Natural Foods Merchandiser

Bryant Terry works to return the soul to food in low-income communities

Eco chef and author Bryant Terry is creating a movement to return fresh food and cooking to low-income areas the way his family did during his grandparents’ generation.

There are food deserts, communities with little access to fresh, healthy food, but a plethora of processed, convenience foods and these communities tend to be in neighborhoods of color. Over the years, obesity and diabetes have significantly increased in such areas. Terry said he came to realize he could have a deep impact on social issues by advocating for healthy food and policy change. That change, he said, has to start at the dinner table.

“We wanted to move people to action,” he said. “We wanted to give people ways to encourage others and that was through cooking. More than writing books … the way to shift politics is by making people a delicious meal.”

Terry, who is based in Oakland, Calif. and is the author of Vegan Soul Kitchen: Fresh, Healthy, and Creative African American Cuisine, was the featured speaker on Thursday during the 2009 Natural Products Expo East in Boston. His first book, Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen, won the 2007 Nautilus Book Award.

Terry’s interest in social justice peaked early. Prior to living in Memphis, his grandparents lived and worked on rural farms in Mississippi. They always had a backyard garden, as did nearly everyone in the neighborhood.

“My interest in food issues came from my maternal grandmother,” he said. “Hipsters are those people now talking about sustainable kitchens and everybody thinks they’ve invented this new movement, but this was the ethos of my grandparents and their generation. This was the way they lived. All the work that I’m doing now stands on the shoulders of my family.

“Tracing this legacy through African-American history, I think I learned (what I know about food) from my African descent. It’s about connecting with family members. These ideas I’ve learned from black folks, and I want to illuminate this and help African-Americans see this legacy of sustainability,” he said.

As a history major in college, Terry said he researched the Black Panthers and found they implemented transformative programs that created social change and provided for the basic needs of the community. They organized and gave away groceries.

Terry said the Panthers knew that for low-income communities to be liberated, they had to be educated. To do well in school, bodies had to be nourished.

“It hit me that if a social justice movement didn’t address food and food security, it was remiss,” he said. “We needed to have this discussion.”

A number of programs and organizations have since been developed to work with young people in urban and rural areas. The People’s Grocery in Oakland, where Terry has taught a cooking class, is a good example of an organization that is promoting locally-grown access, educating residents and developing methods of urban farming to strengthen the ability to produce food in West Oakland, where there are 58 liquor and convenient stores, Terry said, but not a single grocery store.

“There is a West Oakland in all parts of the country,” he said. “Areas that lack access to healthy food also had fairly bad infrastructure and horrible public schools. Through food, we can think about a range of social issues.”

Through grassroots activism, organizing and training young people, and addressing government and public policy, the People’s Grocery will soon become a real supermarket. Terry said it’s all part of a shift in attitude, habits and politics surrounding food.

“In order for there to be true change, we not only have to work on personal change, but organizations have to be shifted as well,” he said. “Some of the most powerful systems have the authority to shift habits, be inclusive and make good policy changes for all.”

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