Chef Bryant Terry and Urban Food Production

Terry speaking color

Vegan chef Bryant Terry wants to change the world one vegetable garden at a time, one city at a time.

The award-winning emissary for vegan cooking and food justice is currently Chef-in-Residence at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco. Recently he visited the Triangle area with Chef Njathi wa Kabui as host, and made a few appearances. One of them was an open discussion on Urban Organic Gardening, hosted by Left of Black Professor Mark Anthony Neal. The discussion took place at the John Hope Franklin Center in Durham.

Bryant Terry and Mark Anthony Neal

The room was packed with all available seats taken, and the audience listened intently as Terry talked about his journey to veganism, social justice, and new community foodways.

He spoke about one pivotal point in particular:

“So, I wanna kind of take you on a journey. I want to help you kind of see the arc of my commitment to these issues. I’m not going to take you all the way back, if we go all the way back, we have to go back to Memphis. We gotta to back to Mississippi and Arkansas… where my family had farms in rural Mississippi and Arkansas. Where we had backyard gardens in Memphis. I’m going to take you back to 1992, right? This is what I would argue…  is the watershed moment where I became a food activist, or at least I became politicized around food issues.”

During his youth a friend introduced Terry to the Boogie Down Productions single “Beef” by KRS-One on the 1990 Edutainment album. The song brought awareness to unethical practices surrounding beef raising and processing.

Through the stress the cow gets sicker
Twenty-one different drugs are pumped
Into the cow in one big lump

So just before it dies, it cries
In the slaughterhouse full of germs and flies

Terry stopped there, as the song becomes more graphic, but the point was made. Experiences like this one, as well as discussions with his father, and reading the Upton Sinclair tome The Jungle, were contributing factors to his stance on veganism.

From there, Chef Bryant Terry goes on to discuss the small moments in anyone’s life which  may lead to personal power involving food.

“Start with the visceral, to ignite the cerebral, and end at the political.”

Terry speaking

“For many of us, our habits, our attitudes, and even our politics are transformed by deeply moving moments. A visit to a small organic farm where we learn about the seed to table cycle… The heartfelt conversation with a fast-food worker who can barely feed her two children… A banging meal made from farm-fresh ingredients, memories of grandparents passing down … knowledge and cooking traditions. 

Moments like these add power. Understand that my guiding mantra for the nearly 15 years that I have committed to working around these issues has been this simple phrase: “start with the visceral, to ignite the cerebral, and end at the political.”

And so the conversation turned to creating personal and community empowerment through food. He showed an episode from his You Tube video series Urban Organic.

They dropped in on Oakland’s food scene as local businesses incorporate urban gardens to supply their restaurants. One discussed was the Guerilla Cafe in Mosswood Park, which uses aquaponic gardening technology to grow food in an underserved area. Even in California, food was coming from 100 miles away, and there was a real need to bring immediacy to the availability of produce. Efforts like these are the reason Terry is on a mission.

“That’s actually a good thing, because I really want everyone to leave inspired. To go back into your community and be committed to these issues in a personal way, and also think about ways in which you can engage your communities. 


“What I talk about are the 3 ‘C’s of change.”

The takeaway isn’t just to change what one eats. It’s to understand, empower the community, and build a structural change into the neighborhoods in which we all live.

Taking it a step farther were the 3 C’s of change:

  • Consumer choices are important, yes. Personal changes or choices such as where we shop, what we buy, and whether we buy from local businesses are one thing.
  • Community involvement, bridge-building and cooperation between entities, such as schools and the farm-to-school movement, faith institutions, universities, and businesses coming together to create a food-empowered landscape are imporant.
  • Civic engagement is the last, arguably important piece of the puzzle. See the Youtube video snippet of this here.

Terry went on to talk about how the movement is growing out of so much hard work and awareness-building for decades on the part of people across the country.

He brought his book, Afro-Vegan: Farm-Fresh African, Caribbean, and Southern Flavors Remixed, which sold out as he signed. He took questions from the audience ranging from co-op involvement to challenges of starting an urban garden.Terry and Neal seated and taking questions

I chatted briefly after the presentation with Dr. Neal, Chef Terry, and Chef Kabui. Dr. Neal and I talked about some of the challenges Durham has faced in community efforts, which I also discussed with Chef Terry. I’ve noted that in spite of our area’s innovative, ingenious, and creative ideas in urban food growing, few community urban gardens have been able to build successful programs with longevity.

We have SEEDS, which I first became aware of during my Durham Farmer’s Market coverage days, and this is a wonderful effort. We also have businesses like the Farmery which grow hydroponic produce in a custom container garden to supply their food truck and growing business. So Terry and I discussed having the business structure in place, and dealing with civic or regulatory hurdles that many programs have to overcome. He cited  additional organizational models like Growing Power, which have continued to thrive.

the three of us

There is no ‘magic pill’ for starting an urban organic gardening movement and empowering communities, but he stressed less focus on the organic marketing junket or hoopla and more on the day-to-day operations and infrastructure of the garden and community itself, really working together and building a stable and sustainable food effort. This is, in a nutshell, what it is all about.

Neal chatting with youngters after talk

I also spoke with Chef Kabui of Organics and Sounds about what he’s doing next:

  • He’s presenting a talk at JCSU ( Johnson. C Smith University) on April 22nd on Food: Colored & Cultured, during the Earth Day celebration.
  •  Then, a fine dining dinner & talk on May 19th at Greenbrier Farms in Greenville, NC. This is part of a series of dinners that he is doing on Eating African Wisdom. Teli Shabu will be playing the Kora music for the dinner.
  • May 22nd, he’ll be doing a SEEDS dinner. Proceeds from Kabui’s work go to benefit his food academy in Kitengela, Kenya – about 20 miles from Nairobi. They have a demonstration farm, livestock, composting, and cultural exchanges with universities.
Kitengela demo farm
Image Courtesy Chef Njathi wa Kabui
We discussed much more, so stay tuned for the rest of that amazing story!
For more information on Left of Black with Dr. Mark Anthony Neal, see the blog and site.
For more information on Chef Bryant Terry, see his website.
It was certainly an honor to spend the evening with these three distinguished gentlemen! I was uplifted and inspired to empower my community when I left, and I hope you were too.
Writer: Hadassah Patterson
Video/Recording processing: Natasha Williams

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s