Reflect and GROW…

I am feeling an odd mixture of exuberance and nostalgia. There are so many exciting things happening right now. After four years of walking a tight rope with Taste and Texture, holding steadfast to the idea that this work is important and necessary, it is finally all coming together. I am over the moon with excitement.

I remember back in November of 2008, when Barack won the election. We were four generations of people screaming in the streets of Brooklyn. I still fail to adequately describe how and what I felt that night. But I do remember very clearly how I felt the next morning; sitting at the dining room table, coffee in hand and fixed to my computer screen as I listened again to his acceptance speech.  The opening lines still echo in my ear, “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.”

I felt encouraged. For the first time in my life I was consciously identifying as an American. I was patriotic and motivated. Who knew?

Not long after that, I called my first ‘food for thought” meeting. Back then I was focused on creating a workforce development program that would address the whole person. I assembled some of the best thinkers I had ever had the pleasure of working with. I papered the walls with newsprint, asked them five questions and left the room.  Two hours later we would be fully immersed in conversation, but the topic had somehow switched from, “what do we need to create a culinary arts employment training program for low-income/under-educated/socially charged  folks that will actually allow them to earn a livable wage?” to “the reasons why this kind of program was too costly to get funded.”

It was a hard reality check, but the beauty about being surrounded by great thinkers is that when presented with a problem, they problem solve. Our solution was, ‘what do we do first, so that we can eventually build the program that we want.”

I still have those notes. They have been my reality check and inspiration for the last four years. Thank you, my LifeSkills/SafeSpace family. I love you so! And I miss you!!

And to my west coast family – thank you! It’s really happening!

I am ecstatic to report that I have a new project: GROW Oakland – Gaining Resources and Opportunities to Work for East Bay Youth (www.growoakland.org). It’s a partnership between Beyond Emancipation (B:E) and Taste and Texture in which we have created a multiphase initiative designed to engage, educate and train youth in personal health and wellness and prepare them for meaningful work in the culinary field.  The business model is a seed to plate social enterprise that will provide opportunities for current and former foster and probation youth to develop nutrition based health and wellness strategies and build skills and job experience in culinary arts, customer service, marketing and business planning and management.

The program is built out into four phases:

Phase I:  Healthy Living Workshops with Youth in Community Housing – We launched this first phase in March and have had 3 workshops with youth in 3 different transitional residences.  During the workshops we’ve made 4 complete meals: oven fried chicken, raw kale salad w/ strawberries and spiced pumpkin seeds; low-fat lasagna (with fresh marinara sauce), spinach salad w/ a seared tomatillo and cilantro vinaigrette;  rosemary, lime and garlic roasted chicken, roasted cauliflower  and oatmeal cookies; and pulled chicken tacos, pico de gallo and guacamole.  Check out some of the photos: (https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.631397273541743.1073741825.135900183091457&type=3)

 

Phase III:  Culinary Training and Internship Program – This phase kicks off in July and classes will start in September.  It has been funded for the next three years by the Oakland Fund for Children and Youth. YAY!!!

 

Phase IV:  Youth Driven Planning for a Food Truck Social Enterprise to Launch in 2014 – We received seed funding from the Jonas fund to develop a business plan. So we are fast at work on that … Fun stuff!

I told you it was exciting.  But there is still one more phase!  And the coolest part is that you can actually help me with this one.  Phase II:  Home Based Community Gardens – I want to work with the youth in B:E’s programs to develop home-based community garden(s), to grow the food that they prepare and eat in housing.

As you might recall from Blog#12: The Irony of Justice, food deserts are a real challenge and no matter what skills I can help these young folks cultivate, if they don’t actually have access to whole and live food their skills are moot.  This pisses me off and so I want to create a sustainable food source with these kids.  But I need your help.

We are currently fundraising for Phase II (we have $500 to date and we need an additional $1500).  To those of you who have already donated – THANK YOU!!!

Ideally, we want to have this garden in the ground and growing by July 4th weekend. So, here’s the deal, we need to build garden beds and buy top soil, small gardening tools and starter plants. We can get three vegetable plants for $5.  Three cubic feet of soil cost $10.  Enough compost to fertilize a planting bed cost $20.  The wood and supplies to build a gardening bed cost $40.

So these are small donations ya’ll.  And if each of you can just kick in $10 bucks, we can have this done in a day. How cool would that be!!

When I think about this project, I feel all warm and a bit nervous. Which brings me back to something else Barack said in that speech. In talking about the campaign journey that led to a historic victory, a defining moment in our time, our president elect reminded us that “This victory alone is not the change we seek – it is only the chance for us to make that change. And that cannot happen if we go back to the way things were. It cannot happen without you.”

This is exactly how I feel about GROW. We have been given a chance to make change. Right now we have an opportunity to make sustainable change in the lives of young people, many who have spent the majority of their lives feeling like no one cares about them. And my friends, I know you care. You show it by the work you do every single day. And right now, I need you to join me in showing this particular cluster of young people that we care. We care about their health and their well-being, and we care about the food they eat.  So, can I count on you?  Will you help?

You just follow the link below, select “GROWOakland’ under program designation, make a contribution. $10 will go a long way …. https://npo1.networkforgood.org/Donate/Donate.aspx?npoSubscriptionId=1006197&code=GrowOakland

As always, thank you for your continued support! And I’ll keep you posted!!!

Eat well. Be Well.

Love, Peace and Progress!

ME

The MisEducation of a Generation

The first time I heard the term ‘miseducation’ was in 1998 when Lauryn Hill’s first solo album ‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’ hit the airwaves and set the hip-hop world a buzz. The album earned five Grammy awards; reinforcing that it was the best album of the year and for some of us, it was one of the best albums ever.  I know that it remains one of the most frequently played on my IPod.

In 75 minutes Ms. Hill offered a brilliant summation of a generation’s experience – touching on everything from school delinquency to teen pregnancy and abortion, to spiritually, self-esteem and peer pressure, to the importance of family and community, to love and lifelong commitments. It was a critical offering that personified the beautiful complexities of growing up in and getting out of the ‘hood’.  Her poetry was profound; her voice dynamic and at the ripe old age of 22, Lauryn became hip-hop royalty. To her fans, Lauryn was a prophet – educating the masses through song.

However, having just read Patricia Hill Collins’ Another Kind of Public Education: Race, Schools, the Media and Democratic Possibilities, the term ‘miseducation’ conjures very different emotions.  Collins poses two essential questions as the base for her work. The first, ‘what kind of critical education might the American public need to picture new democratic possibilities?’ And the second, ‘what changes can we envision in schools and in other important social institutions that might provide this critical education?’ Although Collins was talking primarily about race relations: the post-civil rights’ era (1980-present) color-blind racism that engulfs marginalized communities regardless to their skin color, her principles, which are predominately about power structures and organizational practices that create social climates which foster separatism and perpetuate social blackness, can very much be applied to the inequalities in our food system.

In her explication of social blackness, Collins reasons that one (anyone) can be “blackened’ in many forms because just like ‘white,’ ‘black’ is a social concept which typically means ‘being pushed down on a social scale’ and  most often relates to perception of age, religion, ethnicity, class or markers of subordinate status. She further explains that ‘racism is not simply a system of moral failure that produces prejudiced white individuals. Racism, instead, is a system of power…. And the power to define race lies in the context and not necessarily in the person.’ She offers that racism as a system of power serves as a template for thinking through other similar systems like gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion, class, age and ability.

Thus, when I think about culturally biased notions juxtaposed with the uncomfortable reality that by alarming percentages African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans have higher rates of poverty, are at higher risk of HIV infection, are more vulnerable in financial security (a fact highlighted by 2008 housing crisis), top the charts amongst the percentage of those involved in the criminal (in)justice system and/or incarcerated and are greater effected by governmental cuts in public education, public learning and recreational space,  public transportation and void of adequate medical assistance, it becomes obvious to me why we also have greater rates of health disparities, obesity and dietary related diseases.  Which causes me to implore the question as to whether the food industry in this country has merely become another system of power?

Most of us, begrudgingly, recognize that the food industry is a business, a big business, concerned more about its shareholders’ profit than the public’s health. When we consider that 80% of the US food dollar goes to cover expenses other than the “farm value” of the food itself, it becomes less of a mystery as to why we have sub-quality food.

The nasty truth is that the food industry-at-large supports an organizational practice that is designed to distort what consumers know about the nutritional value of their products. Their marketing strategies which are designed to mask the extreme amounts of sugar, salt and fat that the products contain, are targeted to the most vulnerable of populations: children and marginalized communities. Government officials who have been elected or appointed to monitor the practices and regulate the policies and behavior of food companies are often compromised and biased by their personal and financial ties to the very companies they are employed to monitor. This is a systematic failure; one that is proliferating a massive miseducation.

If the average middle-class, college educated American has to rely on the work of investigative journalists, documentary film makers and local and global food justice advocates for their food education, what are marginalized, poverty plagued communities afflicted by derisory public education conditions, inadequate housing, under-employment, familiar instability, social stigmas and absent medical care supposed to do?   Rely on the media; a system that we all know is fatally tarnished?

According to political food writer, and editor of the 1988 Surgeon General’s Report on Nutrition and Health, Marion Nestle, ‘the primary mission of food companies, like that of tobacco companies, is to sell products. Food companies are not health or social service agencies, and nutrition becomes a factor in corporate thinking only when it can help sell the food.’  To this end, food service companies spend more than $11 billion dollars annually on direct media advertising – campaigning that people overeat. Nestle reinforces that, ‘in a competitive food marketplace, food companies must satisfy stockholders by encouraging more people to eat more of their products. They seek new audiences among children, among members of minority groups, or internationally…. Advertising, new products, and larger portions all contribute to a food environment that promotes eating more, not less.’

This is crazy. And it becomes even more insane when we consider that Americans spend $40 billion dollars annually on weight loss products. With 50% of all Americans suffering from hypertension and 1 out of every 3 Americans struggling with obesity – African-American women topping the charts with 8 out of 10 of us being critically over weight /obese which is an expressway to heart disease, diabetes, and/or high cholesterol, this can’t just be a failure of the individual.

So as I sit with my newfound definition of miseducation, I am ironically wedged between being stilled with despair and preparing to battle. We are undoubtedly the information/technology generation with mobile communication devises at the nexus of our being and yet in large and growing percentages, particularly when it comes to food and the environment, we are grossly misinformed and horribly miseducated.

Food Education in the ‘hood’ is a creative challenge. When folks struggle daily to make ends meet, knowing wholeheartedly in some sense and completely ignorant in others, that they are being taxed by a governmental system that ignores their most basic needs, it makes it hard for one to self-advocate.  But since our future lies in the hands of today’s youth, their health and wellness is our collective responsibility. We must, not only, advocate for them but infiltrate the very systems that they rely on for information to re-educate them. This is a process and I am happy to report that SOS Juice in Oakland is off to a brilliant start. Check out this link to their video, ‘Food Fight’:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=mu8QthlZ6hY

Eat well. Be well.

Love, Peace and Progress!

ME

The Irony of Justice

The last six months has found me immersed in a new language; a familiar world and an old concept, but a completely new language. Terminology is tricky.  Concepts and phrases like ‘food justice,’ ‘food security,’ ‘environmental justice,’ ‘urban sustainability,’ and ‘food revolution,’ lend themselves to the notion that we are actively engaged in a progressive movement of fair and equitable distribution of food in this country.  And in shockingly large proportions that is just not true.

Like many east coast foodies, I had an idealistic epicurean perception of California. I imagined boundless access to locally grown fruits and vegetables, outdoor kitchens with large community tables and a universal sovereignty about its contents. I was a struggling graduate student selling home cooked meals out of a backpack in 1996 when Alice Waters’ expanded her innovative philosophies about food to include school food and became infamous with the concept of the “edible schoolyard.’

I found this revolutionary. It sparked a brand new gastronomic movement. The nation was given a novel way of looking at the integration of the economy, the food cycle, sustainability and the traditions of artisanal foods that were groundbreaking. The food practices in Berkeley, California quickly became a model for the rest of the country making way for what would soon become a practical method of addressing the fundamental structural problems in our food system. Thus, by the time Pollan’s The Botany of Desire hit the shelves in 2001 America had an entirely new language to use in our discussion of and about food.

The slow food movement was upon us and urban agricultural sustainability was taking shape all around. Urban farms were sprouting up in notable percentage all across North America. Cities like Chicago and Detroit were changing their landscape and Vancouver was reporting that 4 out of every 10 households were growing food on their properties.

So in 2009, when I first set myself a task to develop a company that would give inner-city folks, people living in the ‘hood’ – low income, under educated and disadvantage people – access to nutritional information in a way that they could not only understand, but fully incorporate into their daily lives, my goal was simple. I wanted my people to have access to a better way of eating well and living a more (w)holistic life. I wanted to address the growing obesity crisis and the health related traumas associated with it by starting an open dialogue about the correlation of excessive ingestion of sugar, salt and fat and its long term effects on personal health.

I convinced myself that I could use my culinary genius in a way that would transform the traditional foods that I had grown up eating and loving into their healthier alternatives and then teach others how to replicate them. I started studying nutritional text; learned a myriad of facts about diabetes, cholesterol and hypertension; traveled to under developed countries to see how others managed their diets while holding true to their culture norms and hit the ground running.

By the time I secured my first set of clients, I had developed a fourteen session workshop series that covered everything from exploring the traditions and phobias that keep us from examining new foods, to debunking the myths that healthy eating is a tasteless and expensive process, to creating meals, packed with familiar proteins, raw foods and whole grains that could be sustained on a seven dollar a day food budget. I was actively engaged in the revolution. I was bringing the slow food movement to the hood. Yay!

This was my work: empowering people to take charge of their dietary consumption and their overall well-being from market to plate. I felt like I was embodying the philosophies of Immanuel Kant – that education without judgment, allowed individuals the freedom to choose their own conceptions of good; conceptions of what it meant to have a good life. And what I witnessed was that once provided with the information and the skills to implement the information, by-in-large, people were making the healthier choice.  And then I moved to the west coast… and it wasn’t until I moved to Northern California, the East Bay in particular, that I would begin to fully understand the concept and the impact of a ‘food desert’.

I grew up poor, in the South Bronx in NYC and there were times when we couldn’t afford to buy food at the market and had to rely on the open hearts of others; and there were other times when the quality of food available was questionable, but I never experienced the absence of a supermarket. There is something both sobering and eye-opening about driving through certain Oakland neighborhoods and not seeing a supermarket, a green grocer or a place to buy whole foods for two miles. For folks living in rural areas with access to cars, this might not seem like a long distance, but Oakland is an urban metropolis with densely populated communities who rely primarily on public transportation. Having to travel for four miles just to secure whole food is absolutely astonishing. A fact that becomes even more critical for health and wellness when you factor in that fast food restaurants like Burger King, which are readily available, post window sized marquees that read, “We Accept EBT Cards.”

My idealistic epicurean perception was shaken. This was not the food revolution I had in mind.

How is it that a dozen and a half years later, in a city less than five miles away from the birthplace of the eco-gastronomic movement that cultivated my belief in food equality for all,  I spend my days plagued with the most bewildering displays of food inequities and insecurities that one can imagine. Which leads me to the question “what, actually, is food justice”?

From an intellectual standpoint, I fully understand that ‘justice’ movements arrive in response to unjust acts, beliefs, policies or practices. But from a moral standpoint, I am baffled by the reality of our food system. Food, whole food, cannot be an elitist construction. It is the moral responsibility of the ‘few’ to hold the ‘many’ – wasn’t that a constitutional right? I mean, of course, the constitution after it got edited a few times.

So perhaps that is where we are: in a state of editing our food system. According to Robert Gottlieb and Anupama Joshi in their book Food Justice,

Putting together the two words food and justice does not by itself accomplish the goal of facilitating the expansion and linkage of groups and issues. Nor does it necessarily create a clear path to advocating for changes to the food system or point to ways to bring about more just policies, economic change, or the restructuring of global, national, and community food pathways. But it does open up those pathways for social and political action. And it helps establish a new language of social change in the food arena. Even as food justice has begun to represent a compelling way to talk about the changes in the food system, it remains a relatively unformed concept, subject to multiple interpretations. At best, it is seen as a work in progress, residing at the edges of an emerging alternative food movement.

So as I prepare for my next foray into the hood, suitcase packed with all of the things we should avoid eating, in my continual attempt to educate the ‘many’ still inflicted by the ills of governmental irresponsibility and by the traditions of poverty, knowing that their story is my story, I am wrapped in the words of Audre Lorde: I am not only a causality, I am also a warrior….divide and conquer must become define and empower. And my friends, I beg of you that we as a community not get so caught up in language and in the rhetoric of ‘justice’ that we forget the irony of what it means to need a “justice movement.”

Eat well. Be Well.

Love, Peace and Progress!

ME