Profiling Women Changing the Way We Eat: Nikki Henderson

Temra Costa is a sustainable food and farming advocate and author of Farmer Jane: Women Changing the Way We Eat. Civil Eats will feature her profiles of some of America’s women farmers and food advocates over the coming weeks.

Farmer Jane caught up with newly appointed Executive Director of People’s Grocery, Nikki Henderson, to get the inside scoop on what brought this dynamic woman to the West Coast from Brooklyn. As Executive Director, Nikki will be spending her time working to address one of the most important questions of the food movement: How can the sustainable food movement increase the health and well-being of economically disadvantaged people? In Nikki’s case, the people of West Oakland.

TC: Nikki, describe what brought you to the People’s Grocery (PG) and some of your plans for your first year as Executive Director.

NH: Food brought me to People’s Grocery. Sounds cliche, but I really believe in the profound ability of food to heal and empower communities. Because of that, I’m looking forward to my first year because of our resident-driven and opportunity-driven work. We’ve always tried to get feedback from residents, and we’ve always taken advantage of larger opportunities. So we’re planning on ramping up that work [of connecting residents with opportunities] in the next three to five years.

TC: What inspires you most about the food movement? Are there opportunities for food organizations to further their momentum with the emerging Green Economy?

NH: The food movement is a sleeping giant. The food system is so ridiculously unjust in relation to farmer’s compensation, the interests controlling farmland and seed, etc., that any movement hoping to change the situation inspires me. Food organizations should develop language and messaging about our relation to the Green Economy, because we truly do belong to it. There’s just been some debate about our ability to actually produce jobs (which is the backbone of the Green Economy, employment and industry). We must show our sophistication and understanding of these kinds of complex issues, and make space for ourselves.

TC: What is your definition of sustainable food? Food justice?

NH: Sustainable food is food grown with care to the environment, the people eating the food, and the people growing the food. Food justice refers to the agency and ownership of a group of people around their food choices and food system.

TC: In your words, why is working with communities with limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables so critical to the future of our food?

NH: Limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables creates health problems that become serious human rights violations. The fact that people born of a particular ethnicity, in a particular location, are categorically more likely to die earlier due to diseases is a blight on this country. It’s our duty and obligation to make sure that the detrimental health impacts due to an unhealthy diet are corrected.

TC: You worked with Green for All and Slow Food prior to coming to PG; how did your career evolve to become food-focused?

NH: Before Green for All, I had a sneaking suspicion that I would end up working primarily on food-related issues. I was in the climate movement prior to and during my time at Green for All, because climate change and energy was the “sexy” issue of the day that could teach me how to interrelate social justice with mainstream issues. Once I learned those skills, and Lady Obama started putting gardens on the White House lawn, I thought it might be time to make the moment that I focused on food ‘now!’

TC: What is one of your earliest food memories? Your favorite dish?

NH: My earliest food memory is watching my foster brother stir peanut butter and jelly together in a bowl, and eat it with a spoon. I was very young, maybe three or four, but it left a lasting impression on me because I thought it was so strange! My favorite dish is any and all kinds of sushi. LOVE sushi.

TC: If you could make one political change to make our food system more sustainable, what would it be?

NH: Retract the law that made patenting life, thus seeds, a legal pursuit.

TC: As a woman, you are part of a group of dynamic, passionate, and innovative creators that are seeing more solutions than obstacles. Do you have any other thoughts that you’d like people to know about as a woman working for food justice?

NH: Any woman connected to her cultural heritage (no matter what color you are, because we all came from deep-rooted cultures a few generations back) knows that women are the carriers of life, love, and the soul of community. One of the many ways that we pass this along to future generations is through food. The grandmothers cook with the daughters who in turn cook with the granddaughters, and the stories in our food keep our communities rich and vibrant. Women, remember your heritage, remember the grandmothers. They still speak to us, and we must listen so we can heal the way food and farming work in our communities.

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