Posted on April 8, 2011 - by

Straight Talk About Food in Low-Income Communities

The sustainable food movement is teeming with buzzwords: “farm to table,” “locavore,” even “sustainable” itself. Despite their relative youth, they’ve already become cliché.

That’s why listening to Louise Thundercloud, an advocate for low-income people in Washington, DC, is so refreshing. “If I go up to somebody hanging out on 7th Street and say, ‘Here’s some sustainable food for you,’ they’re gonna look at me like I’m crazy,” she says.

Thundercloud, who was once homeless in DC herself, shared her thoughts on how to teach vulnerable populations about nutrition and food skills at a discussion on food justice hosted this week by Bread for the City, a local social services center that houses a food pantry, medical and legal clinics, and a soon-to-be-completed rooftop garden.

The key, she says, is using language people can understand and identify with: “’This is food that tastes good, that will make you feel good, and that will fill you up so you won’t be hungry all night.’ That’s what’s going to resonate.”

It sounds so natural, but this isn’t the kind of talk most of us are used to hearing—or using—when we speak about the virtues of fresh, natural foods. Over the past decade, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Whole Foods, and other major cultural forces have drawn an unprecedented amount of attention to our food and where it comes from, and in the process they have deeply shaped the language we use to discuss it. That language is largely abstract, policy-oriented, and flowery—not the kind that appeals to someone struggling to put dinner on the table.

When she talks to people about food and nutrition, Thundercloud (whose ancestors hailed from various Native American tribes, West Africa, Jamaica, and Northern Ireland) stresses the connection between fresh foods and improved health. “A lot of folks don’t know that they can improve their own health just by changing how they eat,” she says. “They’re interested when I tell them that eating this food can help prevent diseases or slow their progress.”

She stresses the importance of “meeting people where they’re at” when helping them make changes in their diets. “If they want to stick with canned produce, then I teach them to rinse the salt or sugar syrup off it. If they’re ready for frozen vegetables, I teach them how to cook those. And if they can afford some fresh stuff, then we talk about preparing that,” says Thundercloud. It’s an incremental approach that frustrates some proponents of local and organic agriculture, who would rather leave industrially-produced canned and frozen goods out of the picture.

“I’m a practical, on the ground-type person,” Thundercloud says, and it’s clear that she’s not one to let the perfect become the enemy of the good. She recommends simple steps like compiling a resource list of places to find fresh food nearby and how to access them.

There’s a time and a place for theoretical discussion and debate within the food movement. But, Thundercloud reminds us, there’s also a time to leave it aside.

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    April 8, 2011


    Adrienne said:

    Love her practical approach because not everyone can afford organic, local, farmers market and she is telling them how to get the best out of what they can afford albeit canned and frozen. The foodie snobs need to get over it or step up to the plate and go out and buy food for the low-income and give it to them.

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    April 8, 2011


    Joanne Frederick said:

    Great article and very helpful. I’m currently teaching a wellness workshop at a homeless day shelter in Baltimore. In my short time with my amazing “students” I am learning just as much from them. Ms. Thundercloud is right… it is challenge/opportunity to take the “yuppie” concept of sustainable eating (and living) to a group with a whole different set of priorities. And yet, I think small, micro-improvements each day puts everyone on a path to better health. As I tell my ladies, “Every bit counts, every choice is an opportunity.”

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    April 8, 2011


    Bonita Shelby, Certified Clinical Aromatherapist said:

    so true Ms. Thundercloud! I too have been guilty of wanting people to be perfect before they walk to being good. It is a process! Thank you for sharing. Hope to meet you one day, I’m in DC and have a heart to share good news about healthy food choices.

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    April 8, 2011


    Lisa said:

    “This is food that tastes good,…”
    She is absolutely correct. The message must resonate with the audience. Most Americans have not seriously considered their food choices. Meet them where they are and with the primary driver of food choice-taste. If we think about knowledge from a scaffolding perspective, then access and availabilty follow taste preferences. Health and sustainabilty only enter the discussion after the practical needs are addressed.

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    April 8, 2011


    lilly b. said:

    I really like her way of thinking….how about even offering a package of seeds along with the locally grown food.