This episode highlights the effects of structural racism and the history of our food system in the United States. It discusses the demonization of cultural foods, the use of Eurocentric dietary standards as the primary baseline for nutrition recommendations, and how these continue to contribute to the gap in nutrition inequality we see today.
Tune in now to hear from guest speaker Sadé Meeks as she shares her concept of food as resistance and how we can empower communities through a holistic approach in the interconnected complexity of identity and food.
As a subsequent part of this episode, AMCHP is inviting our listeners to watch Sadé’s documentary “Food as Resistance” [request free access code] and join us for the first-ever “Creating the Connections: MCH Bridges After-Episode” on Tuesday, November 1, 2022, from 3:00 – 4:00 PM EDT [register]. This event will be moderated by AMCHP staff and will be joined live by Sadé, who will discuss your thoughts and reflections on the “Food as Resistance” documentary.
More on the exclusion of Black Farmers in the U.S.:
'Rampant issues': Black farmers are still left out at USDA .Politico, Bustillo (2021).
Water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi:
*This episode was recorded prior to the Jackson, MS water crisis receiving national media attention, we encourage our listeners to learn more about this issue and support in whatever way you can by visiting the links below.
'They let us down': Water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi, flows from systemic racism . Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Schrader (2022).
Ways To Help: Jackson Water Crisis . Community Foundation For Mississippi (2022).
Welcome to MCH Bridges, where we lift up innovative ideas and inspiring stories from people in the maternal and child health field. I'm Ellisa Alvarez. I'm a public health associate on the child and adolescent health team at AMCHP, and I'm your guest host for today. If I had to pick a movie scene that can truly describe the soil ties we have to food, I think of a scene in one of the greatest classical films of our Ratatouille. Not to give any spoilers, but towards the end of the movie, when Chef Remy is deciding what to cook for the infamous food critic, Anton Ego, he decides on Ratatouille. Remy's Co chef is surprised by this choice and says, Ratatouille, it's a peasant dish. Are you sure you wanna serve this to. Now, Chef Remy had no knowledge of ego's connection to the ratatouille dish. But in the first bite, it takes ego back to a time in his childhood home when he was distraught and agitated. But after being served with a big bowl of his mother's ratatouille, he is instantly comforted. Chef Remy's choice to make a simple dish for a seemingly powerful man demonstrates the power of food to invoke many emotions. The pure nostalgia and joy. This scene shows us, without words, the power of food. Food gives us nutrients, which is important, but it also is about the experience, which has the ability to bring joy and connection to our culture. Now according to the US Department of Agriculture, currently 38 million people in the US including 12 million children are food insecure, someone who is with without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. In 2015, I found myself facing food insecurity. I was a first year college student trying to cut costs in any way I could. I chose the most affordable meal plan, which meant I had to opt out of weekend dining service. I was forced to get meals because I couldn't afford to eat, and I ate the free rice offered at my part-time. I was always tired and always felt like my stomach was eating itself to make it worse, not having the freedom to pick what I wanted to eat and always having to choose the most cost effective option made me feel like I had lost a piece of my identity missing the joy and nost of my home cooked meals brought, which I so longed for being miles away from everything I. How could I have been expected to be my best self? When a part of me was gone, being a good student, going out and being social, making memories, other parts of me started getting lost, all because I lost a choice to eat what I wanted. I think something I've learned through my personal experience and working in this space is how intertwined our connection to food and our identity truly is. Not having access to food that are familiar and and culturally relevant can impact not just physical health, but also take an emotional toll on your wellbeing in their most recent needs assessments process, several title five Maternal and child health programs identify improving access to food as one of their priorities within their action plans and more than ever before, Title five program staff have also prioritized working towards health equity and directly addressing social determinants of health. Efforts to support access to food can't be done without centering culture and acknowledging the healing effect that foods have on holistic health. In today's podcast episode, I have the honor in interviewing Sadé Meeks, who is a writer, food activist, and nutrition expert. Sadé is the executive director of her nonprofit Growing Resilience in the South or Grits Inc. I was first introduced to Sadé and her work when I attended a presentation she gave at the University of Tennessee one stop on part of her larger college tour, where she shed light on the African American food story and how food can be a part of the resistance to systemic racism and screened her new documentary Food as Resistance. Was one of the first activist speakers I had heard describe the intertwined nature of identity and food for this episode. I couldn't think of a better person to interview than herself. Welcomes and thank you so much for joining us today.Sade Meeks:
Thank you. I'm happy to be here.Ellisa Alvarez:
So happy and have, Heres, I think to start off, we could talk a bit about how your journey nutrition started.Sade Meeks:
I always had a love for food and so I initially thought I wanted to be a chef, so I got my Bachelor's of science and culinary. But because it was a bachelor's of science, I did a lot of science courses within my undergrad career. And that's when I learned that I had this love for science, uh, as well. And so nutritional science was the perfect way to really just merge my love for food and science. And that prompted me to pursue a master's in nutritional science at Cal State la. Where I eventually graduated and then got my registered dieticians license. And so that's kind of how I got to this place. But it has definitely evolved and it, it doesn't look like how I thought it would look like because when I first, you know, got into the field, I did see a lot of traditional roles of a dietician and I, I try to see myself in those traditional roles. But that's not where I ended up landing, which is okay. And so I'm still kind of like just growing in this field and finding so many different ways to communicate nutrition to different people. And speakingEllisa Alvarez:
about that, how did that inspire you to start grits? What were you doing that gave you that push to go for it?Sade Meeks:
So when I started, it was actually the first year I was working like my big girl job as a dietician at the public health department. And I started grades because I knew, like I've always been an entrepreneur. So when I got my job at the health department, that was my first dietician job. I knew that wasn't gonna be like a long term thing, and I was still just trying to figure out like what my entrepreneur journey was gonna look like. I guess I got the vision sitting at the table with my grandmother who lives in Yasu City, Mississippi. and I remember her just talking about her guardian and the food she grew for our family, like when my mom was growing up and she has a big family and she just talked so positively about food and her story was really just empowering for me. And I connected to her story about food and me connecting to that story empowered me. and I literally asked myself, how would other people feel if they heard stories like this? If they could be empowered through food, through connecting with food in this different way. And that really prompted me to star grids that wanted to create a nonprofit organization that could help people not only learn about nutrition, but connect to food in a way that was empowering to. When I attended a virtual presentation you gave on the history of systemic racism in the food system, you also shared a screening of your film called Food as Resistance. Could you share more about what this idea of food as resistance means to you? Yeah, that's a great question. I started going to like different colleges, communicating the message, specifically colleges with nutrition programs. So, uh, I actually did like a webinar series with dieticians and at the end of it we all kind of. Describe food as resistance in our own words, but in the context of grits and the context of the work that I do. If I could describe food as resistance in a sentence or a phrase, it's reconnecting with food because so many systemic issues have disconnected us from food. So when we can reconnect, that's definitely a sign of resistance and you can reconnect in so many different. I came up with food as resistance because I noticed that a lot of times, you know, cultural foods get blamed for health disparities, but in actuality it is a deeply rooted systemic issue from food apartheid, unequal access to healthcare, just biases and research and education. So many things can play a role in our health, and they do. And a lot of those systemic issues that get overlooked because. Many times the blame is shifted to what we eat, and it has perpetuated and contributed to this demonization of cultural foods. And so I wanted to really dismantle stereotypes surrounding cultural foods. And also show how our foods could be part of our resistance. Because when we begin to dismantle these stereotypes, we see our foods are very nutritious for our body. A lot of plant-based foods, a lot of foods high in fiber and you know, vitamins and minerals. And so that's what I wanted to share with people. I wanted to share how these systemic issues are contributed to these health disparities, but we can do something. I reallyEllisa Alvarez:
love this idea of reconnecting with food as a way of resistance to negative stereotypes that continue to be perpetuated around cultural foods. Could you share some of the historical context that has contributed to the systemic racism present in our foodSade Meeks:
system today? One of the things I talk about is the history of stolen farmland. From black farmers and that really impacted a lot of southern farmers, specifically in like in Mississippi, and that was back in the mid to late 1900s. However, that's still impacting us today because so many black farmers lost their land, lost a lot of wealth, and generational wealth and things like that have contributed to this, this gap in capital between black people and white. My grandmother wasn't a farmer. It still impacted me. Somewhere down the line, my family were farmers and being detached from this land, detached from this main source of income really impacted us and it's impacting us now where we see this wealth out. A way that we can resist that is to. Kind of destigmatize black farming because there has been like a stigma in regards to black people in farming. A lot of people, you know, sometimes associated with slavery and share cropping. So really destigmatizing farmers within the black community and also supporting local black farmers is a way to also reconnect and kind of resists those systemic.Ellisa Alvarez:
I do remember you talking about that, and I think you even gave a statistic about how many black farmers thereSade Meeks:
were in the past. Yeah, it is peak, it was like almost a million, um, black farmers, but today it's about 50,000 farmers that I identify as black. So we went from like a million to 50,000. And the U S D A did, you know, admit to discriminating, get black farmers and that's how a lot. Farmers lost their land, was the U S D A, was discriminating against black farmers and getting loans and things like that. And even though they reached a settlement, a lot of farmers still didn't ever get what was owed. Money can replace, you know, land that was stolen. Land is in the form of income. It was like power land is really power. And so that kind of contributed to like this idea. What power and values, It's justEllisa Alvarez:
so shocking to hear these numbers and this piece of history now in my adult life rather than when I was in school. I just wish I had the opportunity to be aware of these things Earlier on. In talking about this idea of changing the narratives around cultural foods, why do you think it's important to reframe cultural foods as healing versus harmful? I think it's important to feel connected to your, your culture because that's part of your identity.Sade Meeks:
And I know like for African Americans because of slavery, sometimes our culture is not, a lot of times it's not clear. Like we don't really know how deep. Our ancestors go, Where are our ancestors from? Like, we don't know all those answers because of the dark, traumatic history of slavery. And that stuff really does impact us. And I think once again, food is one way we can't connect. But if we have these bad misconceptions about food, it makes us even wanna connect to that part of our culture. And I think when we really began to dismantle those stereotypes and really see our foods where they are. We can begin to connect to culture in a way that has been stripped away from us. You know, what you just shared really highlights, again, the idea that food isn't just food and having access to food that connects us to our culture, histories and identities is just so important. And something that stuck with me from your presentation was an example you gave of how more recently kale has been marketed and perceived as a food that white people.Ellisa Alvarez:
When in reality, kale has been a staple African American diets for much, much longer. It reminds me of how the foods that I ate growing up being Mexican American were often labeled as fattening and full of grease, and they were just always described as unhealthy. And now I see white influence on social media appropriating foods that originated in Mexican and Latina culture and renaming them like cowboy caviar, which is actually Pico de gallo. Um, a type was also used in a lot of Mexican cuisines. So could you share a bit more about how appropriation of traditional foods continues to upholdSade Meeks:
inequities? I just think that us not reclaiming our foods is perpetuating this idea that European standards are a gold standards and that, and kind of allowing them to take ownership of not theirs. And I think it's important that we, black people I know, like especially in Jackson, Mississippi, where I'm from, there's so many creatives out. And black people, we have a history of being like creatives, but however, ownership is something that we haven't historically done, like own something. And owning a narrative is important. Not just not owning physical things, but owning what your culture is, owning what your foods are, and that allowing other people to own that or try to rename it or reclaim. So we have to own it in that way because that's power and that's part of who we are and that's part of our identity. And so across cultures, I think that's important because culture connects us to our family, connects us to our roots, and if we allow other people to try to claiming of their own, it can feel like some our iden identities is being stripped away. And also too, when that happens, Like you said, it's like gentrification of food and prices go up and then it makes it harder for us to even buy kale, you know, because it's too expensive. But it wasn't expensive until another race started to claim it. We have seen that happen with avocados, with kale. So, so many other cultural foods, like when it begins to trend because of the white influencers or what, what have you, are making it, you know, appealing to their audience. We definitely see that. The prices on those food items as.Ellisa Alvarez:
It's a form of gentrification. I think also bringing that to light, that there's just so many ways that things can be gentrified. Housing right, is such a big thing and it's very apparent and it's very true. But you know, our foods, like you said, like, you know, I didn't even really think about that until right now because kale is so expensive. But I'm pretty sure if we look back, you know, there's so many foods, like in my culture, right? Ceviche is a shrimp dish, For example, you know, shrimp was so inexpensive and that's why they made it. Thinking about it. Now it's more expensive..Sade Meeks:
Yeah, and I didn't even know that about the shrimp, like so thanks for sharing that. But it reminded me, like of oysters in the African American community, I, I know my mom used to talk about like eating oysters all the time, growing up. And I was surprised cause I'm like, Mom, it aren't oysters expensive.. When she was like, No, not back then. It's a lot of racism and capitalism and marketing and stuff like that. And you see it play out in different ways and that's just one of theEllisa Alvarez:
ways, there's so many different ones. What you were saying about with your mom, My mom used to eat bone marrow, and that was something that she didn't realize that it was so expensive here because in Mexico they used to just give it to her like nothing. You know? It didn't even think about it. And then she came here and she would see it on the menu and not something you can eat anywhere. It's interesting. Being in this nutrition space for some time now, I've realized in so many places, you know, in spaces in public health, unfortunately, that the lack of diversity among registered dieticians I saw was less than 3% of registered dieticians are black, while just over 80% are white, which is just. Is wild to me. After we talked about, you know, reframing the narrative around cultural foods, how would it be different if someone had the opportunity to interact with dieticians that had a shared cultural identity or at a minimum, you know, have knowledge of the culture that shapes what and how they eat.Sade Meeks:
It would make a word of a difference in the effectiveness of the nutrition consult, and not even just knowledge of cultural foods, but just knowledge. Of cultural experiences and their environment, like their whole food environment is important. Traditional, like nutrition education has been really like isolated in the sense where it's just food focused on recommendations, but not considering everything else that impacts our access or like the diversity of foods. So I definitely think it would be different. I know it would be different. Because a lot of times people, especially clients, like I remember when I was a dietician, well, I still am, but I remember when I was like working at the public hills, like seeing patients every day. A lot of people were like hesitant to see me because they thought I was gonna tell them to stop eating all their favorite foods. And a lot of times they were like things that were a part of their culture and they didn't have that mindset for no reason. They had that mindset because they had some type of experience like that. And I think we have to really change that within the field because that can be very disempowering for people, patients, especially ones that need help. So if they feel like they can meet these recommendations because they don't identify with these recommendations, they are less likely to make any changes. But if they have recommendations that they can identify with, they are more. Likely to make some changes and their self-efficacy can be a little bit higher. So it really reduces some of the barriers when you have that connection, whether that's a cultural connection or just this sensitivity or knowledge about their environment, and just more of a overall perspective of the patient and their needs. I thinkEllisa Alvarez:
that's so important, especially like I've said, just realizing and noticing. I think sometimes we want solutions that are one size fits all. That's just not the reality, especially when it comes to food, because food is part of our identity and it's part of our culture. It's more than just, you know, eating it and ingesting for health reasons. People were hesitant, you know, And I. think that's very true. And I think that also prevents so many people from coming in and getting the help that they need, right? Because they're afraid that it's gonna be more of a, of a judgemental thing.Sade Meeks:
And as an expert, it's easy to want to go into a room with a client and tell them everything you know, and everything they need to do. But I've learned that the best and most effecti. Nutrition expert or dietician learns from the patient. And I used to spend a lot of my time learning, especially if it was a new patient, learning about their history with foods, their ability to access foods, their ability to cook foods, their perception of foods. So really trying to understand. Their relationship with food? Is it positive? Is it negative? Is it something that they already see as part of their culture? Is it something that they struggled with? So I really try to see like what their relationship with food is. That goes back to their perception of foods. Are you labeling foods good and bad? Are you able to access the foods and encompasses a lot? So I re, I remember I had some resistance with one of my professors cuz I wanted to use the relationship with food. In my food literacy cookbook, and she kept telling me that's a term used in eating disorder. But I was like, Well, everyone needs to have a relationship with food. And so I, that's what I do when I'm working with a patient. I really try to learn from them before I even give a recommendation. I know what they may need, but I don't know follow what they need. Health doesn't look one way, like there's so many ways. That a person can be healthy if someone has diabetes, is, is there multiple recommendations that you can give a patient with diabetes? You don't have to just stick through the standard. It's the other ways to communicate those recommendations too. And so learning from them helps me understand what kind of recommendations I wanna give, how I wanna communicate those recommendations and things of that nature. So it really varies, but I think that's the foundation. Of all consultations is really being intentional about learning about the patient and not trying to show them or tell them everything, you know. WhatEllisa Alvarez:
advice would you have for those that work in the state or jurisdiction, maternal child health programs, who wanna begin thinking about their role in efforts to address in equities and food access?Sade Meeks:
I would say we have to be more creative in, in the way that we learn and also the way that we educate. It's easy to do like a typical learning, like webinars and textbook, but to really learn and have effective learning, I think we have to really be more hands on, get out into those environments where we're educating and learn about other people's experiences like experiences. Can be the best teachers. And so we don't have the same lived experiences as everyone, so you have to learn from other people's experiences. So learning about the experiences of people that you're working with is important. And so not just sticking to those traditional learning methods because they can be hindrance to you. You think that's the only way you can learn more information. Once again, you see systemic racism embedded in traditional education cuz a lot of times, like for your nutrition at least, you see a lot of European recommendations and how their marketing as the gold standard if the professionals within the field can. Find ways to educate people that is more sensitive to their culture and also sensitive to their environment, I think is helpful. So really just building cultural humility is very important for everyone in this space. You're never fully competent in someone's culture, so you, you can never stop learning about those things. And I think that's where we have to go back because we can have all these resources, but if they aren't. Culturally sensitive. Is it really effective to the people you're trying to reach?Ellisa Alvarez:
Thank you for sharing that. I think that's amazing advice for our listeners. I think my final question to really close out this episode is what drives you, you know, what motivates you every day to keep showing up in the work that you'reSade Meeks:
My why is, this is a question and I'm trying to like summarize it, but my why is to really help plant seeds and. My grandmother's 100 years old and she's a woman full of prayer, full of stories, full of just, uh, empowerment. And I see all of that is as seeds. And those seeds have really, I think, help manifest grits and, you know, helped me develop grits because those seeds she planted in me as a young child and as an adult as well. And I believe that stories can be seized for people seized that can plant vision and plant inspiration. and. Also like literal seed, like reconnecting with food so we can plant our own foods and understand like how that's a thing that can be a sustainable part of our communities. And that's something that can feed our communities, especially communities that may have lacked food access. So visualizing and seeing seeds is something like a metaphor, but also something that's very literal. And so I just wanna be able to continue to plant seed in the community. And empower and inspire people to, you know, pass along what was planted in them. And, and in doing so, we can nourish each other. We can just really nourish our community and the people that are around us.Ellisa Alvarez:
You've learned so much from your grandmother. Like you said, plan to see it and pass it on. And think about one day if you have grandchildren or, or you're an aunt or an uncle, or that you will pass that on to somebody they're gonna remember and be like, Oh, because my aunt taught me, or my grandmother taught me, like you said. So yeah, I really love.Sade Meeks:
Yeah, I think food is such a, a unique and very effective way to plant those seeds because food isn't just food. It tells stories of our history, of our culture. It's so much more than just what it is and everyone eats, you know? And I think that's the most powerful thing about it. Like we can find coming, grounding that. In some form or fashion, like people can get something out of food. Whether it is the process of like cooking a family recipe or learning to grow the food is so many ways that we can pass on those seeds and just, you know, continue to nourish. Our environment and the future generations.Ellisa Alvarez:
Well, this has been, I mean, even from the first time I've heard you and now having the opportunity to even talk to you more, just really wanna take the time to appreciate you coming on and speaking with us. And yeah, we wanna make sure that we can give folks like where they can learn more about grits and the type of resources that grits offer.Sade Meeks:
You can learn more about grits at our website, which is gritsinc.Org. We also have a social media at Instagram, GRITS_Inc. If we use storytelling to bridge the gap between nutrition and culture. And our main resource right now is film. It should be live for the public soon, and also planning on working on a docu-series, just kind of amplifying what we talked about today, amplifying the importance of cultural foods. The importance of understanding as a part of our health, and also bringing awareness to systemic issues that may try to disconnect us from those things. So those are the resources we have right now and our social medias also like always posting like tips and facts about history and food. You can stay up to date through those different outlets, and you can also subscribe to our newsletter by going to the website as.Ellisa Alvarez:
Great. Well thank you so much for sharing and definitely be on a lookout for those and can't wait till you have those released as well.Sade Meeks:
Thank you. I, I can't wait to share. It's been, uh, a long process, but a fun one at that, so thanks for having me and just. And giving me the opportunity to share this information with a, a larger or different audienceEllisa Alvarez:
AMCHP is excited to be partnering with Sadé to host a screening of her film for our MCH community. The screening will be available for three weeks shortly after the release of this episode. The access code for viewing the film along with other important details can be found in the podcast. Description following the screening AMCHP will be hosting a virtual debrief session to create space for our mage community to share their thoughts, insights, and reactions to the film, and to really have a discussion on this important topic. So make sure to stay up to date with all these exciting events and future podcasts by connecting with AMCHP on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Links to all our social media pages can be found in this episode's description. Thank you all for joining us on. MCH Bridges, we kindly ask thatMaura Leahy:
you take a few minutes to fill out a quick feedback survey and let us know what MCH related topics you're interested in and who you want to hear from on future episodes. A link to the podcast feedback survey as well as is transcript of this episode can be found at www.mchbridges.org. Be sure to follow AMCHP Social Media. We're on Twitter and Instagram at DC_AMCHP. We hope this episode created new connections for you. Stay well and I hope our paths cross on the next MCH bridges. This project is supported by the Health Resources and Services Administration for HRSA of the US Department of Health and Human Services for HHS as part of an award totalling $1,963,039. 0% financed with non-governmental sources. This information or content and conclusions are those of the author and should not be construed as the official position or policy of, nor should any endorsements be inferred by hrsa, hhs, or the US government.