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December 2006/January 2007
Get Your Grub On
The Satya Interview with Bryant Terry

 

Bryant Terry. Photo by Alex Tehrani
Memphis, Tennessee native Bryant Terry is a chef, food justice advocate, and founding director of b-healthy!, a collective of chefs, social justice activists, mothers and youth that has exposed thousands of young people to healthy, sustainable food and why it’s important to them, their families and communities, and the Earth to cook and eat it. With writer and food activist Anna Lappé, Terry has co-authored Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen. Terry and Lappé define grub as healthy, local, sustainable food that can and should be accessible to everyone, no matter their economic or social status or geographic locale. The book is part primer on the U.S. food system, part manifesto and part Terry’s hip, healthy and culturally diverse recipes for “grub” meals and grub parties. Having recently relocated from New York to San Francisco, Terry has spent much of the past year on the road, often with Lappé, spreading the word about Grub by speaking to and cooking with people across the U.S.

Mia MacDonald caught up with Bryant Terry to talk about getting grub on our tables, hosting a great grub party, working with young people, and the roots of his work.

How did you get interested in food?
My grandparents grew up in rural Mississippi on farms they owned and worked on. When they came to Memphis, they brought a lot of those traditions, food ways and survival skills. They had huge organic gardens. I was always learning about food systems and how to grow, cook and preserve food.

How did you translate that interest into b-healthy!, an activist organization?
I started b-healthy! to address a crisis, a way to get some wheels turning. Young people living in low-income communities had a lack of understanding of the relationship between diet and health, and how the foods they consume affect their overall well-being and lifestyles. I wanted to address this using cooking to engage and excite them to learn more about food and food systems. Very quickly I saw another issue: these communities didn’t have stores [carrying] fresh produce. Instead they had a plethora of the opposite—stores [with] lots of processed and canned foods, foods high in fats and sugars and low in desirable nutrients.

Why do you focus on youth? And how do they respond to your efforts?
B-healthy!’s programs are youth-centered and youth-driven. It’s us [the adult staff] giving them information, but they figure out how to translate it for friends and family members.

When young people are part of creating the foods—not just talking about it—they try them. It takes time to change habits, but after nine months, the kids in the workshops definitely desire these healthier foods. Young people need to be part of educating other youth about food justice issues and generating solutions that are locally driven and owned by them. They are the best generators of and ambassadors for ideas around food that are palpable to other young people.

Do you have a particular message in Grub for young people?
Anna and I wanted Grub to appeal to younger people, meaning from high school up to age 35—people of our generation. One of the big messages in Grub is that we have the power to change the food system. One of the things I talk about with young people is that, unfortunately, they’re in charge of finding solutions for problems they didn’t create. But there has been so much movement on the ground. Thousands of people around the country are working in the food justice movement creating beautiful solutions, locally and nationally. In social movements throughout history young people have been the driving force behind them. Young people need to be crucial in shifting the food system as well.

How can people of all ages get more “grub” into their lives?
Grub isn’t just cerebral. One of the things I’ve found most effective over the years is actually demonstrating it. That’s why “grub parties” were so crucial when we initiated the project. Hosting these small, sustainable dinner parties featuring food from local sources—farmers markets, food co-ops, community supported agriculture programs (CSAs), or community gardens—demonstrated how we can have a food system in which we’re supporting local growers and getting food in season that’s delicious. That’s transformed more people than me getting up on a soapbox.

What makes a great grub party?
It’s important to invite people of diverse backgrounds and ideologies so you can have interesting conversations and sharing of ideas. The great thing about having a healthy diet is that whether you’re left, right or center, I don’t think many people can disagree with the fact that we should be eating healthier foods. It’s a great equalizer. Anna and I love to have our long-time friends over but we also invite people we’ve heard about who we think are interesting and we’d like to get to know better.

The music is key. I’m a lover of music of all genres, and was very excited about creating soundtracks that would go well with the food and create a mood for the meal. And, of course, the food. If possible, go to a farmers’ market or a local community garden so the food has an integrity with the ideals of grub. When you serve it, it has great energy because it comes from a good source. Talking about where you got the food is one more way to get people thinking about alternative ways of feeding themselves outside of just going to a grocery store, walking down the aisles and filling up their baskets.

What are some practical tips for finding grub locally and affordably?
Everyone has a basic human right to healthy food. In Grub and on our website, we provide people with a community food audit form. This helps people identify community gardens, farmers’ markets, local independent grocery stores and local farms where they can get grub outside of corporate health food stores or conventional grocery stories. Another great resource is www.localharvest.org. You can type in your zip code and find farmers’ markets and CSAs nearby. The wonderful thing I’ve seen around the country is people creating local solutions, such as starting food-buying clubs in which they connect with suppliers and buy things in bulk at the lowest price possible and then share them with neighbors.

CSAs are great, if one is lucky enough to have local farms that bring good food into urban centers. This is a huge movement as well in which churches, community-based organizations and other organizations are buying food from farms and providing it to their members. When I was a member of a CSA, my share was huge enough for me to share it with three other people. I always encourage people to join with a couple of friends and buy one share in a CSA. There’s also been an exponential rise in community gardens across the country, and more people are thinking about utilizing green space in communities to produce food for themselves and for neighbors. It’s a great way to produce food and create community.

You’ve written that a lot of foods can be “grub.” How?
So often people think that when they choose grub they have to give up so much. My philosophy around food is: embrace who you are, embrace what is important to you, but also think about how you can make that diet more plant-centered using healthier foods. Through b-healthy! we worked with a lot of young people who were immigrants or whose parents were immigrants. When we’re thinking about this whole notion of what healthy is, we have to think about it in a broader way. Maintaining a connection with one’s cultural foods, cultural food ways and ancestral foods is very important for our individual health and sustainability. We can think about taking traditional foods and modifying ingredients to meet modern health concerns while staying connected to the foods that our parents or grandparents ate.

Because I grew up in Memphis, soul food is a big part of my history. There’s no way I’m going to give it up. But the way it’s prepared is often unhealthy. The vegetables can be cooked to death in less healthy fats. Collard greens are a staple in Southern cooking, but the way I grew up, the greens would be cooked for about two hours with a piece of bacon fat. In my recipe [Citrus Collards with Raisins, included in Grub], I blanch the collards for about eight minutes and then sauté them with a little olive oil and garlic. I wanted a kind of modern, funky twist, so I added raisins and freshly squeezed orange juice. Family members I thought would be so dogmatic they wouldn’t try something new have embraced it and been excited about it.

Do you have a New Year’s resolution?
In 2007 I am committing to focusing most of my energy around building a more just and sustainable food system in the Southern U.S.

The South leads the U.S. in obesity rates. Southern states also have some of the highest rates of hypertension, diabetes, and other obesity-related illnesses. Over the past several years these statistics have hit home, as I have seen a rise in preventable, diet-related illnesses in my own family, as well as my wider community in Memphis. Last year alone, my 15 year-old cousin was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, my 41 year-old aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer, and my 53 year-old uncle was diagnosed with hypertension. After learning that my father had colon cancer at the end of last year, I decided it was time for me to return to the South and make an intervention.

Having grown up in Memphis and lived in New Orleans and Huntsville, AL, I am in a unique position to affect change among African-Americans living in the South. I am keenly aware of Southern foodways, cultural assumptions, and social mores. Since I have been gone for over seven years, however, I am committed to moving back to the South for a few months at the beginning of next year in order to better understand ways in which I can have the most impact. This knowledge will allow me to design culturally sensitive workshops, lectures, and cooking demonstrations that will effectively move people to re-think many of their assumptions about diet and health. Ultimately, peoples’ personal transformation will lead to more structural changes.

Mia MacDonald, a Satya Consulting Editor, is a policy analyst and writer as well as a long-time animal advocate who lives in Brooklyn. She was inspired by Grub to purchase a salad spinner, an oven timer and to start cooking regularly with recipes. For more information visit www.b-healthy.org and www.eatgrub.org.


 

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