The Power of the Plate


By Susan Piperato & Charity Ferreira   |  

Food has always preoccupied humankind, but it’s fair to say that we are growing ever more aware of the food we eat—not just its flavor and nutritional value, but also its environmental, political, and socioeconomic impact. Every day, we choose whether to buy from local farmers or international corporations or something in between, and whether to eat food that’s organic or “conventionally” grown. And those choices have power: Few everyday decisions have the kind of far-reaching consequences as does what we put on our plates.

Not surprisingly, some food-savvy members of the yoga community are helping to shape our enlightened relationship to food. The five yogis profiled here believe that food has the power to improve our health and well-being, the welfare of our fellow human beings, and the health of the planet. Yoga fuels their work for change in some surprising ways and reminds us that we each have a new opportunity to make a difference every day, at every meal. We have only to look within.

Feed the Change

Bryant Terry | Chef and food-justice activist |Oakland, California

When Bryant Terry began calling himself an “eco-chef” 10 years ago, he had never heard anyone else use the term. Today, he’s a nationally recognized writer and speaker on issues of sustainability and “food justice”—a phrase he defines as universal access to wholesome, sustainable food.

As a child, Terry learned to grow and cook wholesome food from his grandparents in Memphis, Tennessee. Later, as a graduate student in history at New York University, he became interested in the combined effect of poverty, poor nutrition, and institutional racism on communities. “I saw that in many marginalized communities throughout the United States, there was little access to healthy, affordable, and culturally appropriate food, but there was a plethora of foods that were high in salt, sugar, and fat,” Terry says. “Many of these communities did not have full-service supermarkets, and if they did, those markets would have very little fresh food and lots of processed junk, while the same stores in higher-income neighborhoods would have lots of fresh produce.”

Looking deeper, Terry saw that these same communities had some of the highest rates of obesity and diet-related illnesses like type 2 diabetes and hypertension. His desire to effect change in these communities through food led him to enroll at the Natural Gourmet Institute for Health & Culinary Arts in New York City. Terry’s first book, Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen, which he co-wrote with Anna Lappe, inspired Terry to partner with People’s Grocery in Oakland, California, hosting monthly cooking demonstrations with gift bags of fresh produce. His second book, Vegan Soul Kitchen, celebrates the healthful, sustainable roots of African American cuisine.

Terry says that yoga was his career catalyst, bringing together his passions for food, activism, and social justice. He practices with San Francisco yoga teacher and activist Katchie Ananda, and says that yoga has helped him to see food as a means to help people discover connection. “My desire is to use food as a way to help people understand the symbiotic relationship we all have, with the hope that when people are aware of that interconnectedness, they will make decisions that are
in the best interests of all living beings,” he says. “That’s the definition of ‘justice’ for me.”

From Farm to Classroom

Anupama Joshi | Co-director, National Farm to School Network | Chicago, Illinois

Many of the nation’s schoolchildren don’t know where food comes from and don’t get to see fresh foods in their raw form, says Anupama Joshi, the co-director of the National Farm to School Network, an organization based in Los Angeles that promotes relationships between elementary and high schools and local farms. As a result, she says, their tastes lean toward the often highly processed foods they’re familiar with. Farm to School programs aim to change that. “Food should be an integral part of the school system because it has ramifications not just for academic achievement but for overall development and health,” Joshi says. “Making those connections is what Farm to School does.”

Individual Farm to School programs – which are currently operating in some 10,000 schools throughout all 50 states—connect local farms with schools, giving kids the opportunity to taste fresh, locally grown food in their school cafeterias; to learn about good nutrition; and to get their hands dirty in school gardens and on farm tours. Each program is distinct and individual, growing out of the needs and desires of its community. The National Farm to School Network works with regional agencies to support the grassroots movement from the bottom up, providing a model and offering training for interested schools and farmers.

Joshi makes time to practice yoga three to five times a week, both at home and in class. She finds that something her teacher often tells her resonates with her more each day. “She tells me that the time you’re spending in your yoga practice—this hour, this half hour, this minute—is dedicated to you; separate out all of the other roles and jobs that you do and spend that time strengthening yourself. If you want to be true to those other roles, you have to be true to yourself.”

“I’d like to see a change in the way parents and communities think about how we’re feeding our kids, to see more discourse on how our food system is set up, and how we can think about restructuring it.”

Raw Materials

Matthew Kenney | Owner and director, 105degrees Academy | Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

After a high-profile career as a chef on the New York restaurant scene, Matthew Kenney converted to a vegan diet. He opened Pure Food and Wine
in New York City in 2004, becoming one of the first to bring raw food to the attention of the upscale restaurant world. His innovative approach to a raw, organic lifestyle blends his interests in health and haute cuisine, and has grown to include partnerships in restaurants and consulting projects worldwide. One of his latest ventures is 105degrees Academy, the country’s first raw culinary school, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

A chef trained in classical French cuisine, Kenney saw that while the raw-food movement was exploding, there weren’t established techniques in this new cuisine for would-be chefs to draw on. He designed the curriculum at 105degrees to give the next generation of raw chefs a solid foundation in the methods, tools, ingredients, and philosophy of raw food. The academy offers two consecutive, full-time, monthlong courses, titled Fundamentals of Raw Cuisine and Advanced Raw Techniques. As part of their training, student chefs prepare upscale raw cuisine for the 105degrees Cafe, which caters to a diverse and enthusiastic local clientele.

About 10 students currently enroll in each session, and Kenney estimates that the academy will have graduated approximately 150 students by this spring. As a trailblazer in the raw-food world, Kenney has had to be creative. He credits his 15-year yoga practice with giving him a flexibility and openness that translate directly to the kitchen; some of his best recipe ideas, he says, have come to him after practicing. “Yoga opens you in the way you allow it to. It makes room for creativity that you otherwise wouldn’t have.”

Feed the World

Cat Cora | President and founder, Chefs for Humanity | Jackson, Mississippi

Known to Food Network viewers as a TV host, cookbook author, and the first (and only) female Iron Chef, Cat Cora has become equally known for her humanitarian efforts. In response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Cora founded Chefs for Humanity, a grassroots organization modeled on Doctors Without Borders, that raises money and marshals resources for emergency aid and hunger-related causes throughout the world. “I feel so blessed in my career that I have both an obligation and a desire to give back,” Cora says. “I wanted to build a place where people could come and talk about ideas: How do we end hunger? How do we get better nutrition in public schools? What happens when there is a crisis and people need to be fed?”

Last year Cora teamed up with the United Nations World Food Programme
to raise funds for earthquake-ravaged Haiti, donating $10,000 of her own money and asking fellow chefs to match it. The organization raised $100,000, and Cora went to Haiti to help distribute food and develop plans for sustainable agriculture and nutritional education.

Through Chefs for Humanity, Cora wants to help children in the United States and around the world who need more food, better nutrition, and an infrastructure that can provide them. “Chefs are nurturers—that’s what we’re born to do,” Cora says. “We care about people; we care about feeding them.”

Cora turns to restorative and Yin-style yoga practices to balance all of the attention she directs outward. “I see yoga as helping me understand my intentions for my life a little better,” she says. “My life and career are fast paced, so my yoga
is more of a peaceful place where I go to center myself.”

Everyday Green

Louisa Shafia | Founder, Lucid Food catering and consulting | Brooklyn, New York

A summer spent working as a cook at a yoga retreat in Maine in exchange for room, board, and Kundalini Yoga classes showed Louisa Shafia her career path. “Everyone loved the food, and I loved the experience,” she recalls. She enrolled at New York’s Natural Gourmet Institute soon afterward and went on to hone her eco-friendly cooking style at Millennium, an upscale vegetarian restaurant in San Francisco’s theater district. “The menu was completely oriented around seasonal, local food,” she says. “And we composted everything—there was no waste.”

Shafia opened Lucid Food Catering in 2004, with the goal of making fine catering sustainable. Her commitment to buying local ingredients; using reusable, recyclable, or biocompostable tableware; and running a waste-free kitchen allowed clients like the US Green Building Council and the Small Planet Institute to host events in keeping with their green values.

Today, Shafia works as a consultant for food businesses that want to adopt greener practices. She is the author of Lucid Food: Cooking for an Eco-Conscious Life, and she teaches cooking classes to private clients, organizations that include groups of CSA members, and low-income New Yorkers at farmers’ markets and community gardens.

Cooking with fresh, local produce, Shafia says, supports small farms, which is crucial to preserving open land and protecting the environment from factory-farming practices. “I feel like my role in the national dialogue about food is to show people that fresh food is delicious and easy to make,” she says.

Shafia, who practices Kundalini and vinyasa yoga and meditates daily, credits her practice with quieting her mind and refreshing her perspective. “That rest lets me recharge my creative powers. After a good yoga class, I have ideas for recipes, for my cookbook, and for menus, Everything just seems to flow.”