What work do you do?
I’ve committed myself to feeding people; illuminating the connections between poverty, malnutrition, and institutional racism; and working to create a more just and sustainable food system for everyone.
In 2001, I founded b-healthy (Build Healthy Eating and Lifestyles to Help Youth), a New York City-based food-justice organization made up of adult and youth social-justice activists, chefs, and mothers. Most recently, I initiated the Eat Grub project with Anna Lappé.
How does your work relate to the environment?
How we produce our food and what we eat has an immense impact on the environmental health of our planet. Ask anyone who lives within a two-mile radius of a factory farm. They’ll smell — I mean tell — you a lot about this relationship.
What are you working on at the moment?
After writing a book — Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen — that hit shelves in April, Anna and I started “grub parties” and created an online educational space. We also began a Grub Tour, traveling the country speaking about the food-justice movement at bookstores, farmers’ markets, food co-ops, churches, clubs, cafés, and universities. I’m planning and fundraising for an offshoot of our Grub Tour that will specifically target people of color.
I’m also constantly coming up with recipe ideas and testing them for future book projects.
How do you get to work?
I walk (from the bedroom to the kitchen in my apartment).
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
I started learning about food systems and sustainable agriculture in my grandparents’ backyard gardens in Memphis, Tenn., when I was just knee-high to a June bug. When I was getting my master’s in history at New York University, I learned about the “Free Breakfast for Children” program started in 1968 by the Black Panthers. Within one year, the program spread across the country, and they were feeding over 10,000 African-American youth each morning. Other groups working to create social change (e.g., Brown Berets and Young Lords) replicated this model.
When I finished graduate school, I started working for an organization that gave training and technical assistance to youth development organizations throughout New York City. I was troubled that most of these organizations did not have programs addressing food-justice issues, given that many of the youth were in some way affected by lack of access to grub.
Inspired by the free-breakfast program, I decided to go to the Natural Gourmet Cookery School. I founded b-healthy to raise awareness about the need to improve individual and community health as part of building broader social movements.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in Memphis, Tenn. I moved to Oakland, Calif., in January 2006 after living in Brooklyn, N.Y., for eight years. Before that, I lived in New Orleans.
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
Getting booed off stage by about 100 high-school students for describing some of McDonald’s unsavory practices. That’s when I realized how powerful advertising and “fake food” can be.
What’s been the best?
Handing my parents a copy of Grub.
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
The U.S. government’s refusal to label GMOs [genetically modified organisms]. Most people don’t realize that up to 70 percent of processed foods in the U.S. market contain products of genetic engineering.
Who is your environmental hero?
The Green Worker Cooperatives in the South Bronx, N.Y.
What’s your environmental vice?
I don’t compost at my new home yet.
Read any good books lately?
What’s your favorite meal?
In the summer, it’s grilled corn and heirloom tomato salad with fresh purple basil.
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
I hug trees.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
Who was your favorite musical artist when you were 18? How about now?
What’s your favorite movie?
Which actor would play you in the story of your life?
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Do their unique part as community members, consumers, and citizens to help create a more just and sustainable food system. Every positive action we make with our voices, votes, and our dollars makes a significant impact. And I must say that reading Grub is a great place to start.
There’s Something About Terry
What do you think about Wal-Mart offering organic products? — Haven Bourque, San Francisco, Calif.
That’s the million-dollar question. Jumping on the organic bandwagon will probably mean higher profits for Wal-Mart, so they gladly carry products with the organic seal. But it’s important to remember that Wal-Mart has very little concern for public health, the well-being of small farmers, or the economy of local communities.
Which leads us to the bigger problem — the organic seal. Most people are thoroughly confused about what the organic seal actually means. As we explain in Grub, it does not tell us if the produce was grown locally or imported from across the globe; it does not tell us if that chicken was raised humanely or packed in a filthy warehouse with thousands of other chickens; and it does not tell us if the farmworkers were paid a fair wage and had safe working conditions or if their labor was exploited and they were routinely abused. When Wal-Mart offers grub, go for it. But you might be better off shopping at your local farmers’ market until then.
I live and work at a natural hair salon in south Georgia. Daily we try to educate people about how their food choices affect their overall well-being and the health of their hair and skin. We get mixed responses. What response do you get from people of color when you present them with information about eating healthily, and how does their response affect your work? — Danita Campbell, Valdosta, Ga.
Like you, I get mixed responses, which are usually influenced by age, class, education, and knowledge about these issues. The key to getting these messages across has been determining what might resonate with my audience and speaking in a language that is accessible to them.
For example, when I talk to a group of young women of color I might open by appealing to their vanity to get them thinking about how the foods they eat affect their physical appearance (e.g., acne and weight gain). Or if I’m talking to a group of older African-American and Latino men, I might start by discussing the way in which preventable diet-related illnesses are plaguing older men of color. Once the conversation gets rolling, we touch on other issues that might not seem as relevant. Creating different age-appropriate, culturally relevant talks usually means more work for me, but I gotta do what I gotta do.
What is one major lie about food that you think we need to unlearn? — Shilpa Jain, Udaipur, Rajasthan, India
One lie that most people need to unlearn is that we need to cook most of our food. While I would not consider myself a “raw foodist,” I certainly include lots of uncooked plant-based foods in my diet (especially during the summer and early fall). Living and raw foods have enormously higher nutrient values than foods that have been cooked. It’s not about being extreme either way, but most of us could stand to have a few more crunchy veggies in our diet.
What is your view on CSAs — community-supported agriculture? — Lillian Saum, Shepherdstown, W.Va.
I am a huge fan. Since 1984, they have expanded to more than 1,200 across the U.S. Not only do CSAs offer increased access to grub in urban communities, but they also provide an opportunity for members to get to know the people growing their food. And they create a space to build community with neighbors around grub. For information about CSAs, visit Local Harvest and the Robyn Van En Center for CSA Resources.
Have you established any relationship with organic/local farms that supply you with fresh food? Does the exchange go both ways — farmers providing you food and you and your eaters getting to work with the farmer? — Wayne Teel, Keezletown, Va.
I get most of my food at farmers’ markets in Oakland and Berkeley, Calif. It’s important for me to establish relationships with the people I purchase my food from, and I want them to know that I appreciate them and all of their hard work.
When I was living in Brooklyn, N.Y., I was a member of my neighborhood CSA, and I got to talk to the farmer every week when he brought fresh produce from his farm into my neighborhood. Some CSAs invite members to visit the farm and even harvest their own shares.
Soul (aka Southern) food traditions have undergone lots of revision in the last decade. What do you think are some of the all-stars (ingredients, recipes, approaches) from soul-food traditions? And just where do you stand on okra? — Kim Ruffin, Lewiston, Maine
Soul food is so complex and varied, depending on the region of the South that you’re in, and it’s hard to reduce it to a few staple products (although many people mistakenly do). There are certain staples that come to mind when I think of “soul food,” like collard greens, black-eyed peas, yams, and okra, of course. But these foods are very specific to my memory of growing up in Memphis, Tenn. Someone living in coastal Carolina or Louisiana would probably come up with a different list. I would suggest Jessica B. Harris’ Welcome Table for a broad overview of Southern foodways.
As with most cuisines, soul food is a living food tradition. So regardless of what recipes you use, you may need to substitute some ingredients and modify cooking techniques to meet modern-day health concerns. For example, in Grub, I reinvented some family favorite soul-food recipes using health-supportive ingredients and cooking techniques.
As for okra, I love it! I have had it prepared in almost every way imaginable: My grandmother used to pickle it for the winter; my mom would sauté it along with corn and juicy tomatoes from our garden; and when I lived in New Orleans, I always ate it in seafood gumbo, where it is used as a thickener. But grilling it is, by far, the best way that I’ve ever had it. Most people think it’s too slimy. So I include a great non-slimy recipe in Grub — “Good Grilled Okra” — that has converted the most die-hard okra haters.
I know most of the work you do is domestic and local, but what about internationally? Any advice for those of us who may be interested in getting involved in sustainable agriculture in developing nations? — Melissa Armstrong, Providence, R.I.
I think it’s very important to connect work being done to improve the food system domestically with the global food-justice movement. My friend and coauthor Anna Lappé wrote a book — Hope’s Edge — with her mother Francis Moore Lappé that brilliantly illuminates trailblazers engaged in social, environmental, and economic transformations around the globe.
Care to share your thoughts on the events concerning South Central Farm? — Chris Schults, Seattle, Wash.
I visited the South Central Farm and stood in solidarity with supporters right before they were evicted. It saddens me that the city would not be in full support of a beautiful oasis in the midst of a concrete jungle that fed over 350 poor Latino and African-American families since 1992. I see this less as a setback for the movement, however, and more as a wake-up call. We have to continue to create strong community-driven locally owned solutions to food injustice and know that market concerns are more important to corporations and governmental institutions than true community development. I am confident that something new and even more beautiful will emerge out of this tragedy, though.
Besides giving people a copy of Grub, what do you suggest as resources and strategies for encouraging people to take some baby steps toward making conscious, healthy, and just food choices? — Laura Loescher, San Francisco, Calif.
The first thing I would suggest is doing a “community food audit.” Anna and I developed the audit to help people determine what local resources are available for acquiring grub. After filling in the resources, we encourage people to share it with friends and loved ones. Spread the grub.
What is your favorite recipe using garden fare? Also, what is one vegetable that is not grown as often but needs to get more attention in gardens? — Maria Neumann, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
Because I strive to primarily eat what is in season, I create ingredient-driven recipes that are determined by what is available at local community gardens or farmers’ markets in the Bay Area. The farmers’ markets are starting to be bountiful, so I’m having a ball.
What I think needs more attention is growing different varieties of vegetables that most of us are already familiar with. For example, most of us only experience a few types of tomatoes, but there are hundreds of varieties in existence. So whether gardeners are interested in preserving genetic diversity or cultivating flavor and beauty, I suggest growing heirloom varieties to spice up one’s garden.
Since fast food, I’m afraid, is here to stay, have you given any thought to trying to make the fast-fooders change their evil ways to reflect people’s growing awareness of and demand for fresh, wholesome, non-chemicalized, and organic foods? — Hanna Doniger, Troy, Mich.
Since fast-food corporations control so much wealth and have the ability to influence so many people’s minds through advertising, I think that it is important to keep one eye on them and hold them accountable. But I think most of our energy should go into educating people about why they should embrace grub. I would argue that being reactive is not as effective as creating a vision for the type of food system that we want to see and then working to build it. As Che Guevara said, “A revolutionary is motivated by love.” So we have to build this just and sustainable food system based upon our love of the earth, animals, and each other. The fast-food corporations will soon be extinct like the dinosaurs that they are.
What role should or could canned foods play in a diet based on sustainable agriculture? — Rosamond Cummins, Arlington, Mass.
Sadly, most commercially produced canned goods come packed with high levels of fat, sugar, and salt. In fact, when people ask me to suggest strategies for reducing hypertension, one of the first things I recommend is cutting out commercially canned food products. But even if companies producing health-supportive grub decided to can it, health and safety codes require that canned foods be subjected to extreme heat (up to 250 degrees F) in order to make the food “safe.” This heat obliterates the enzymes and delicate vitamins and nutrients that we need for boosting our immune systems, repairing our bodies, and fighting disease.
Do you think current urban community-based models and initiatives for achieving food justice can be applied effectively in rural areas, or do you see rural communities facing unique problems that require a different approach? — Loren Drummond, Washington, D.C.
Honestly, I have not thought about this much. I think that some folks at The Food Project in Massachusetts might be able to answer your question better than I could. They started off growing vegetables on a farm outside of Boston and then later created urban farms and youth programs in the Roxbury/North Dorchester area of Boston. They now bridge these communities allowing youth working in their rural/suburban projects to work with youth working in their urban projects and vice versa. What a way to help young people discover their interdependence with each other as well as everything else.
When you use the term “food justice,” what exactly do you mean? What can legal professionals do to ensure that justice is served with good grub? — Name not provided, Washington, D.C.
Check out an article entitled “The ‘Food Justice’ Movement: Trying To Break the Food Chains” written by Mark Winston Griffith.
What is the one message we could give the general public about the importance of supporting local food systems, a fair and equitable wage for today’s farmer and farmworkers, and a healthy, sustainable, and vibrant future for our communities? — Jolinda Buchanan, Vernon, Ind.