Words from the Food Revolution Summit:
Next we turned out attention to food justice. In the US and many developed nations, consumption of highly processed sugar-laden “junk” foods, white flour, unhealthy fats, and artificial chemicals is highest in low-income communities. Not surprisingly, these same communities suffer from disproportionate rates of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and many other health ailments.
Nikki Henderson is director of People’s Grocery, a non-profit organization working to increase demand for and access to healthy food in historically underinvested communities. She lives and works in West Oakland, a community of 30,000 residents that has 53 liquor stores and not one grocery store. Interviewed by my dad, John Robbins, she shared some of her key insights from work on the front lines of the food revolution:
“We don’t try to communicate our message the first time we interact with someone. We try to build the relationship first. It is in building the relationship that we can actually figure out what is important to them and where we can align. There are so many ways to interact with someone around healthy foods. If I talk to someone long enough I will be able to find out why healthy food is important to them.”
“Access to good food is a very intersectional concept that includes economic access (so people can afford it)… cultural access (so people can cook it and integrate it into their diet)… and leadership (to help inspire people to take charge of their health).”
“We are rooted very locally and one of the reasons why we wanted to be rooted very locally is because the transformation of historically underinvested communities like West Oakland has to begin with the people who live here. We resource people in the community so that they can create a fully functional local food system.”
Ocean Robbins: Welcome to The Food Revolution Summit where we explore how you can heal your body and your world with food. This is Ocean Robbins and I am joined by my dad John Robbins in welcoming our guest Nikki Henderson. Nikki Henderson is one of the leaders in the food justice movement. She serves as Executive Director of People’s Grocery, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing fresh good food to people of all income levels. She is also co-founder of Live Real, a national collaborative of food movement organizations committed to strengthening and expanding the youth food movement in the United States. In 2010 Nikki was featured in LA Magazine as one of five gold awardees for her innovative work in urban nutrition, agriculture and enterprise. The People’s Grocery’s community lead enterprises generate employment opportunities while increasing access to and demand for healthy food in low income communities. They operate several urban organic gardens, provide culturally based nutrition education and are launching several innovative enterprises including The Mobile Market which is a travelling produce store and The Grub Box, which is a modified community supported agriculture, or CSA program. They teach culturally appropriate nutrition classes, workshops and events and are building an ongoing demand for healthy local food. Their work is being replicated by organizations across the United States and around the world. Nikki, it is such an honor to have you with us now and my dad and I are really delighted to have the pleasure of welcoming you onto this call. Here to interview you is my dad John Robbins.
John Robbins: Thank you Ocean and welcome Nikki. We are honored and delighted to have you with us. We so appreciate the work that you are doing and want our listeners to hear about it and have the benefit of your inspiration and wisdom. I know you are working in West Oakland which is a community that faces tremendous economic hardship.
John Robbins: What are some of the key things that you find affective when you are educating low income communities about health and nutrition?
Nikki Henderson: Well I think one of the most affective things for me is going back to that listening question. It is approaching the community from the perspective of; your grandmother is not saying anything differently than I am. You might be disconnected from it, you person I am talking to you or you may not which is why it is important to ask you a question first. What do you know about healthy food? Do you eat healthy food? How often do you eat vegetables? How have you cooked vegetables in the past? What is your interaction at all with what I am talking about conceptually? I mean there is really no way to educate someone until you know where they are coming from and you can meet them where they are at. I also think it is slightly condescending to approach a community assuming that you must educate them. I actually learned just as much as we teach. I feel like the right approach so that you approach the community as a peer and as someone that you would like to work in partnership with and understanding as well that communities are incredibly diverse. So different people who live in the community will offer different things. I think that our Growing Justice Institute model is all about finding the ambassadors in the community that are saying the exact same thing that we are saying and resourcing them to talk to the people that they have known for decades and allowing us to be the partner with them in transforming the community.
John Robbins: It sounds like you are working to find and implement solutions that can improve the quality of life at a local level and at the same time you are engaging in a national, even international conversation about systemic change. If you had the power to make large scale changes in government food policy, what kinds of changes would you make and why? Nikki Henderson: You are getting me started! Okay, so let me organize my thoughts here a bit because that is an exciting question. You know it is interesting, we are rooted very locally and one of the reasons why we wanted to be rooted very locally is because the transformation of historically underinvested communities like West Oakland has to begin with the people who live here. It has to be very local but no local effort will work unless it is also tied to other local efforts and can share best practices and share mistakes and learn from other local efforts. So we are also working on developing a statewide network of food justice organizations that can share best practices and actually learn from each other. I think if I had to answer the policy question, something that strikes me very strongly is that our orientation towards our work is resourcing for independence. So we resource people in the community so that they can create a fully functional local food system that at some point won’t need the support of People’s Grocery or if they do need the support they will tell us how they would like to be in partnership with us because they will know fully what they need to have a very thriving food system. I think shifting investments, this will be slightly controversial here, but there is this big conversation happening right now about increasing the amount of money that goes to food stamps and other federally subsidized nutrition programs because so many people are in need of food stamps right now. So I think my argument would be if there is going to be an increase in federally subsidized nutrition program funding, don’t actually put it to emergency services, put it towards things like ours that actually are trying to build self-sufficiency so that at some point people will actually get off food stamps because there will be local food systems that can support them. Then, as people get off food stamps, keep that amount of money that you were spending pretty static over ten years so that as more and more people get off food stamps, more and more of that money is thus being rerouted into local food systems. That is what I would say and for any other policies like that, make sure that if you are funding emergency services you are also funding for self-sufficiency so that people can eventually get off emergency services.