UPDATE: Join us for an expert-led reader forum April 13-17 on MotherJones.com around the question: Is organic and local so 2008?
Both Alice Waters and Van Jones praise Bryant Terry's new cookbook, Vegan Soul Kitchen. And not just for the recipes. Terry, a food policy fellow for the Kellogg Foundation, has a history of whipping up recipes for change, not just food.
After founding a youth nonprofit and hosting the public television series The Endless Feast, Terry now travels across the country giving lectures on everything from the prevalence of diet-related diseases in the South to "food deserts" in Oakland. He joined Mother Jones on video to whip up his healthy version of a quintessential soul food recipe and talk about racism in the food system, faith-based food activism, and the Southern Organic Kitchen Project.
Mother Jones: Your new book is called Vegan Soul Kitchen. Why vegan? Is veganism going to save the world?
Bryant Terry: I don't necessarily think veganism is going to save the world; I'll start there. In fact, I don't advocate any particular diet for anyone. I think that's a very personal decision that people have to make. I will say this, however: There are more and more studies in terms of the health benefits of veganism; there are more and more studies that are showing that a properly executed vegan diet is highly beneficial for cleansing, for detoxing, in addition to lowering the risks for and even ameliorating chronic illness. We all have our own body constitutions and cultural food ways and personal tastes that determine what will work for us. All that being said, I think that if everyone did at least embrace a more plant-centered diet, it would improve public health. Given that it takes up to 16 pounds of grain to produce one pound of meat, I think we can also go a long way toward ending hunger and saving the environment as well.
I want [Vegan Soul Kitchen] to be a book for everyone. I wanted this book to be a book for people who identified themselves as vegetarian, people who identified themselves as vegan, and people who identified themselves as meat eaters. For me, the focus of this book is about the use of local, seasonal, and sustainable real food.
I also think that one of the most important parts of this project is moving away from this stereotype of what traditional African American food and cooking is and going back to what I know it as. Food historian Jessica B. Harris says African American cuisine is simply what black people ate. When I think about what my family ate, we ate what people think of as soul food on special occasions, on holidays, but our typical diet was leafy greens and nutrients and tubers—food that was as fresh as being harvested right before our meal. Whatever was in season, that's what we were eating. It was being harvested right from our backyard.
MJ: You grew up in the South, and you were able to eat locally there then?
BT: I was. I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee; I went to college in New Orleans before moving to New York City for graduate school. Both sets of my grandparents grew up in rural Mississippi and brought a lot of agrarian knowledge to Memphis, which is an urban center in the South. Both sets had amazing backyard gardens. My paternal grandfather, practically every inch of available space was green.
MJ: What's the best way to improve access to healthful foods in low-income communities?
BT: In California there are lots of great farmers markets, especially here in the Bay. But in West Oakland there are close to 35,000 residents and not one single grocery store. Yet there are over 50 liquor/convenience stores. I think that people deserve at least a supermarket in their community. But that's not the only solution. All communities, and low-income communities especially because of food insecurity and lack of access to healthy foods, need more farmers markets, need more community gardens and urban farms. It would be great if people living in communities had the tools and resources to grow food in their own backyard—community-based food systems.
MJ: Is the current US food system a medium for racism?
BT: I think that the agriculture system in general is rooted in racism—consider that historically black labor on plantations was the backbone of the economy. These workers didn't reap the benefit of that system. In terms of the contemporary food system we see a lot of racism currently. Obviously we have a large supply of food. A lot of people don't examine why that is the case, but there are a number of nonwhite migrant workers being exploited every day. In restaurants across America we see Latino workers in the kitchen who are being paid substandard wages. The saddest thing to me is that if we think about these workers, these are the people with the least access to good food. Yet they're often suffering from the highest rates of obesity and diet-related illnesses.
MJ: How can food activists best combat this?
BT: I think there needs to be a general consciousness raising among consumers. So many consumers aren't aware of the backstory. They see the end product in the supermarket but don't know all the steps that it took to get it there, who helped to get the food there.
MJ: What's the future of farming? Will young, hip organic farmers save the world, or is it something else that will keep people motivated?