Bryant Terry is an activist, author, mentor, speaker, educator, chef, practicing Buddhist, daddy, hubby and a champion for social justice via the food liberation movement. Inspired by his grandparents' Memphis kitchen, his work with New York City youth, and the Black Panther's Free Breakfast movement, the Oakland, Cali resident is passionate about self-empowerment through healthy eating. He's a stand for folks in the lower economic stratosphere, especially people of color, having access to fresh food. He's also passionate about the benefits of growing, cooking and eating healthfully. Bryant is out to have communities mobilize to better take care of one another without having to rely on Wholefoods to come in and save the day.
Part recipes, part historical narrative - his latest cookbook, Afro-Vegan, shares Bryant's love for creating delicious meals drawing from across the African diaspora. I haven't received my copy yet but I imagine I'll be remixing some of my vegetarian recipes soon. I throw coconut milk and curry on everything.
I got to hang with Bryant in his lovely home in beautiful Oakland and we chatted about how he found his path, the politics of food, and his evolving definition of activism.
What made you so interested in food? How did that begin?
The work that I do now as a food activist, chef, and cookbook author - the foundation comes from growing up in Memphis. My family came from rural Mississippi and had farms. For me it was second nature to grow up in community gardens…so when I started doing this work in New York I really thought it was something people were missing. You know, living in the concrete jungle, not having these green spaces, not being really connected to the process of growing food and making food. It was such a treasure for me. I really wanted to ensure that the younger generation were able to connect with our earth and know how to cook food from scratch.
Growing up with my paternal grandfather who cooked a lot as well [was important for me]. My grandmother had a stroke in her 50’s. He cooked the food, cleaned the house because she couldn’t do that on her own. Having a grandfather who really took care of the daily functions of the kitchen and made all the meals and was the nurturer of the home made it really safe for me. Growing up, I loved cooking. I loved baking. I felt very welcome and very safe in the kitchen because my grandfather was such a manly man and he was really buff and also so gentle, loving and caring.
For a lot of folks, cooking from scratch is sorta revolutionary.
And that’s why when I talk about my work I talk about it almost like an act of remembering, revitalizing, and celebrating the traditions of our ancestors. It wasn’t like they were eating local or sustainable. They were just eating the food they grew because that’s what you did. So part of my mission is to help mobilize. To help push back on this perception that eating this way or cooking this way is 'white' or a bourgeois thing.
It sounds like you’re interested in the relationship between culture and food. What are your thoughts on this? I mean, I can buy quinoa in Bedstuy, Brooklyn now. That wouldn’t have been available before.
Well, I think a lot of it is about marketing to a certain demographic. When you think about the food corporations who are producing a lot of healthy or organic products, they’re marketing to people who they can charge a higher price to because that is their goal; to make a profit for their shareholders. I often talk about the way in which we can’t rely on food corporations as the solution for food injustice. We think about communities that have very little access to healthful food and it’s easy to say well, we just need a supermarket there. A Wholefoods or whatever.
If we’re going to address food insecurity or food injustice, the solutions need to be driven by people living in those communities. I think it’s more than just bringing food in. It’s about self-determination. It’s about economic empowerment. I think about this quote Malcolm X said, about having businesses in your community that are owned by people who don’t live there. He said, when that man leaves at the end of the day he takes that bag of money out of the community. When you think of supermarkets, often times the profits are going to some corporate headquarters that are a long ways from that community. When you think about community gardens or urban food stands or farmers markets set up by people in the community who look like people in the community then those have lasting sustainable solutions. If you have the supermarket there and they leave, then people don’t have any food sources anymore. That’s what happens to a lot of urban areas that are now described as food deserts. I think we have to be careful when we talk about creating solutions. We don’t want to create that same process again.
Let’s talk about the past work you’ve done with youth. Tell us about your experience with Be-Healthy.
Well one of the first steps for me and the reason I write cookbooks and do a lot of speaking at community events and colleges is that I truly believe that one of the most important steps is making people aware of the issue and what’s at stake. I always talk about the three levels of making changes: as consumers, as community members, as citizens. We need to make sure our local elected official or state and our federal officials are creating policies that ensure that food is accessible to everyone. I think to go into a community and even get people to think about why they should be invested you have to make them feel invested about wanting to eat fresh food. I think people who are used to eating a lot of fast food, that’s a gargantuan task in and of itself. Like, this is something you should care about, this is something that’s your ancestral heritage, this is something that is your birthright.
When I started the organization, Be-Healthy, I was like, why are these young people coming in here talking about ‘I don’t eat vegetables’ or, ‘I don’t drink water.’ So to even get them to a point where they’re like I want to be a food activist, I want to be active in my community, I want to be a peer educator, I want to get people in my community invested in these issues. They need to be invested. They need to feel like this is something they care about.
How long was Be-Healthy around for?
Five years. It was implemented with a group of people I know from cooking school, grad school and the artist and activist community I was working with in New York City. Because of the population of kids we were working for, many of who had very little resources or access to healthful foods, we didn’t just want to have a program where we were talking to them. We wanted to be tactile, practical and engaging. I thought, what’s more engaging then teaching them how to cook as a way to politicize them, as a way to engage them?
I thought what Be-Healthy brought to the movement was the emphasis and importance of cooking as a tool for liberation. We would get the young people and have Thursday and Saturday workshops and go to the community farms or urban gardens and have them learn about these foods. We would get in the kitchen and make a meal. What we found was that young people were so much more invested when they made it! The ones who would be like, ‘I never eat vegetables’ or, ‘I don’t eat that quinoa stuff.’ When they made it, they would be like ‘well, I wanna try what I made.’ The more they opened up there palate, it just broke down their resistance to trying different things or eating fresh foods.
It must have been gratifying to see some of the changes in the students.
We celebrated the small victories. I think, as an educator, you can’t get too caught up in the immediate outcome because you might not see it immediately. The impact may not manifest for years. I think that was a position we had to hold that we were just planting seeds and hopefully it would stick and make an impact. For a young person to come into the program like, ‘I don’t drink water, only soda’ and by the end of the year, come in with a water bottle or with a bag of dried banana chips they bought with their own money instead of cheetos…those were huge victories for us.
But one of the biggest successes was this young woman who was about 16 or 17 who had a 2 year-old at the time and she wasn’t into eating healthfully but she wanted to eat more healthfully for her son. She wanted to share this with other teen moms. So we did a workshop about prenatal health and postnatal eating and it went phenomenally well. The young moms requested more workshops and out of that we raised money and started this project called The Healthy Moms, Healthy Babies project which was about working with young moms. So for that to come about organically from one of the young woman in our project was a big deal.
What keeps you committed to this? What's your bigger vision?
A large part of the vision is having the communities who are most impacted by food injustice or food insecurity, by the exponential rise in preventable diet related illnesses that we’ve seen over the past several decades, having them be in charge of not only bringing more sources for fresh affordable healthful food into the communities, but take the lead in reversing some of the chronic illnesses that have been rising in the community. It starts with what we’re eating and how we’re thinking and what kind of physical activity we’re engaging in andreally understanding it’s not about popping pills or going to some physician and having them take care of you. It’s having us take care of ourselves. It’s not about the individual but it’s about communities coming together and communally ensuring we’re improving our public health. One of the things that really moved me to do this work was learning that statistically, this generation of young people were at risk for having a shorter life span than their parents generation.
That’s insane. I didn’t know that.
This whole idea of us advancing and having all of this technology…I grew up understanding that those things meant we’d live longer and have a healthy and robust life. So, the fact that younger people are at risk for having a shorter life span really bothered me. I mean I have Twitter, Instagram and all that and I have a complicated relationship with it but I do feel like they can be important tools for educating and organizing but I would argue that the most important work happens when we’re in person, face to face and connecting in real time. I think those tools are great in actually bringing people together in real life because I don’t think just sitting behind a screen is going to solve our problems. I think we need to exchange and connect and work through it in real life.
This is your fourth book. Did you always want to be a writer?
Well, it’s my third I have written by myself. I co-authored one. I studied English in college and history in grad school and it’s funny because I think my parents were a little concerned like, ‘ok you studied English in college and history in grad school and then you’re in cooking school, you’re kind of all over the place’ but I feel like the work I do now - and I think they get it – brings all of those things together.
In grad school, some of the research I was doing was about the Black Panthers and their projects in the late 60’s. Many had to do with providing low-income people of color with basic needs. The program that moved me more than anything was their free breakfast for children program. Having learned about that program and also doing work in partnership with communities that were dealing with some of the highest rates of chronic illnesses and seeing that these were “food deserts.” You could find all the fast foods, processed food and bodegas but you couldn’t find fresh fruit. Those connections moved me to want to go to cooking school so I could use cooking as a way to get young people engaged around these issues and work towards their own liberation.
Your work seems to encompass so many different elements; writing, teaching speaking etc. do you enjoy working in that way?
I love it. I get bored easily and I like the fact that I can be sitting here doing this interview with you and then I go pick up my daughter and just be a daddy for a while. Later I’ll be editing my book and then on Monday I fly out to Indiana and give a talk to a group of college students. Then, next week, I’m going to be flying to New Orleans and am being honored at this vegan gumbo fest. It’s a great balance for me to be able to be creative and do things that move me and are creating beauty and interesting things in the world…but then also having that work be done in service of social justice, in service of creating a better world. I feel like it’s just the ideal situation. I feel like I am blessed to be able to do that and sustain myself and my family. It’s been a long time coming. I’ve been doing this work for over a decade.
I mentor a lot of younger chefs, activists, authors and I will tell them, I was doing stuff for years for pro bono and there was a time when I was doing all these talks around NYC and the country for free. I realized that I just wanted to get the message out. It wasn’t even about the money. It was like, this is something I feel needs to be shared and then also, I wanted to be able to sustain myself. You just gotta put that work in. Sometimes it’s just about people seeing your track record and that you’re committed to it and that you have interesting things to say. A lot of time you’re not going to get paid to do that. So for me to be at this point, I don’t feel guilty about it. I feel like I have put in years of blood, sweat, and tears to be at a point where people value my work and want to bring me out to speak or pay me to write a book.
Yeah, it sounds like what you’re hitting on is patience, dedication, commitment and actually having something to say. I like that you said you don’t feel guilty.
Well, the material manifestation of my ideas in a book is so rewarding. This is going to be my first hardback, full-color book so just that process is so rewarding. That’s why I love this balance in my life. I truly feel like I am an activist in my heart and re-imaging what activism looks like. I think I grew up with this narrow idea of what it meant to be an activist like, grassroots activism. I think that work is important and my work started as a grassroots activist working with young people but I also understand there is a need for people to have a national platform, there is a need for people who are shifting peoples attitudes and habits and politics in a larger way. I feel like that is a role my work has been playing and I think it’s equally important. I had to get over feeling guilty when I started writing books like, ‘oh I’m not on the ground working with young people anymore’ but then understand that this work is equally important, feeling good about it and knowing that it has an impact too.
What are some of the challenges of finding your way?
Well, a lot of times I’m like, ‘I’m not where I want to be’ or, ‘this shouldn’t be my first full-cover hard backed book. I should have had that two books ago. I should have my own TV show on the cooking channel’ or whatever. I think just going back to my Buddhist practice and being present with what is and that it is perfect in this moment. If I’m stuck thinking about the future too much, I’m not being present. If I am present with my work and my family, then I am very happy. That’s what most important to me, that I am happy and comfortable and doing what I love and I have an amazing family. I think that is something we all need to remember: to be present when things are shitty and understand that that is part of the process and not getting stuck in it and sitting with it and letting go so I can move to the next moment.