Urban Foodies Look to Their Past and Find Recipes for Healthy Futures

Food revolutionaries in immigrant neighborhoods want to reclaim the healthy foods of their ancestors. They just have to find the ingredients.

By Rae Gomes Jun 22, 2011

Ola Akinmowo has built an oasis in her apartment in central Brooklyn, a neighborhood that food justice advocates have identified as a food desert.

I visited her for dinner one night last week and she made a vegan version of the Eba Egusi, a dish that consists of ground cassava (yucca) made into a mound, with a stew featuring ground melon seeds and red palm oil, both of which she purchased in the neighborhood African market. For breakfast, she makes a smoothie with fruits purchased from the farmer’s market in a nearby yuppie neighborhood, or frozen from Trader Joe’s. She puts in flax seed oil, oatmeal and spirulina from the health food store on Fulton Street, central Brooklyn’s main drag. Her 9-year-old daughter, who is not a fan of smoothies, eats roasted potatoes, some fresh fruit and perhaps some vegetables.

A self-proclaimed "urban hippie," Akinmowo, a first-generation Brooklynite of Nigerian descent, is part of a quiet food and well-being revolution in central Brooklyn that’s being powered by similarly minded immigrants, Latinos and African Americans who are working for food justice in their personal and professional lives. Out of her apartment, Akinmowo runs a donation-based yoga studio called So Hum (Sanskrit for "I am that"). She also teaches nutrition, food policy and science to elementary and high school students in a program called Green Weeksville, at the Weeksville Historical Society in East New York.

In her classroom, Akinmowo notes, one in seven children will have diabetes. She sees that many of them are overweight and get sick easily, and she blames the food system their families are trapped inside. "They’re not a part of the ‘choices’ they make," she says of her young students. "Food is not a pleasure for them."

Child obesity rates nationwide have tripled since the 1960s, while two-thirds of U.S. adults are obese or overweight. According to a New York City Department of Public Health study in 2007, the problem is most acute in low-income and immigrant neighborhoods like Akinmowo’s. In Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant and Bushwick, for instance, obesity rates are higher when compared to New York City as a whole–26 percent of people aged 18 to 44 in Bed-Stuy and Bushwick were obese or overweight in that study, compared to 18 percent overall.

Studies also suggest that the longer immigrants stay in the U.S., the more they suffer from obesity and obesity-related illnesses.

The solutions, however, suggested by public health researchers and policy makers too often point back to the subjects, and focus on personal responsibility–they should just eat more fruits and vegetables. "The dialogue falls into a choice-based narrative," says Laura-Anne Minkoff-Zern, a doctoral candidate at University of California, Berkeley.

That’s true even for the increasingly popular healthy foods movement. Celebrity author and food activist Michael Pollan famously warns, "Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food." For immigrants and those physically and historically disconnected from their homeland, abiding Pollan’s guidance is no easy feat.

"The urban foodie movements have certain types of people being the expert and the movements are founded on that expertise," says Leticia Garcia, a garden educator for Seeds For Learning, in Philadelphia. "[The movement] translates into class and race privilege."

But there are significant movements growing up out of apartments like Akinmowo’s, in places like central Brooklyn, all over the country. Mark Winston Griffith, a central Brooklyn community activist and resident for over 20 years, has watched as those efforts have sprouted and grown, both organically from the community and with help from the city. He argues that, while the face of the healthy foods movement often appears to be middle-class whites in their 20s and 30s, these types of initiatives have long existed in communities of color, too.

"Peer a little deeper in central Brooklyn’s subcultures," says Griffith, "and you’ll find hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people buzzing around, organizing CSAs and fledgling food coops, strengthening relationships with local farmers, creating recipes for organic dishes, working on food security policy initiatives, and building community gardens and green market."

There’s Brooklyn Rescue Mission, for instance, a faith-based organization that operates a farmer’s market in Bed-Stuy and a food pantry. The group stocks both the market and the pantry with its own farm.

Revs. Robert Jackson and DeVanie Jackson established the volunteer-based not-for-profit in 2002, in response to the community’s lack of healthy food. Jackson sees a generational challenge in working with fresh food. "These folks don’t mind cooking food in a pot," he said of senior citizens in his organization. "The young people would rather go to the store"–where they’ll find largely dried and packaged foods. From the second week in July to October, the farmer’s market in Bed-Stuy is open and features cooking demonstrations led by city health department cooks.

Griffith explains, however, there is insufficient funding for the neighborhood’s smaller, singular efforts to connect with one another and expand. Joel Berg, executive director of New York City Coalition Against Hunger, echoes the point, and cites as an example the imbalance between funding for the city’s food stamps program and all of its other food security efforts. The point isn’t that food stamps don’t need funding–indeed, the program is credited with tempering an historically large hunger problem during the recession–but that they are an insufficient response by themselves.

"Food stamps in New York City is getting $3 billion from the federal government," Berg notes. "City funding for pantries and kitchens is about $10 million. Farmer’s markets and CSA’s, very little." He adds that USDA does provide funding for community-based food efforts, but it has a few million dollars to spend for the entire country.

Griffith launched the Brooklyn Movement Center, following a run for City Council last year, to try and connect his neighborhood’s fledgling community movements with the efforts of urbanized foodies. "It won’t become a movement until it’s institutionalized," he says. "CSA’s by definition are limited and most of the organizations [in central Brooklyn] are volunteer based."

What’s Healthy Food?

Even as folks like Griffith try to empower neighborhood green guerrillas like Akinmowo, both face a challenge that’s even more maddening than funding shortages: getting the ingredients necessary to reclaim the healthy traditions migrants of color lost when their families moved to the U.S.’s urban centers.

Bryant Terry, the eco-chef and food justice activist, has written widely about the mainstream myth that the soul food of the African-American rural South is necessarily unhealthy. He distinguishes between "fast food" soul food and the food (Michael Pollanites, rejoice) that his great-grandmother ate.

"When I think about the soul food that my grandparents and their parents ate, I do have some fond memories of deep-fried meats, overcooked leafy greens," he wrote in a 2008 article for The Root, "Reclaiming True Grits." "I also recall lightly sautéed okra, corn, and tomatoes recently harvested from their ‘natural’ backyard garden in South Memphis … butchered-that-morning herb-roasted chicken … Ma’Dear’s chutney made from peaches that came from Miss Cole’s mini-orchard next door."

Terry’s point holds true for inaccurate ideas of "unhealthy" ethnic foods that are harming immigrants, too. Garcia agrees, but acknowledges that when it comes to traditional food habits of immigrants, there are many ingredients missing (literally and figuratively) from today’s urban food chain. For my part, it’s difficult as a Trinidadian to recreate our traditional dish, Callaloo, without adding processed ingredients that don’t reflect the healthy version "from back home."

Garcia also distinguishes between foods from our pre-colonization heritage and food that has grown out of our colonized histories. The food Garcia’s great-grandmother would prepare on the mountain tops of Hidalgo, Mexico–like homemade tortillas from her field-grown corn–is vastly different from the greasy food her dad ate in Mexico City. But that doesn’t mean traditional foods need to be unhealthy.

"Returning to and looking for origins in our foodways that were not entirely constructed out of conquest is one very important thread" to the food movement, she explains. Another is "being willing to adapt some parts of our cultures that are not the healthiest–including, but not limited to food–to new food systems [in which we live]."

That’s what some initiatives, like Just Food in New York City, are trying to do through their community education programs. Angela Davis, the program coordinator at Just Food, explains that her group incorporates food that immigrants would recognize and recipes they are familiar with into nutritious-cooking demonstrations. Educators encourage farmers to grow food like Callaloo for Caribbean diets and herbs that Latinos use in native dishes. "The communities submit recipes," she says, "and we strike a balance between introducing new foods and incorporating old favorites."

While educating communities through demonstrations, Just Food also works on structural issues like lack of access and affordability, ranging from making sure farmers get fair prices to ensuring that their product reaches the target markets.

All of this is markedly different from food-education programs that promote a "hand in soil" approach to people without land, or public health recommendations that advise eating five daily servings of fruits and vegetables in communities that don’t have a fresh supply of either. The reality is that every point in the food cycle leads to the unhealthy communities we see–from the farmer that doesn’t own the land to the service industries that don’t serve our communities to the immigrants that can’t access healthy versions of what they know as food. 

For some community leaders, like Akinmowo, to find the path out of those unhealthy realities, we can look to where our food cultures began. "The work is consuming and overwhelming," she says, "but my goal is to provide emotional wellness to my people who can’t afford organic markets and spa retreats." 


Akinmowo’s Nigerian-inspired Roasted Cassava & Okra Stew

Ola Akinmowo wanted to leave us with a recipe. Her Eba Egusi requires ingredients that are hard to find, so she offered a more simply Nigerian-inspired dish.


Boil peeled cassava (yucca) in salted water with a couple cloves of garlic in the water. 

When soft, toss with salt and olive oil. 

Roast in a preheated 400 degree oven for about 30 min. 

While the cassava is roasting, chop okra, garlic, onion, tomatoes and ginger. 

Heat olive oil and add the onion, garlic and ginger. Add some cumin and coat the aromatics with it. 

Add the okra and tomatoes, salt and pepper as needed. Add cayenne pepper and a little water. 

Rae Gomes is a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn. She co-edits the "Ten Things" column at The Nation and writes and edits for AlterNet.