Bryant Terry

The food-justice activist

May 14, 2007

Bryant Terry is a longtime food-justice activist. The founder of b-healthy!, a nonprofit organization that educates low-income youth and youth workers about healthy cooking and nutrition, Terry is also the co-author, with Anna Lappé, of last year’s Grub.

Grub explored an approach to food that goes beyond organic. Terry and Lappé believe that food should be whole, sustainable, and locally grown, but also fairly produced from seed to table. Food, in other words, should be good for the community and the planet as well as our bodies. Terry and Lappé chose to call this sort of food “grub.”

What is food justice?
The term “food justice” was coined by activists working in low-income communities with very little access to grub. Like the term “food security,” food justice calls attention to many agriculture and hunger-related issues.

Bryant Terry

To me, food justice also connotes that creating more access to healthy food is crucial to building broader movements for social justice. It is clear that there is quasi-apartheid in the food system that needs to be addressed. But as I often remind people, lack of access to grub in a community is only one indicator of material deprivation. Most communities that have very little grub also have failing infrastructure, dilapidated schools, low income, high levels of illiteracy, and the like.

Food justice starts from the conviction that access to healthy food is a human-rights issue, and I think conversations about food justice are great springboards to conversations about other human rights that many people aren’t afforded.

How is food connected to institutional racism?
The first thing that comes up for me when I hear that question is the fact that just one percent of farmers in the United States are African-American, and that since the 19th century African-Americans have been systematically denied access to land.

This denial of land started when America reneged on its promise to give formerly enslaved African-Americans 40 acres and a mule, and continues with African-American farmers losing significant amounts of land and potential farm income as a result of discrimination by the USDA.

How has the consolidation of supermarkets and the health-food industry affected the ability of people in lower-income neighborhoods to eat in a healthy way?
I think too much focus is placed on holding corporate supermarkets and health-food stores accountable. While communities should keep one eye on corporate supermarkets and health-food stores, most of their energy should go into creating community-based solutions to solve food insecurity.

If places of worship, neighborhood associations, community-based organizations, and the like took the lead in supplying communities with food, with the creation of gardens, urban farms, independently owned grocery stores, community-supported agriculture (CSAs), and food co-ops, these institutions would not only address food insecurity but also have the potential to spur economic development, community beautification, youth empowerment, and a host of actions that would strengthen disempowered communities.

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In Grub, you give permission for people to improvise when they are making your recipes. Why is this important, and why do you think most other cookbooks don’t do it?
Most cookbook authors are writing as artists, and I would assume they want you to experience their creations exactly as they imagine them. I move through the world as an artist and an activist. Because I set about writing Grub with both of those identities, my approach created some tension within me.

The food-justice activist in me who understands the importance of using local ingredients and supporting local and regional growers wants readers to improvise when making my recipes. But the artist in me with an ego the size of an industrial farm wants readers to follow my recipes exactly as written.

At the end of the day, I simply want people to get in the kitchen and cook, and I hope that their cooking can be informed by some of my recipes.

Do you have a favorite region of the world to cook from?
For my next book I’m focusing on soul food, or “Soul Grub,” as I call it. So I’ve been reinventing a lot of Southern dishes over the past several months. I have also been preparing a lot of Asian food lately. My girlfriend is pretty adept at making dishes from different regions of Asia, and she teaches me a lot. She makes a mean spring roll.

Although she’s not a trained chef, I think she’s a much better cook than I am. She’s very intuitive in the kitchen, and being around her has taught me to trust my own intuition more when I’m cooking.

You moved from New York City to Oakland, California. What differences in these two regional food cultures are the most striking to you?
For obvious reasons, it’s much easier to get grub in the Bay Area. When I moved here I was so excited that there is a farmers’ market almost every day of the week. In addition, there are food stands, corn patches, community gardens, and urban farms sprinkling the city. Many of the restaurants in the Bay Area have remarkable ingredient-driven menus, and there is increased awareness about the need to support local farmers among chefs and restaurateurs.

What projects are you working on now?
Right now, I’m most excited about generating ways to creatively use pop culture and mass media to address food-justice issues. I half-jokingly tell people that I am striving to be the Kanye West of the food-justice movement, because I think that he brilliantly funnels progressive ideas through his art.

I am a co-host of “The Endless Feast,” a 13-episode series for PBS that explores the connection between the earth and the food on our plates; I am a commentator on the “Eat” episode of the Sundance Channel’s original series “Big Ideas for a Small Planet” (airing Tuesday, May 15); and Anna and I are in discussion with a production company about developing a 13-episode television series based on Grub.

This year I will also be doing more work in the Southeast. In 2006, when I discovered that Southern states lead the U.S. in obesity rates and have some of the highest rates of hypertension, diabetes, and other obesity-related illnesses, I felt compelled to put more energy into supporting grassroots work being done around food and farming issues in that part of the country. I grew up in Memphis and those statistics hit home, as many of my family members are dealing with preventable diet-related illnesses.

Also, at the beginning of this year, I assembled a circle of four food-justice activists from different regions of the United States and initiated the Black and Green Food Justice Fund. The members of the circle identify locally driven and community-based projects that are working towards creating a more just and sustainable food system and give them small grants to support their work.

Miriam Wolf writes about books and food for various publications, and is the managing editor of Bitch magazine. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

There are 3 comments on this item
Add a comment
1. by anonymous on May 14, 2007 at 3:40 PM PDT

this is the best cookbook in my collection.

2. by Kalindi Attar on May 14, 2007 at 8:03 PM PDT

Grub was an amazing book and serves as quite an inspiration in my life. I look forward to where the future may take us as we become more aware of being connected to our bodies and our planet.

3. by Monica N on Mar 9, 2008 at 9:16 PM PDT

So pleased to become exposed to this- what is happening oragnically & culinarily speaking withn our inner city culture. I have a dream of a culinary school that teaches this with a concentration on African, Carribean and American Southern Cuisine. What so you think?
Monica N.

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