things that are the basic necessities in life. If you have a backyard or any piece of land you can grow your own food, whether it’s two crops or three crops, whatever your space allows. Even if you just have a windowsill or balcony, you can grow things. We have to get back to the basics and reduce our environmental impact.”
Durrah sees community kitchens like Colony, which houses 25 different food brands, as the future of fast food providing healthy options. He takes his own orders, cooks the food and delivers it himself to avoid delivery apps, which at one point took up to 40 percent of his business. He’s determined and feels it’s his duty to shed light on the meaning of having healthier choices in everything we eat.
“If you’re living a plant-based lifestyle you are connected to the earth, you’re connected with yourself and your community and with nature and everything around you,” he says. “We only get one planet and if we’re not doing the things we need to do to leave this planet to the next generation in a better situation than we inherited, then we’re being selfish.”