Moving Beyond Talk about Good and Bad Food: A Conversation with Dr. Ashante Reese

MommiNation: In the quest to get healthy a lot of us are trying to understand what we should and should not eat. What are your thoughts?

Dr. Reese: There’s a lot of bad advice about food consumption. Anything could be as good or as bad as you like. You’re gonna read some stuff where people are like, “eat fresh fruits and vegetables every day.” And then the next day someone says, “but, don’t eat too much of this fruit.” I think generally, the simpler, the better.

MommiNation: We get the advice that we should just read the label on the food we are eating. Sometimes, though, that is easier said than done.

Dr. Reese: There’s a reason why we don’t understand labels and grocery stores. There are powerful lobbyists that make sure that we don’t understand what these words mean on labels. For example, people talk about “processed food,” but not all foods are processed the same way. We need to understand how particular foods are processed. For example, there was a really big push for a while to label all foods that include any kind of genetically modified organisms GMOs to be labeled as such. That would have been a huge thing. But, powerful lobbyists were like, “No!”
So, if you don’t know something about food it’s not because you’re ignorant. It’s by design. Grocery stores are laid out a certain way. Certain chemicals are put into McDonald’s fries so that they smell the way they smell so that your kid is like, “Oh, McDonald’s!” It’s by design.

MommiNation: Many people who are trying to find healthy eating options are shifting to options like veganism. What should they keep in mind?

Dr. Reese: You don’t have to be vegan to be healthy. And I know a lot of vegans who are probably not that healthy, actually. One of my favorite columnists for the Washington Post always just says, “Keep it simple. Eat as many whole foods as you can, and you’ll be fine.” Maybe you can’t go to the farmers market and get fresh vegetables. But the ones that you buy in the frozen section, they were flash frozen right after they were picked. They’re almost as good, or at least they’re not super inferior to the things that you buy fresh from the market. Even just knowing things like that can make people’s lives a little bit easier so that you’re not thinking that there’s only one right way to do this. Or even if you buy canned stuff, the worst thing about canned food is that it has so much sodium in it. So, dump all that water out and rinse it off. They’re not gonna be the same as buying from the market, but it’s better than not eating

Mommination: So, what is the key to healthier eating, especially for Black women?

Dr. Reese: I want people to talk more realistically about what is going on with them and their consumption. There’s so much stigma and shame that I think it’s hard to talk about food. If you’re in a body that’s been stigmatized multiple times, as is the case with Black women, and if you are a certain size people read your body as fat. That makes it really hard to talk about food. I want people to think about more around balance and moderation versus thinking they have to completely abstain from certain foods. There’s a middle ground. The truth is we get joy out of
food. Sometimes I go to Popeye’s, and I can’t think of anything better in the world than just to have this leg and wings and biscuits and then I’m good. So, we need to think through what actually works for our real lives, not what people think we should be doing.

MommiNation: What do you think is missing from our conversations about food and health?

Dr. Reese: Class. We in the US are really not good talking about class. The reality is I have access to things that can facilitate my life. I don’t have children that I have to take care of, I’m not doing eldercare. So, my consumption should never be compared to someone who is parenting, working a full-time job, or in a different income bracket. If we’re not going to make food a human right and say, “All of this should be free,” then we should be more careful about the kinds of things that we say makes someone healthy or unhealthy. The story about health is more complicated. For example, there’s new research that’s suggesting that, even with consuming all the right things, anti-Black racism and the stress of it is potentially a cause of obesity and other illnesses. So, if that’s the case, why the f**k you telling somebody to just eat carrots?I’m arguing for nuance here. I want people to eat what they want always in moderation. I want people to not feel like they have to give up the joy related to food. I don’t think people should give up their cultural attachments, or joy in food for the sake of some measures that someone created that, by-and-large, don’t even fit but most Black people anyway.

MommiNation: You mentioned that we should educate ourselves about food. How do we do that?

Dr. Reese: For anyone who’s interested in these questions around veganism, Blackness, food. I love Sistah Vegan. I also love the website Civil Eats. They do reporting about different aspects of the food system like food labeling, farming, food distribution, consumption, everything. I’m also a fan of good old-fashioned cookbooks– especially older cookbooks by Black women, because I like looking at how they prepare foods. I like Bryant Terry. I think his cookbooks are amazing for people who are interested in holding on to Black food heritage and want to make
things healthier. He’s a vegan chef.

MommiNation: What do you want people to keep in mind as they move toward healthier eating?

Dr. Reese: Most people have this kind of common sense. We already have some stuff at our disposal that we already know. The food system is designed for us to do a lot of unconscious eating. So, if we become more conscious about what we’re eating, even if we’re making small changes, it’s already all good. If the MommiNation community is interested, there a food justice reading list on my website.

BIO: Dr. Ashanté Reese is Assistant Professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of “Black Food Geographies: Race, Self-reliance, and Food Access in Washington DC”, and co-editor (with Hannah Garth) of the book, “Black Food Matters: Racial Justice in the Wake of Food Justice.”

This article is the second part to Dr. Reese’s conversation with Mommination. We are delighted to have her as a distinguished contributor.