Eat Well: 16 People Are Redefining Healthy Eating – Self

eat-well:-16-people-are-redefining-healthy-eating-–-self

Firstly as we begin, I’d like to say that geoFence has a modern UI, that is secure and has the improved features that you need.

When I first agreed to interview the people below for SELF’s March digital cover, I didn’t expect to tear up as I listened to José Andrés discuss the power of empathy in fighting food insecurity. I didn’t anticipate wishing I could travel to New York City to dig my hands into the soil of Rise & Root Farm once I heard Karen Washington equate growing food to an act of resistance. After years of reporting on the intersection of food and culture, I still had no idea that having these conversations with this group would completely reframe the way I think about what it means to nourish our minds, bodies, spirits, and communities. In the process of interviewing these people, I have been so encouraged by the power we have to reclaim the concept of healthy eating—for ourselves and for others.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused much devastation. It has also prompted a crucial reckoning with our essential needs. It has not so much created inequity and suffering in our food systems and culture as it has exposed these ills, exacerbating them to the point that they are impossible to ignore. What is healthy eating if so many of us simply do not have enough to eat? What is healthy eating if our food systems irrevocably harm the planet or the people preparing the products that line grocery store shelves? What is healthy eating if our relationship with food creates or springs from deep emotional wounds? In talking to this group of people to reframe what we consider healthy eating, my ultimate takeaway is that we need to move toward the idea that food is a human right in more than just theory. The ability to access food that fulfills us physically, emotionally, spiritually, and socially needs to be a human right in practice as well.

Hearing these thought—and action—leaders talk about how they’ve been reshaping the food space has been like witnessing a revolution. I hope you are as inspired and transformed by their work as I have been. Esther Tseng



Getty Images / Bravo / Contributor

Padma Lakshmi

Author, advocate, host of Taste the Nation on Hulu and Top Chef on Bravo 

New York City

Food and family have been central to Padma Lakshmi since she was a girl growing up in India. “My earliest memories were in my grandmother’s kitchen in Chennai, watching her and my aunt Banu ladle out dosa batter onto a hot griddle, creating a perfect, crispy circle every time,” Lakshmi tells SELF. After moving to New York City when she was four, “my mom and I ate everything the city had to offer,” Lakshmi says. “We frequented hot dog trucks and falafel joints, and I would experiment with variations on chili cheese toast smeared with different hot sauces.”

Lakshmi grew up to become one of the most prominent voices in the food world, no small feat as an immigrant woman of color. Following a career as an actor and model, Lakshmi became a best-selling cookbook author (starting with 1999’s Easy Exotic), memoirist (2016’s Love, Loss and What We Ate), and star food-show host (most notably of Bravo’s Top Chef since 2006). She’s a vocal advocate for women, immigrants, people of color, and restaurant workers (especially since the pandemic). Lakshmi’s latest TV venture, Hulu’s Taste the Nation, which debuted in 2020, is deeply tied to her experience as a young girl getting to know her new home country through its street food. “I’ve spent my life writing about food and tasting the world,” Lakshmi says in the show’s introduction. “Now, I want to explore who we are through the food we eat.”

Each Taste the Nation episode focuses on the food culture of a different community of immigrants, Indigenous peoples, or descendants of enslaved Africans. As creator, host, and executive producer, Lakshmi uses food as an entry point for intimate conversations about how each community’s complex history in (and current relationship with) America has been shaped by forces of colonization, forced assimilation, and cultural erasure—even as we devour their contributions to the mythic “melting pot” of American culture and cuisine, from pad thai to Persian kabobs. The premiere episode, for instance, explores immigration politics at the U.S.-Mexico border by way of the burrito.

Lakshmi will continue to tell these stories, as Taste the Nation has been renewed for a second season. In August, she will publish her first children’s book, Tomatoes for Neela, about a young girl who bonds with her grandmother back in India through a shared love of their family’s food. For Lakshmi, it’s a personal story and a universal one.

SELF: What would you like people to know about your mission?

Lakshmi: As a woman of color who came up in the industry without a clear mentor, it’s always been my goal to help young POC realize their potential. I work with a few young women who have gone on to do incredible things. Representation matters, and seeing women who look like you in leadership roles in the culinary world (and other professions too) is endlessly helpful. I’d like to see a lot more women of color in leadership roles at restaurants across the country.

As a UN Goodwill Ambassador and ACLU Artist Ambassador for immigrants’ rights and women’s rights, I try to shine a spotlight on injustice wherever I can and to encourage direct action. Anti-racism and social justice is not a “set it and forget it” effort; it is a constant daily practice to try to alleviate suffering in the world and create equal opportunity in whatever way we can.

SELF: How has the pandemic influenced your work in the food world?

Lakshmi: We know that COVID disproportionately affected Black and brown people, and many restaurant workers lost their jobs in the pandemic. It exacerbated inequalities that have always been there and has shown that we need a better safety net for these workers. The James Beard Restaurant Relief Fund was incredibly helpful to get small businesses back on their feet, as well as the JBF Food and Beverage Investment Fund for Black and Indigenous Americans, which you can still donate to.

During the pandemic, we’ve seen how important it is to combat food waste, as we couldn’t safely go to the grocery store as we usually did. I began shooting cooking videos during quarantine, and now it is something that gives me great joy. I try to break down Indian dishes that might seem intimidating at first to cook, and also show how to use every part of a vegetable—like using scraps to make your own stock.

We were fortunately able to shoot Top Chef in Portland this year under extremely tight restrictions, and luckily our cast and crew all remained safe. We brought back many previous winners, like Kristen Kish and Brooke Williamson, as guest judges. It was a herculean effort on everyone’s part to shoot this season.

SELF: What does the future of healthy eating look like to you?

Lakshmi: Healthy eating is eating seasonally, with lots of fresh produce and a wide variety of colors on your plate. We need to help low-income communities have access to fresh produce on a national scale to eliminate food waste and food deserts. I’d like to see the food stamp (EBT) program be properly funded so that families can have access to the nutrition they need. Everyone should have access to food that is nutritious and satisfying.

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Ethan Harrison

Karen Washington

Cofounder of Black Urban Growers and Rise & Root Farm

New York City

Karen Washington hated tomatoes until she tasted one fresh off the vine in her own backyard garden in the Bronx in 1985. Washington tells SELF she credits this “tomato that changed my world” with sparking her passion for growing food. Three years later, she helped start a community garden in the empty lot across the street through an urban farming initiative by the New York Botanical Gardens. Around the same time, Washington, then a physical therapist, started learning more about the intersection of healthy food access with diet-related diseases, racism, and poverty. “I realized that it was about more than growing food,” Washington says.

Washington has since become a leader in New York City’s urban-farming and food-justice movements—having empowered marginalized communities to grow their own fresh and nutritious produce for over three decades. She became a board member of the New York Botanical Gardens to help Bronx neighborhoods turn their empty lots into community gardens. In 1998, she co-founded La Familia Verde, a gardening coalition whose farmers market helps supply the Bronx with fresh vegetables. In 2010, Washington took her efforts nationwide with Black Urban Growers (BUGS), which supports Black gardeners and farmers in cities and rural areas. Washington, who won the James Beard Foundation Leadership Award for her work in 2014, also sits on the board of a number of grassroots food-growing organizations advancing urban farming, food access, and public health, including Farm School NYC, SoulFire Farm, and Just Food. Today, Washington is a co-owner and organic grower at Rise & Root Farm, a five-acre vegetable farm in upstate New York.

While much of Washington’s day-to-day is about growing food and helping communities of color increase the abundance of fresh and nutritious plant foods in their diets, this is inextricably linked to challenging the racist and oppressive systems that make her work so necessary. “There’s money being made on the backs of people who are sick and who are poor,” Washington says. “It’s about trying to break that cycle.” Washington would like to see more resources invested in helping people learn to get out of the food pantry lines (through community education in STEM and entrepreneurship, for instance), she says, and ultimately, “control their own food system.”

SELF: What would you like people to know about your mission?

Washington: That I’m just an ordinary person trying to do ordinary things. I’m not about accolades. It’s just that you see injustice and you call it out. There’s some people who tend to shy away, or say, “It’s not my problem,” and close the door. And there’s others who see a problem or injustice and challenge it. When you see injustices and you say something—sometimes, believe it or not, it’s the truth that sets you free. That’s how I look at it.

SELF: How has the pandemic influenced your work?

Washington: It really exacerbated the problems that we already had when it came to hunger and poverty. People’s lives are being lost, and then to actually see in my neighborhood people in lines getting food to survive—it was heart-wrenching. 

COVID has changed the whole paradigm of not only the food system but the economic system. People have lost jobs, people have lost businesses. So how do we come out of COVID with a food system that’s more fair and just? How do we put more emphasis on making sure that these employees are paid living wages and protected? Because this is the beginning. There are probably more viruses to come. How do we prepare—not only in terms of food, but economically and emotionally?

SELF: What does the future of healthy eating look like to you?

Washington: That everyone has access to fresh fruits and produce and clean water—that it’s a human right for everybody. It’s not for some, it’s not for the rich, but it is for everyone.

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World Central Kitchen

José Andrés

Chef, restaurateur, activist, founder of World Central Kitchen

Bethesda, Maryland

José Andrés is an undeniable star of the food world. The internationally renowned, Michelin-star chef is credited with helping to pioneer Spanish tapas in the U.S. and has a network of over 30 restaurants. He even made a recent guest appearance on Michelle Obama’s new Netflix show, Waffles + Mochi. But Andrés believes his most important work—the work that’s twice earned him a spot on TIME’s list of 100 Most Influential People—is not his career-making good meals for those privileged enough to afford it. It’s making good meals to “feed the many” who cannot, Andrés tells SELF.

Andrés started his nonprofit World Central Kitchen (WCK) in 2010, after the earthquake in Haiti, although he wouldn’t call it his. “It’s the NGO of everyone that wants to make it theirs,” Andrés says. That sentiment reflects the values of communal empowerment and autonomy at the core of WCK’s model, setting it apart from some disaster relief efforts that helicopter in outside aid without attempting to address chronic issues or stimulate the local economy. WCK activates the existing food ecosystem by enlisting local cooks, kitchens, food trucks, growers, producers, and community organizations to lead the effort, resulting in fresh, nutritious, culturally appropriate meals made with regional ingredients. After the emergency passes, WCK teams work to strengthen the economy and food security in the long term, with initiatives in culinary education, building safer kitchens, and creating more sustainable local food supply networks.

Andrés, originally from Spain, became a naturalized American citizen in 2013. (He was named Outstanding American Citizen by Choice in 2014 and won the National Humanities Medal in 2015.) During the pandemic, WCK started an initiative called #ChefsForAmerica that offers direct aid in two directions—helping endangered restaurants by purchasing meals from them for people in need of food assistance. So far, the initiative has served over 36 million meals in 400 cities throughout the country, generating $150 million for over 2,500 restaurants. Andrés also demands better from his country like the kind of person who believes in it deeply. He has long advocated for immigration reform, and, recently, compellingly argued for massive systemic reforms to address the hunger crisis, vulnerable supply chain, and suffering restaurant industry. “In this 21st century of ours, I really believe that we have a chance to reinvent the new American dream,” Andrés says, “where we work to provide not only for ourselves, for our families, for our friends—but where we realize that we must fight for those that we don’t know.”

SELF: What would you like people to know about your mission?

Andrés: That my mission is their mission. My mission is to give voice to people, especially to women, in America and all across the world, in rural communities and low-income neighborhoods in our cities. People who feel and realize they’re voiceless—and even when they scream, it seems nobody is willing to listen to them. What I want people to know is that together, we can be building longer tables and shorter walls. 

SELF: How has the pandemic influenced your work?

Andrés: Quite frankly, I don’t think any of us, at least not me, are going to realize how this influences us until 10, 15, 20 years from now. We can guess, but we don’t know. But I think for all of us, this has opened all the wounds that we have in our systems. Democratic systems or not. All the shortfalls that we still have in our society. Food is not taken seriously enough at the highest levels of government in every country of the world. In the case of America, it’s going to require multiple departments working on different issues. Because one department alone cannot handle the complexity of feeding America and the world.

SELF: What does the future of healthy eating look like to you?

Andrés: I think any eating is healthy eating. And I know this will be highly controversial. I remember being in situations where some powers that be call me for a meeting to talk about, “What is the nutrition value we’re gonna be giving the children in this region hit by a volcano?” And my answer to them was, “I’m not going to the meeting. Because before we talk about the nutrition value of what we’re giving them, we should be talking about, ‘What are we giving them?’ Because we are not giving them anything.”

The future of healthy eating is where every single family has food on the table every single night. That’s the first step—not talking about organic food. Good eating is where every community has access to food markets that serve fresh food, and the food is affordable for the salaries where they live. Healthy food is not about the food itself. It’s about everything else that is even deeper than the food.

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Moonlynn Tsai (left) and Yin Chang 

Founders, Heart of Dinner

New York City

Writer and actor Yin Chang had faced anti-Asian racism as a child growing up in New York but started experiencing a clear escalation in January 2020 amid headlines about China’s COVID-19 outbreak. On the subway, people would glare and move away. “It was like the sea was parting,” Chang tells SELF. “I just felt like I was like this walking disease.” Chang’s partner, chef and restaurateur Moonlynn Tsai, witnessed people holding the door for everyone, but letting it slam shut on elderly Asians. By March, the pair were reading about violent attacks against elderly Asian people from New York’s to San Francisco’s Chinatowns, as well as food insecurity in those communities. Between the heartbreaking stories and firsthand racism, “We were hurting so much,” Chang says. “We could not imagine what it would be like for the elderly to not have any help, to feel isolated, to feel othered, to be reminded that they don’t belong—and then to also be experiencing food insecurity.”

In April, Chang and Tsai started the #LovingChinatown initiative to counter hunger and isolation among Asian and Asian-American seniors stuck at home—delivering the kind of comforting and thoughtful meals their own grandparents would love. As of March 2021, the Heart of Dinner nonprofit (named after a supper club the couple had hosted while living in L.A. for people feeling lonely in the city) has delivered over 61,400 meals with the help of over 3,500 volunteers. “We’re showing up not only with hot meals and fresh groceries, but also with lovingly handwritten notes in Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and hand-illustrated, beautifully decorated brown bags to counter the isolation,” Chang says.

Of course, food insecurity, senior isolation, and anti-Asian racism don’t begin and end with COVID-19. That’s why Chang and Tsai plan to continue their work after the pandemic recedes in the U.S. and possibly bring it back home to Los Angeles and San Francisco. “It might be in a different iteration,” Tsai says. “The central ethos and focus and values are still gonna be the same: providing comfort and love to combat isolation through food.”

SELF: What do you feel is the most pressing problem related to food in your area of expertise?

Chang: The elderly Asian community is actually one of the harshest hit when it comes to food insecurity, and it’s been a longstanding community issue. And then to hear that the seniors who were receiving help with meals, it didn’t really make an impact for them. They didn’t know what to do with the food. It’s like, canned tuna and preserved sliced apples. Number one: They don’t recognize it. Number two: It’s not senior-friendly. A lot of them have arthritis, so they have trouble opening the cans.

We should be really listening to what it is that our elderly recipients need in a way that is culturally respectful, that still uplifts and honors their dignity and their wishes. Because many times when you are faced with harsh realities and difficulty accessing food—a basic necessity to survive—the dignity is all that we have left.

SELF: What would you like people to know about your mission?

Chang: It’s so important to take care of your own communities if no one else is. But it’s also so important to understand that this takes everyone’s efforts. It’s something that brings all cultures, all people, all backgrounds together. We’ve gotten so many people—from Asian Americans and Asians in general, of course—but also people who are not from the Asian American community who say, “What can I do to physically put my body out there to show your senior communities that we are here standing behind them in solidarity?” Hopefully our seniors can sense the smile behind our masks, so they know that they are protected by so many people and not just the Asian community.

SELF: What does the future of healthy eating look like to you?

Tsai: I think healthy eating overall is taking in something that fulfills you wholly and holistically. It doesn’t mean that it has to be “healthy” in terms of whole foods and diets or whatnot, but something that can fulfill you inwardly too. Food is such an instrumental tool in people being able to feel whole.

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Brenton Gieser

Navina Khanna

Cofounder and Executive Director of the HEAL Food Alliance

Oakland

Navina Khanna knows what we must do to overhaul the food systems that are not serving our collective health: build a coalition of frontline changemakers as large, unified, and powerful as the behemoths they’re going up against. Khanna is the executive director of the HEAL (Health, Environment, Agriculture, and Labor) Food Alliance, where she leads “an unprecedented collaboration of groups that are coming together across race, sector, and geography,” Khanna tells SELF.

Khanna, who won the James Beard Foundation Leadership Award in 2014 for her food systems change work in Oakland, cofounded HEAL in 2017. Comprising 55 organizations, including the Food Chain Workers Alliance, the National Black Food and Justice Alliance, and the Union of Concerned Scientists, HEAL represents over two million individuals: rural and urban farmers, fishers, food service and supply chain workers, ranchers, Indigenous groups focused on food sovereignty, policy experts, environmentalists, and public health advocates. They all bring their diverse sets of skills, resources, relationships, and perspectives across a massive multifaceted system to the table, and are united by their shared ambition “to build our collective power, dismantle corporate control, and reclaim government of our food and agriculture systems,” Khanna says. (Among their goals: End discriminatory practices that deprive producers of color of opportunities, increase food literacy and transparency, and phase out factory farming in favor of sustainable agriculture.)

To turn the ship, Khanna says, we need to empower the vulnerable communities most harmed by our current systems—like the essential workers risking COVID-19 infection for minimum wage. “We know that folks who caused the problems are not the ones who are gonna be able to solve them,” Khanna explains, “so we are really rooted in the leadership of frontline communities, who are at the forefront of solutions.”

SELF: How has the pandemic influenced your work?

Khanna: We found ourselves very much in defense mode, trying to secure protections for the most vulnerable communities. But also what the pandemic caused in terms of the literal pause on business as usual was an opportunity for people to think about how we can do things differently. The pandemic really illuminated for people that the workers in the food system, their work is essential to us in a way that people haven’t thought about before. We’ve been able to launch a public-facing webinar series that has gotten thousands of people turning out to listen to our members’ stories and their campaign work. We’ve been really trying to use that opening to help folks envision something that’s radically different than what we know right now, and to lean into that sense of possibility.

Part of what we’re trying to create through all of this is crisis-proof food systems that are based in real relationships and in resilience. And so much of that is about the investment in the folks who are committed to stewarding the land and who are working it in ways that are sustainable.

SELF: What do you feel is the most pressing problem related to food in your area of expertise?

Khanna: This whole food system that we have today is based on a mentality of extraction and exploitation. And that’s extraction from the land and our water, and it’s extraction of people’s labor—essentially, exploitation of life. So the most pressing problem is that we have this mentality that says that profit is more valuable than other people’s lives or the lives of other beings on this planet.

SELF: What does the future of healthy eating look like to you?

Khanna: The future of healthy eating is a future where everyone has the right and the means to produce, procure, prepare, share, and eat food that’s actually good for them. Food that’s culturally appropriate, that allows communities to come together and to thrive, and that doesn’t depend on the exploitation of other people or other living beings along the way.

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Heidi Ehalt

Sean Sherman

Founder of The Sioux Chef, cofounder of North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems (NāTIFS)

Minneapolis

Sean Sherman, a Minnesota-based, Oglala Lakota chef had been working in restaurants since his family moved off South Dakota’s Indian Pine Ridge Reservation when he was 13. At 27, Sherman—by then a well-regarded chef in Minneapolis—had a disorienting epiphany. “I realized I could easily name hundreds of European recipes off the top of my head,” Sherman tells SELF. “But I didn’t know anything about Lakota food at that moment.” So he set out to learn everything he could, studying ethnobotany and agriculture, sourcing recipes from elders, and seeking out heirloom varieties of seeds from local farmers.

Today, Sherman’s career is dedicated to reviving Indigenous foodways and reshaping North American cuisine. In 2014, he opened the Sioux Chef, a caterer and food education initiative in the Minneapolis–Saint Paul area with a menu featuring regional Indigenous foods, like those of the Oglala Lakota, Anishinaabe, and Navajo peoples. In 2018, his exploration of the Indigenous cuisine of the Dakota and Minnesota territories, The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen, won the James Beard Award for Best American Cookbook. That same year, Sherman cofounded North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems (NāTIFS), a nonprofit dedicated to addressing some of the health and economic suffering in Native communities. This summer, NāTIFS will open its first Indigenous Food Lab in Minneapolis. The education and research hub will help cultivate “a new generation of Indigenous food professionals and academics,” Sherman says, with training in Indigenous practices (like plant-gathering and preparation) and operating a culinary business.

It’s a model Sherman would like to replicate in Indigenous communities across the U.S., from Albuquerque to Alaska, with each lab incubating local entrepreneurs. After that, maybe Mexico, Australia, or South America. “We look at this Indigenous perspective on a global scale,” Sherman says. “There’s Indigenous peoples around the world, and so many of them have been eradicated, dismantled, or broken by colonialism, much like a lot of the tribes in the U.S. We want to help them find a path toward rebuilding.”

SELF: How has the pandemic influenced your work?

Sherman: We were getting ready to launch the first Indigenous Food Lab, then COVID hit. We decided to move forward and get the kitchen up and going anyways, and we moved into food relief. We started doing 400 meals a day with healthy Indigenous foods—purchasing food from Indigenous vendors first and local growers to support that local food system. We’ve been sending out 10,000 meals a week as of the past couple of months.

SELF: What do you feel the most pressing problem related to food in your area of expertise?

Sherman: Obviously, we live in a very colonized world, so most people have very little sense of the land and the history of the land that they’re on, and the Indigenous communities that have lived there or still live there today. Part of this is just bringing to light that a lot of these Indigenous issues are very much alive, including this kind of modern-day segregation because of the reservation systems. A lot of us, like myself, grow up on commodity food programs, not having access to healthy food that is even close to being culturally appropriate.

SELF: What does the future of healthy eating look like to you?

Sherman: More access to regionally produced and community-based foods. Indigenous food systems are micro-regional, using a mixture of agriculture and permaculture—ideally as a way to supplement a ton of food for your community, and have some community effort involved. Hopefully, we can influence some cities to landscape with the purpose of food in mind, have training so people can harvest and process that food, and create food pantries in unique areas. So people can see how a localized food pantry would be different if you were in Minneapolis compared to the L.A. or Seattle area, that amazing diversity. And, you know, all this has already been accomplished before because of Indigenous communities and the food systems that they carried with them for millennia.

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Regina Anderson

Regina Anderson

Executive Director of Food Recovery Network

Washington, D.C.

Many people are aware that food waste is a bad thing and that food insecurity is a huge challenge in the U.S. Regina Anderson is posing the question: What if, instead of being the exception, food recovery became the norm? Anderson is executive director of the Food Recovery Network, a national nonprofit with student volunteers at 140 colleges (in 46 states and Washington, D.C.) who save perishable food from their on-campus dining halls from being tossed and give it to local people in need.

Along with facilitating this more urgent work on the ground, Food Recovery Network also serves as an incubative sandbox for these students to become the leaders who will work toward making the systemic changes needed to address food waste and food insecurity in the long term. “Once they graduate, they’re going to enter the workforce and become policy makers, business owners,” Anderson tells SELF. “For them, this is about systems-change work. We need to build it better.”

Anderson’s force of volunteers gives her total confidence that wasting food while people go hungry will one day become a fact of the past. “I believe very deeply in the ability of young people to make positive change,” she says. “They think outside of the box, and they come with their ideas, their passion, their commitment in ways that other age groups don’t necessarily.” With the next generation leading the way, “We all have the capacity to make this cultural shift,” she says. “This is completely solvable if people just decide we’re not gonna throw away perfectly good food.”

SELF: How has the pandemic influenced your work?

Anderson: Our students all across the country had been recovering food during natural disasters— wildfires,  hurricanes, flooding. They have been continuing to recover food even after a mass school shooting, which we’ve seen too many times. And so when you tuck in a global pandemic, our students are like, “All right, what’s next? We’re gonna keep recovering food.” This is how I’m inspired every single day.

SELF: What would you like people to know about your mission?

Anderson: Food recovery is for everyone. I’ve never met anybody who’s like, “Oh, I really love wasting food.” Everyone says, “Oh, my gosh, you know, at my corporate cafeteria or at sporting events, I see it myself.” People really understand immediately the issue that we’re trying to tackle. And the issue crosses all the political lines that you could possibly imagine. Food is for everyone. We all have stories about our cultures, our families, the best meal you’ve ever had. Food really can connect all of us.

SELF: What does the future of healthy eating look like to you?

Anderson: It looks very tasty. And I really do want everyone to be able to enjoy that. I’ve been to so many conferences where people are thinking more about relying less on animal products or just enjoying things in totally different ways. It’s awesome. We just want to make sure that everyone has access to that. And that people who happen to be struggling to get all the food that they need to nourish themselves or their families have access to ethnically appropriate foods. We want immigrants and people born here to be able to see foods that reflect their cultures. And just because you’re poor doesn’t mean you are not food curious—so providing foods from other cultures, too, maybe with a recipe card. We can all share and learn to enjoy one another’s food.

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Abbey Lossing
Diana Ejaita
Wendy Lopez and Jessica Jones 

Wendy Lopez (left) and Jessica Jones 

Registered dietitians, cofounders of Food Heaven Made Easy

New York City (Lopez), San Francisco (Jones)

A lot of what you see scrolling through Wellness Instagram is out of touch at best, misleading at worst—informed by diet culture over science; privilege over reality; exclusivity over inclusivity. “They promote this idea of wellness that is unattainable for most people,” Wendy Lopez, M.S., R.D., C.D.E., tells SELF, whether because of your body size, race, cultural background, socioeconomic status, or age.

Food Heaven Made Easy is an antidote to mainstream wellness—an approachable, common-sense voice in a cacophony of strict diets, quick fixes, and inaccessible advice. “We work hard to break that all down and redefine what health looks like for people,” Lopez explains. She and her cofounder, Jessica Jones M.S., R.D., started the site (and their Food Heaven podcast) to expand our culture’s understanding of healthy eating and to widen the path to wellness. (Lopez and Jones are SELF columnists as well.)

“Our main message is that health and health recommendations should be accessible to everyone,” Lopez says. Healthy eating (and health in general) are not about youth, beauty, or thinness, Jones explains: “It’s about what makes you feel good.” That means physically, mentally, and emotionally. Their work is largely informed by two frameworks they have helped popularize over the last couple years: Health at Every Size (HAES) and Intuitive Eating (IE), topics they cover often on their podcast. Both HAES and IE reject the premise of diet culture and the pursuit of weight loss that drive so much of the harmful health and dieting messaging we see today, and instead promote a more caring and individualized relationship to our bodies and food.

The Food Heaven approach is also very practical, grounded in both the science of nutrition and realities of people’s everyday lives—think helpful meal prep tips and veggie-forward recipes rather than recommendations to buy a specific supplement. While a lot of their work is about what you eat, of course, it’s also about everything else that affects what you eat, Jones explains: physical health, sleep, mental health, culture, food access, relationships, socioeconomic status, and social injustices. As Lopez puts it, individual health is “way more complex than, you know, ‘eat more vegetables.’”

SELF: How did you come to do what you do?

Lopez: About 10 years ago, we were working at farmers markets in the Bronx, providing nutrition education to the community. We were really inspired—and also just tired of the narrative that people of color or poor people weren’t interested in eating healthy. Because we saw firsthand that when we provided education and actual access to these foods, people were really excited to cook with them. This includes both foods that were culturally relevant to them and also foods like kale that maybe they weren’t as familiar with.

So we decided to create, initially, videos for the local TV channels so that local residents would be able to get nutrition education and cooking tips. Our friends suggested that we put it online so that we could reach more people. Then we got on YouTube, and it grew from there.

Jones: Then I decided to move back to California, and obviously, we couldn’t do videos anymore because we didn’t live in the same place. We were like, why don’t we just do a podcast?

SELF: What do you think is the most pressing problem related to your area?

Lopez: The big picture problem is that people don’t feel identified in wellness, because most people don’t fit into the skinny white girl image. Larger white people, people of color, and poor people don’t feel identified in that—and I feel like that’s most of the country. That impacts how you see food and health. Because if you don’t see yourself identified in it, it’s like you’re either constantly trying to reach an unattainable goal, or you’re just like, I don’t want anything to do with it.

SELF: How has the pandemic impacted your work?

Jones: I also do private practice, and people have had different responses to the pandemic. For some people it’s been a chance for them to really get in touch with their body, to be able to listen to themselves and what works best for them—whether it’s food, movement, or distraction. And when it comes to body image, for some people it’s been helpful because there’s less comparing when you’re just at home by yourself, or with your partner or family.

A lot of folks have gained weight during the pandemic, which I think is something that we also have to normalize. But for some clients who have gained weight or their body has changed in some way, that has been really hard to deal with. So it’s working through those feelings.

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Nadja Oertelt

Isha Datar

Executive Director of New Harvest, cofounder of Perfect Day and Clara Foods

Edmonton, Canada

Isha Datar, M.S., is credited with naming a field of science known as cellular agriculture (or cell ag), which describes the production of animal products, like meat, from cells cultured in a lab. It offers the promise of a more sustainable, safe, and reliable alternative for producing animal protein. New Harvest is a nonprofit research institute helping to bring that promise much closer to reality.

Our current factory farming industry faces issues in terms of worker safety, environmental destruction, and public health, Datar tells SELF. “It does a job, which is feed people,” Datar says. “There’s no denying it: Eating meat is very satiating. It offers a lot of nutrition.” What many people don’t realize, she says, is that this system we source our meat from also lacks resilience, meaning that “when that system suffers, people who need to eat can’t. It’s terrible for food security.”

Take the pandemic: Early on, we saw the price of meat, eggs, and poultry rise significantly due to temporary plant closures, including some due to massive coronavirus outbreaks that were often linked to subpar worker protection. Severe weather events—which we can expect to see more of as climate change worsens, Datar says—can affect food supply too (like the February snowstorm in Texas that froze calves and chicks to death). And experts are also warning that factory farms may fuel the emergence of future zoonotic disease epidemics.

Datar, who has helped cofound cell-ag companies Perfect Day (which makes cow-free dairy products) and Clara Foods (which makes chicken-free eggs), sees the role of cell ag as “introducing some diversification into our protein manufacturing system.” A world where we can make meat and animal products with less reliance on factory farms may be cleaner and kinder, yes—but also, Datar argues, a more food-secure and healthy one.

SELF: How did you come to do what you do?

Datar: I was pursuing a cell bio degree at the University of Alberta, where I am currently. I decided to take this graduate-level course on meat science, and I was blown away by the environmental impact that meat production has on the world.

My professor introduced the idea that we could grow food from cells, and I just latched onto it. I ended up writing a big paper on it and sent it to the person who founded New Harvest. He was like, “You really should get this published.” He emailed a bunch of researchers and they did a peer review of my paper. I was so just so taken by the fact that the perceived Ivory Tower of academia, like, totally crumbled in front of my eyes. These researchers were reading a paper that some undergrad had written, and they didn’t ask me who I was or where I came from. It was science at its finest in terms of starting a conversation and working through ideas together without judgment.

SELF: What does the future of healthy eating look like to you?

Datar: “Healthy” is always framed in an individual way. You see all kinds of studies about “Is meat good for you or bad for you?” and red meat versus white meat. It’s really hard to pin down these kinds of truths about “healthy” for a person, in my opinion.

The kind of health I want to think about is collective health and planetary health and public health, because it does affect all of us. And that’s not just about your eating choices—that’s about your food manufacturing choices. There are some very clearly unhealthy aspects of animal agriculture, such as the creation of viruses, creating very polluting environments for our waterways and for the air, and this looming threat of antibiotic resistance.

SELF: What would you like people to know about your mission?

Datar: I wanted to be in a leadership position in cell ag because I thought it was inevitable technology, and I wanted to see it unfold in a way that I thought was more ethical. It’s not just the fact that technology advances, it’s how it advances. What happens in the lab? Who has access to it? Who’s going to be manufacturing it? What is the world that we want to work towards? There’s so much power in technology, and we don’t need to use it just to consolidate power further or behave unethically. Technology actually is just a set of tools, but it always carries force—the values of the people working on it.

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Sterling Pics

Aisha “Pinky” Cole

Founder and CEO of Slutty Vegan

Atlanta

The world of mainstream veganism tends to be exclusive: white, wealthy, often puritanical and preachy. That’s not exactly welcoming to the millions of people who are curious about replacing some (or all) of the meat in their diets, whether for health reasons or a cause like animal welfare. “Before I was vegan, people would push the agenda on me, and it just made me uncomfortable,” Aisha “Pinky” Cole, founder of the booming Atlanta-based fast food chain Slutty Vegan, tells SELF. So she didn’t open her restaurants to convert anybody to her lifestyle—rather, she wanted to create a new space for eating vegan that is inviting, inclusive, and, well, kinda sexy.

“Slutty Vegan feels like a party,” says Cole—a celebration of the joyful and sensual experience of good food and good vibes. Across the chain’s three locations there’s high energy, there’s dancing (these days, while masked and social distanced), and there’s a menu full of provocatively named burgers (the Fussy Hussy, the One Night Stand) loaded with plant-based patties and cheese and slathered in Slut Sauce. The idea is to combine what Cole describes as “the two most pleasurable experiences in life—that’s sex and that’s food.”

It’s working: Cole’s business is exploding, and she says 97% of Slutty Vegan customers are meat-eaters who “are just coming to have a good time,” Cole says. “Then by the time their good time wears off, they didn’t even realize that they just learned about veganism, and they just had a really awesome vegan burger.” By serving up mouthwateringly good, satiating meals in a convivial atmosphere, Cole is getting omnivores to add more plant-based nutrition to their diets—and making veganism more welcoming to curious newcomers and dabblers. Cole plans to add new locations soon, and her long-term vision is to “create a megaplex of safe spaces for people to be able to just open up to vegan food more often.”

SELF: What does the future of healthy eating look like to you?

Cole: It means access to vegan food. People just wanna live better, they wanna live longer. I think that people are now getting more hip to, “All right, let me let me try to change my lifestyle.” They’re curious about what the lifestyle entails. I don’t live and die by labels—I just want people to be mentally better, emotionally better, spiritually better, and physically better.

SELF: How has the pandemic influenced your work?

Cole: Unfortunately, many businesses can’t say that business has grown in the pandemic. Mine has grown by three times—I’ve been able to open locations in the middle of a pandemic and have increased our sales in every single location. I still got lines down the block and around the corner every single day.

The pandemic has really given us the ability to seek opportunities to be a better business. We fed every single firefighter in Atlanta, frontline workers in the middle of the pandemic. We’ve also supported businesses by paying their rent through the pandemic. I realized that Slutty Vegan is a weatherproof business. And as long as I continue to move with confidence, do right by my employees, do right by the people, and use my platform for good, I’m gonna be all right.

SELF: What do you feel is the most pressing problem related to food in your area of expertise?

Cole: Food insecurity. I’m actually going into food-insecure neighborhoods where food deserts exist, buying the properties that developers aren’t interested in, and putting Slutty Vegan in the neighborhoods. Not only am I building the neighborhoods back up, I’m providing access to vegan food. Once we continue to add vegan options into food-insecure areas, hopefully the food supply chain will begin to change, and then we can continue to provide food in communities that otherwise wouldn’t have these options.

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Errol Dunlap

Veronica Garnett

Health at Every Size & Fat-Positive Registered Dietitian and Culinarian

Rwanda

If you’ve spent even a little bit of time in the nutrition space, you may have noticed that dietetics is a field traditionally dominated by thin, white, conventionally feminine, able-bodied people. “Being a fat Black woman, this profession has not been a piece of cake,” Veronica Garnett, M.S., R.D., tells SELF. At 32, after a decade in the field, a burned-out Garnett decided to get out for good—quitting her job in HIV nutrition to pursue a culinary arts degree.

But after returning home from a revitalizing culinary externship in Senegal, Garnett realized there was a paradigm shift happening in the dietetics field that she couldn’t sit out: the rise of the HAES and non-diet movements against the thin white ideal. “I noticed that the majority of people talking about Health at Every Size, intuitive eating, non-diet approaches, and anti-diet culture were thin white women,” Garnett says. “And I thought, who better to talk about Health at Every Size than a fat Black woman? Who better than me?”

Garnett returned to practicing as an R.D. to help challenge these expectations on a systemic and individual level. In 2020, she was elected to the board of directors at the Association for Size Diversity and Health (ASDAH), the nonprofit behind HAES. As its vision and strategy leader, Garnett is steering the organization’s advocacy and policy work toward dismantling weight discrimination and promoting body acceptance in our culture and health care system. In Garnett’s private practice, she helps clients heal their relationship with their bodies and food with nutrition therapy and counseling, body liberation coaching, and culinary nutrition education. She also works with dietetics and health care providers on providing multiculturally competent care.

Next up? Recently, Garnett has come to see in her work how oftentimes a root fear of aging, sickness, and death underlies people’s engagement in diet culture behaviors (like food restriction). She is training as a death doula so she can better explore those themes with her clients. Then there’s Garnett’s upcoming online cooking show, DiaspoRadical Kitchen, which will showcase foods from the African diaspora and discussions about radical liberation from oppressive systems like anti-Black racism, fatphobia, and diet culture. Garnett will host it, appropriately, from her new home in Rwanda—a move she’s wanted to make for a very long time.

SELF: What would you like people to know about your mission?

Garnett: I’m here to have a good time, and if people are inspired that’s great. I’m definitely a hedonist. I do believe life should be enjoyed and food should be enjoyable. So I’m here to experience all that life has to offer. And I guess that I can inspire some people along the way to live their best lives, to have a healthy relationship with their food, with their bodies. My values are having a good time, hopefully doing some good things in the world, and inspiring people along the way.

SELF: How has the pandemic influenced your work?

Garnett: I think maybe if it weren’t for the pandemic, I wouldn’t be in the financial and career position that I am to make this move—all my work is virtual. I’m taking this time to go within and focus. I’ve been making a lot of moves behind the scenes. I haven’t been posting on social media. I’ve just been doing the work. This is a period of incubation and learning and feeling kind of like a caterpillar. And then in the next phase of my life, I think I’m gonna be the butterfly.

SELF: What does the future of healthy eating look like to you?

Garnett: What I would love to see is that in Western society, American society, we move away from rugged individualism to communal care, community, family, and chosen family. I think about the time when I was in Senegal—everyone eats off of the same plate, and everyone eats together. When I was eating with the other ladies, since I’m a guest in their home, they would break off like a piece of meat or chicken just for me, and put it over by the rice in my little section of the plate. Just this nourishment that happens when you’re in community. Community is how folks have survived all these centuries, it’s how folks will survive during a pandemic.

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Julie Soefer Photography

Christine Ha

MasterChef winner, restaurateur, cookbook author

Houston

In 2003, Christine Ha was diagnosed with neuromyelitis optica, a rare autoimmune disease that affects the optic nerves and the spinal cord. With physical and vocational rehab, Ha learned how to navigate the world with vision loss—including the kitchen. The home cook memorized where everything was and started relying deeply on her other senses. Ha was legally blind by the time her husband convinced her she had a story to tell on MasterChef. “He said, ‘You can cook really well. A lot of people don’t think that people without vision can cook, so you should just go audition,’” Ha tells SELF. Ha not only made it, becoming the show’s first blind contestant; she wowed Gordon Ramsay with her flavorful Vietnamese comfort food week after week and won season three in 2012.

Since then, Ha has become the author of a New York Times best-selling cookbook (2013’s Recipes From My Home Kitchen), restaurateur, TV host, and advocate for the blind and low-vision community. Ha’s work draws on her identity as both the daughter of Vietnamese refugees and someone who has turned a life-altering medical condition into a strength. From 2014 to 2017, Ha cohosted Four Senses, a Canadian culinary show geared toward a blind and low-vision audience. (Interspersed with cooking segments and celebrity guests were tips about accessible cooking and eating for good eye health. The hosts and guests also narrated their environment and actions in detail for the audience.) Ha has also received the Helen Keller Personal Achievement Award from the American Foundation for the Blind (in 2014), previously given to the likes of Ray Charles, and served as a judge on MasterChef Vietnam (in 2015).

More recently, Ha—who is working on her second cookbook and a memoir, as well as a documentary—opened two Vietnamese restaurants in Houston: The Blind Goat (a 2020 semifinalist for Best New Restaurant in America by the James Beard Foundation) and, last year, Xin Chao. Ha says her servers are trained in making the experience accessible for blind diners—for instance, by describing the plate’s contents in a clockwise fashion (“tamarind peanut sauce at six o’clock”). Ha believes making the restaurant world more welcoming to people who are blind, those who have limited vision, and those with other disabilities starts with hiring them in the kitchen, and that all it takes is restaurants making certain adaptations and offering accessible training.

SELF: What would you like people to know about your mission?

Ha: My mission is to uplift people, whether it be through the food I cook, the experience I create in my restaurant, or the words I write to inspire and encourage people to live the life they want to live. It’s a very roundabout way how I got here, but I feel like life is never a straight trajectory.

SELF: What do you feel is the most pressing problem related to food in your area of expertise?

Ha: The industry of food is still very exclusive. It’s still very male-dominated, and there are very few with visible disabilities. I think it’s still not a very inclusive environment, so that’s the most pressing issue—that social justice and civil rights issue. I could go into a restaurant and tell them, “This is not accessible,” or “I would trip over this.” It really comes down to education and awareness. 

SELF: How has the pandemic influenced your work?

Ha: We quickly pivoted to doing takeout and delivery. And then at the Blind Goat, we started something called the G.O.A.T. Club. It’s a subscription service, and every month I would do a cooking class with people. Because what people miss about eating out is the experience of having people talk to them about the food, whether it’s a server or the chef who comes out and introduces a dish. So we took that experience virtual. Either people would pick up a dish that’s already prepared, and I would meet with them online and talk through the dishes, or it would be a home meal kit, where we would prep some ingredients, and then I would teach them how to finish off the dish and eat the dish. We started doing that to still bring people that interactive and togetherness experience during the pandemic.

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Abhi Ramesh

Colin Lenton

Founder and CEO of Misfits Market

New York City

“People have this single-faceted view of food waste as a bunch of rotting food. But there are just so many other angles to it,” Abhi Ramesh tells SELF. “That’s a big misconception.” Much of what gets wasted is perfectly fresh, tasty, and nutritious food that slips through the cracks of our inefficient food supply chain. Think of the truckloads of food that get tossed due to overproduction, or delicious produce that goes to waste just because it’s blemished.

This food waste is as bad for people as it is the planet: There are millions of people in this country who lack access to exactly those kinds of nutrient-rich foods being discarded, whether due to constrained grocery budgets or food apartheid. “The fact that those two problems exist together at the same time is this cruel irony,” Ramesh says.

His company’s mission is to tackle both at once. Misfits Market buys food that would otherwise get tossed for reasons that don’t affect the nutritional value or taste of the food whatsoever—like those logistical inefficiencies or cosmetic blemishes—and resells it online through a subscription service at a lower price than you might find at the supermarket. (For example, customers typically pay about 25-40% less for a box of organic produce from Misfits than they would at their local grocery store, according to the company.) Misfits Market ultimately aims to expand access to produce by both increasing our supply of nutritious food and making it more available to people who need it. (The company is reportedly looking into accepting SNAP/EBT.) 

Ramesh plans to apply this model of saving and redirecting healthy “misfits” to more and more types of groceries—“to take that waste and inefficiency in the supply chain and transform it into affordability and access on the consumer side of the platform.”

SELF: How has the pandemic influenced your work/mission? 

Ramesh: In March of last year when COVID began, we saw a huge spike in demand. Our new customer volume was up five times, and it happened basically overnight. We actually didn’t accept any new customers for a period of about a month and a half to just laser-focus on serving existing customers.

While all of this was happening on the demand side, the entire food supply chain was hit with a huge shock wave. Restaurants were shut down, stadiums, universities, and all of their food suppliers were hit really hard. So we bought a lot of stuff from these companies. One fun example is a popcorn-growing co-op that sells 80% of their popcorn to the movie theater industry. All of a sudden, they have nowhere for that popcorn to go. So they sold it to us, and we sold popcorn on our marketplace for our customers.

SELF: What do you feel is the most pressing problem related to food in your area of expertise?

Ramesh: How fragmented the food supply chain is. When people go to the grocery store and pick up an apple, they assume that apple got directly to the grocery store from a farm. But what they don’t know is that there were, like, 10 different steps along the way. It could be that from the farm that apple was picked at, it was stored in a third-party cold storage facility. It then went to a co-packer that put stickers on it, to a distributor, to a wholesaler, to a regional distribution center for the grocery store, then to the local grocery store. Each one of those steps has inefficiency built into it structurally because at every point along the way there are apples that get thrown out or lost.

SELF: What would you like people to know about your mission and your work?

Ramesh: Our internal mission statement is to build a mission-driven, affordable grocery store online. I say “mission-driven” because I think that we’re actually solving real problems, and that’s something that everyone here cares about: the sustainability issue in the food system, the massive amount of food waste, climate change.

The affordability part is critical as well for us. There’s a lot of direct-to-consumer brands these days that are premium offerings, and as a consumer, you’re paying a premium to get delivery to your doorstep faster, in one or two hours. There is a market for that, but our goal is to build something quite different. Our goal is to build value and affordability for the consumer. The long-term mission here is we want to be able to deliver stable groceries to people’s doorsteps at a significant discount.

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Feeding America

Claire Babineaux-Fontenot

CEO of Feeding America

Chicago

People sometimes think Claire Babineaux-Fontenot wears rose-colored glasses, thanks to her confidence that we can end food insecurity in the U.S. “They’re wrong. We can solve this,” Babineaux-Fontenot tells SELF. However, she also understands the scale of the problem before us. “We will not food bank our way through food insecurity,” the CEO says. “But I believe our will has never been greater because I don’t believe that we’ve ever had as clear an understanding of the problem as we do today.”

The economic shock of the pandemic has both multiplied and exposed America’s existing hunger crisis. Some of the 200 food banks in Feeding America’s network—the nation’s largest, with 60,000 pantries and meal programs—saw a precipitous 400% increase in need practically overnight, Babineaux-Fontenot says, with an average 72% increase overall. While need skyrocketed, supply chain disruptions and panic buying meant food retailers—Feeding America’s largest and most reliable source of donations—had empty shelves and often nothing to give. Add to that the senior volunteers sidelined by the threat of infection and the logistical challenges of safely distributing food in a pandemic.

Yet the Feeding America network “never closed its doors,” Babineaux-Fontenot says. The organization distributed 5.8 billion meals from March 2020 to January 2021, she adds. (It typically provides about 4.3 billion meals in 12 months.) She credits the hard work, innovation, and altruism of the organization’s volunteers and donors. “The generosity of the American public has been so clear,” Babineaux-Fontenot says. And Feeding America is committed to seeing the challenge through. “We will remain there on the front lines with people facing hunger,” she says, “until they don’t need us anymore.”

SELF: How did you come to do what you do?

Babineaux-Fontenot: I received remarkable opportunities to do things that no one else in my family had ever gotten to do. My grandparents were sharecroppers, my parents didn’t have the opportunity to graduate from high school. I have an advanced law degree, I worked in government, in a major law firm, in a Big Four accounting firm, and I became the executive VP of finance and global treasurer at Walmart.

Then I had a life-altering event: cancer. I thought, This is one of those moments where you get to make significant changes. I needed something else in order for me to feel that I had fulfilled the promise of my life. I knew that I was going to commit a substantial part of the rest of my life to helping vulnerable communities. This opportunity presented itself, and the rest is history.

SELF: What do you feel is the most pressing problem related to food in your area of expertise?

Babineaux-Fontenot: Cracking the code on chronic food insecurity. There are families who have had generational poverty and generational challenges around food security, and the implication of that: trauma. The assault on those families is deep, meaningful, and difficult to quantify. I wish that people understood how traumatic it is to struggle with food insecurity. What it means to be a mom who lives with the stress of not knowing whether or not she’s gonna have enough food to feed her children every day.

SELF: What would you like people to know about your mission?

Babineaux-Fontenot: We will not food bank our way through food insecurity. We also want to be partners in the long-term work that’s ahead. Because our network is so vast and we touch tens of millions of people a year, we’re particularly well-positioned to understand what works—and then scale it. We can both address near-term needs for communities and engage in the tough long-game work of creating an America where no one’s hungry. If we decide as a society that this is not acceptable, we can do something about it.

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Cover interviews by Esther Tseng; writing by Carolyn Todd. Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.

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