Food Justice: Expertise from Lived Experience

by Alexis Berry '17
November 13, 2014

Alexis Berry is a participant in the Swearer Center's TRI-Lab on Healthy Food Access in Rhode Island, through which she educates people with type 2 diabetes on eating vegetable-based meals that meet their medical dietary restrictions. 

After much excitement, my confidence begins to turn to mush when I enter the room where other Brown students and I will shortly give vegetable-based cooking lessons to adults with diabetes. My reasons for the sudden change of heart are: 1) I am a teenager who does not have the strongest grasp of cooking and 2) I haven’t gotten around to taking a nutrition class yet! On top of that, there are a mere 15 minutes for me to get command of my role as chef.

In what feels like the blink of an eye, the first participant walks in and cries: “You’re new, aren’t you?”

She could tell? Oh dear, I think while smiling and introducing myself.

As much as that initial moment still clings to me, this post is about the necessity for mutual learning between researchers and community members before, during, and after an intervention. For public health practitioners and food justice advocates to affect change with populations they serve, they must take advice and criticism from those with lived experiences. Community members are the experts.

Professor Mary Flynn, a nutritionist at Brown teaching hospital Miriam Hospital, is principal investigator of the Food is Medicine program at McAuley House, a soup kitchen in Providence. My role in this project is to give cooking demonstrations to low-income adults with type 2 diabetes. These lessons aim to improve risk factors for chronic diseases and increase food security through regular consumption of reasonably priced olive oil and vegetable-based meals that require at most 15 minutes of preparation. The Food is Medicine program also gives these adults a forum to discuss issues with our food system, which disproportionately promotes meat and wheat consumption and thus reinforces poor eating habits.

Today was my turn to prepare food and describe the recipe steps. According to the recipe, macaroni with grilled vegetables calls for 2 cups of whole milk. Instead, I remark, “you can use 2% or skim milk as well”. Immediately one of the participants cries, “my notes say to avoid skim milk”!

Internally, I give myself a thud on the head and say, duh Alexis! Skim milk is not a good base for a sauce because it does not have a high enough fat content to act as an emulsifier.

“You’re right!” I reply with a smile.

“I got you!” the participant exclaims.

“Yes, you got me.”

While this was not a major correction, this experience highlighted two crucial aspects of public health interventions/food justice work: 1) it is important to be humble and 2) everyone is part of the learning process.

Individuals with the role of “teacher” or “instructor” in a project do not necessarily have all around expertise. The very reason they conduct a project is to gain further insight into a subject. In this country, too many institutions give the majority of credit to academia and research entities without acknowledging the people whose minds and bodies are the site of knowledge we seek to gain.

Walking into an unfamiliar room requires the humility to recognize that those who already occupy it may know it better. It is only through a combination of forms of expertise that we can unlock some of society's biggest problems.