Starting a conversation about nutritional equity
We posed five questions to a few local leaders dedicated to the improvement of food, nutrition, and wellness in the Black community of San Diego to reflect on the events of 2020. They shared stories of how they have been affected and what they think this means for the future.
Everyone noted that the Covid-19 pandemic, like other public health crises in the past, has shed a spotlight on the socioeconomic disparities of the Black community affecting the overall health of Black people in America. Local leaders in the realm of food see this as an opportunity for widespread change in the diet paradigm of traditionally underserved populations. Most said the goal is not just to increase awareness of nutrition disparities, but also to instigate more health food experimentation in Black communities. Advocates said that they hoped these conversations could ultimately lead to a greater diversity of people discussing health, wellness, and the immune system as it relates to food.
If nearly all of the underlying conditions for increased risk of complications and mortality associated with Covid-19 are food-related, overhauling diet and nutrition must become a priority. Fending off future health crises that will also have severe global economic and environmental consequences will require new food, health, and nutrition policies.
As many families and communities battle quarantine weight gain, food-based businesses and health activists say that it’s an ideal time to make health, longevity, and nutrition more than a fad.
Interviews have been edited for clarity.
CEO and founder, Café X: By Any Beans Necessary
Oh boy! Well, breaking into an industry with such a high (cost) threshold for participation has been challenging. Most people can't afford an espresso machine that costs a couple thousand dollars, or a commercial grinder for a few hundred, plus all the other accoutrements for a coffee start-up. We broke into the industry making cold brews and popping up around town until I applied for a grant that got us a complement of "stuff" and a coffee cart. Everything we do is about advocacy—making it simpler for people of color to participate, understand, and develop skills in this industry. From introducing people to micro-roasting, to simply introducing them to different beans, we deserve exposure just as well as anyone else. Money shouldn't be an obstacle to running this type of operation, especially when the really good beans come from the motherland anyway.
I've never heard of nutritional equity, but I imagine that means equitable access to nutritious food. The food you consume is foundational to your overall health and well-being. The food you grow is potentially your livelihood. Controlling the means of production as well as access on the back end keeps us all in chains to the extent that much of the time, people don't even recognize it. And when we do, we don't go as hard for food as we do law enforcement and criminal justice, or some other important topic. We do need to be fighting for autonomy, in every sense of the word, as a foundational aspect of any movement for Black lives.
I think Covid-19 highlighted much of what is already present: dramatic health disparities in some regions, zip codes, and communities. In much of the advocacy I see, everything is about testing this "underserved" community, or that “disenfranchised” community—make sure we test our new vaccine in the communities hit the hardest. These drug trafficking pharmaceutical companies will push that rather than a healthy diet as one critical aspect of prevention from Covid-19. Why is Operation Warp Speed about a vaccine rather than radically altering the way we diet, the way we exercise and take care of our whole bodies? That is the ultimate prevention for these chronic, underlying conditions that make people especially vulnerable to this virus in the first place. Nutritious food is still not being pushed as part of the solution! Therein lies the priorities of the powers that be.
The moment is what we make it. We saw a spike in our numbers at Cafe X from people of all different cultures, socioeconomic backgrounds, and races. And I've also seen Black businesses pop up, totally riding the wave of the moment. But, these moments are a flash in the pan for a lot of frustrated people and those looking for an opportunity to self-affirm. None of it is wrong, but flashy moments don't sustain movements. Laying real groundwork and strategic planning does. So, I say maybe it will. But it's more likely that this support disappears or becomes real silent until the next tragedy where the same kind of supporters and businesses pop up again. Wash, repeat. We as an organization have been on this journey since our inception in 2016 and have seen a lot of things, and people, come and go. Black support inside and outside our community can be very fair weather. Ultimately, whether or not this renewed interest is harnessed successfully is up to us.
We were doing amazingly well off the heels of Black History Month in February 2020. Covid-19 hit the scene and the government started mandating people shelter in place. Because there were no patrons, all the tenants in the building we were located in had trouble making rent. None of us could sustain and the property owner decided to sell the building. We have put locating a new storefront on the back burner while developing thoughtful projects and initiatives. The right space, with the right partners, will come—no more of us bouncing from collaboration to collaboration at tables where we don't fit. We'll be selecting on our terms and that's damn good.
CEO at Mama’s Kitchen
Food advocacy has been a cornerstone of the work that we do at Mama's Kitchen. With a particular focus on people with critical illnesses, our efforts aim to create awareness of the unique nutritional needs of historically underserved people living with HIV, cancer, diabetes, and/or heart disease and how medically appropriate nutrition can improve both health outcomes and quality of life.
When you consider that food insecurity is directly associated with adverse health outcomes, and when you consider that food apartheid and food insecurity are common experiences in historically disenfranchised communities in our country, the connection to the social justice movement is very clear. The need for public health policies and legislative initiatives that reduce food insecurity and food deserts in vulnerable communities is urgent. The elimination of food disparities requires innovative strategies if we are to effectively erase racial and ethnic inequities in food systems in the United States.
The Covid-19 pandemic, like other public health challenges, sheds a glaring light on the socioeconomic disparities and systemic racism in our country. The lack of access to healthy foods, a preponderance of low-quality nutrition, and higher rates of food insecurity result in a higher prevalence of obesity and chronic diseases. These, in turn, are responsible for the increased morbidity and mortality from Covid-19 in disadvantaged communities.
Sustaining this interest and support can, over time, have a positive impact. But the complexities of historic and systemic racism require efforts that go way beyond the support of Black-owned businesses. To be clear, intentional support of Black-owned businesses is a very concrete way to witness prosperity that has, otherwise, evaded many in these communities due to systemic injustice. Concurrently, the need for policy changes is absolutely critical.
We are living in extraordinary times with the convergence of the pandemic, the increased demand for social justice, and a federal government that is tone-deaf to the disparities and injustices that so glaringly exist in our country. I am called to examine my own contributions to these injustices, and take a stand as an anti-racist. I am called to take action in my sphere of influence, to both mitigate bias and microaggressions while simultaneously working to dismantle and replace the systems and policies that support these disparities experienced in our historically underserved communities. We have an extraordinary opportunity to make a difference. Lilla Watson, an Indigenous Australian visual artist, activist, and academic working in the field of women's issues and Aboriginal epistemology, says, "If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together."
Owner of Black SD Magazine
In my work food advocacy has played a huge part because our publication makes sure that we provide our African-American community and community at large healthy alternatives of businesses to support. Because support for food-based businesses is based on consumption, it is imperative that we showcase a balance of food options including healthy juices, smoothies, vegan, and vegetarian food. Our community is plagued with always being at risk for things such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes, so we have to work on changing that by providing healthy options, tips, and education.
The role of it is access. To be truly equitable for nutrition within a social justice movement there has to be more access to this. This access needs to be across the spectrum from in school to nearby stores with fresh produce and healthy alternatives. Many communities don’t have access to nutritional options also don’t have access to proper transportation, be it personal vehicles or public transportation. Nutritional equity has to be solved on both the macro and micro level when strategizing and planning.
I believe that it has helped highlight those businesses that offer healthy alternatives as I mentioned. Many people, organizations, and media outlets have sought to help the Black community in areas such as small business and entrepreneur highlights. Through this and the need for change, it has helped fuel the conversation forward in a progressive manner.
I believe that the focus hasn’t been placed on health as much as it should, so that is unclear. I know that people within the community have wanted to get healthy due to the coined term “quarantine weight” many have stated they gained. I think it will have an effect on the community in some way, but long term isn’t something I would say right now.
It has made me think about alternative ways to incorporate healthy lifestyles such as vegan, vegetarian, and raw. My perspective changed as I learned more about different Black-owned businesses who offer these food alternatives and learned about why they chose these different lifestyles.
Owner and chef, The Vegan Lion
Food advocacy has played a huge part of owning my business, The Vegan Lion. I am trying to be the bridge between those wanting a healthier lifestyle and them actually having it. You truly are what you eat no matter how cliché that might sound. My life has improved dramatically since I started my journey to a healthier lifestyle in 2017. People have been manipulated into being OK with eating foods that provide no nutrition and our bodies and health suffer greatly. This is something that I am dedicated to changing for my family and my community.
It's hard to believe our country values equality for all when it doesn't even believe we all deserve to eat healthy or at all. People of color are purposely misled and kept away from foods that actually bring value to our bodies or life and that is not fair or just. If you are not well within, it's easier for you to be controlled and kept down. It also can keep you from reaching your highest potential and stepping into your true power. How can you fight for your basic human civil rights if you are too sick? It's harder to eat organic, healthy food if your neighborhood grocery store doesn't have those options for you or you can't afford them. Food deserts are blatantly intentional because who does it benefit to flood communities of color with more fast food restaurants than healthy food stores? How do you build generational wealth and power if you are spending most of your money on medicines and treatments from doctors for conditions that can be prevented with a healthy lifestyle?
I believe that when Covid reduced the already limited resources and access that most Black communities have to healthy, quality food, it brought to light even more how Black people are constantly left to fend for themselves in this country. We need more Black-owned health food stores, healthy food vendors, gardens, farmers, and healthy food allies to eliminate food deserts and increase access to healthy food options in Black communities. Seeing how empty shelves were in stores at the beginning of the pandemic was something I'll never forget.
I think any consistent efforts of individuals, organizations, or businesses on educating others on a healthier lifestyle will have long-term effects on health in Black communities. Change takes time, and sometimes the process can be really slow—but it's been getting better, and will continue to improve. Ten years ago, I would have never considered going vegan, but the more I learned about what health really is and let go of the mindset I had, I was able to make a long-term change. I will continue to help as many people as I can focus on their health and hopefully they will do the same for others. "Buy Black” and “Support Black-Owned Businesses" are not new concepts. These sentiments come and go in cycles to the forefront of focus depending on what's going on in the country. Last summer my business increased rapidly during the height of the Buy Black 2020 movement, but when people moved on to the next thing, it slowed back down a little. Whether people are seeking me out intentionally to support me as a Black business owner or not, The Vegan Lion will be here doing what I can to help.
This pandemic is causing a deep human-to-human disconnect that I hope we can heal from and get past once it's over. People need one another. Physical interaction and closeness is a necessity for human survival. People are afraid to be around their own family and friends. I miss seeing everyone's faces and smiles when I go out. The last time I saw my Grandad I couldn't even hug him or be in the same room with him because he was quarantined. I haven't done any big events for my business because things are so complicated now due to Covid restrictions. Covid has been hard to deal with, but I am hopeful I will be able to persevere through this and come out stronger on the other side.