By Emilie Raguso and Tracey Taylor
Bryant Terry is singing. Standing in front of a circle of seated Berkeley Technology Academy (BTA) students, the Oakland cookbook author and food activist is emulating his grandmother as she prepared meals in her Southern kitchen, stocked with jars of pickles and chow-chow relish.
“My grandmother could throw down in the kitchen,” he said, then broke into a verse of “When I Lay My Burden Down.”
Terry — whose latest book, Afro-Vegan: Farm-Fresh African, Caribbean, and Southern Flavors Remixed, was published in 2014 — was at Berkeley’s alternative high school Friday at the invitation of teachers there, as well as Jezra Thompson, who heads up Berkeley Unified‘s gardening and cooking program.
The event was part of the school’s Black History Month programming. After Terry talked to the group of around 60 students, teachers, staff and a few little ones, they washed up, donned aprons and broke into teams to prepare a range of vegan recipes he had helped compile.
On the menu: Texas caviar (black-eyed peas), gumbo, roasted pumpkin seeds, fruit salad and lavender-infused lemonade. The lavender came from the school garden, along with many of the herbs and some of the greens. A teacher harvested bags of lemons from her tree, not far from the BTA campus, and brought them in for the event.
Thompson said the event was important, in part, because many BTA students struggle with food insecurity. She said the cooking and gardening program is trying to build up the school garden to support more food production, harvesting and meal preparation for students and their families.
“The garden is the best tool not only to feed our students, but also to provide them with a safe space, a space for solace, a space where they can go to work things out,” she said. Thompson said she hopes the district can develop a curriculum where students can work in the garden regularly, to connect with the earth and grow food.
Terry told those in attendance he didn’t always eat healthily, despite benefiting from the home-cooked food made by his grandmother. Addressing BTA students, he admitted to succumbing to peer pressure and eating at McDonald’s and Taco Bell with his football teammates in high school.
His whole attitude changed, however, when he heard a hip-hop song that detailed the way cows become food: “Beef” by Boogie Down Productions. Terry recited some of the lyrics to the circle of students and teachers who had come to hear him speak: “Beef, what a relief / When will this poisonous product cease? / This is another public service announcement / You can believe it, or you can doubt it / Let us begin now with the cow / The way it gets to your plate and how…”
“I became an activist in 10th grade,” Terry said. “My consciousness around food completely shifted.”
While he stressed he didn’t expect BTA students to become vegetarians or vegans, he urged them to be agents for change around the lack of healthy food options in low-income neighborhoods, where many of them live. He reminded them that communities of color struggle with some of the highest rates of preventable health-related diseases, from diabetes to high blood pressure and heart disease. He recounted that, when he moved to the East Bay in 2008, there were 53 corner liquor stores in West Oakland and not one supermarket.
“You can be media makers and create a counter-narrative around these issues,” he said.
Terry tied his presentation into Black History Month by describing how he had been inspired in his work by the Black Panthers‘ hot breakfast program, which the group created for children in West Oakland in 1968. The Panthers teamed up with a local church and, by the end of the year, 19 other cities had created similar programs.
“They were feeding 10,000 young people,” he said. “If we want to solve the problems in our community, we need to be the ones owning and driving it.”
Shortly before 2 p.m., he wrapped up his remarks and the students broke into teams to work on food prep. English teacher William Tinson put on some reggae music and the kids gathered around tables, squeezing lemons, chopping fruit and vegetables, poring over recipes and doing the calculations to quadruple each one.
On a brief trip out to the school garden to show it to a visitor, BTA Principal Sheila Quintana described efforts begun this year to use it as a therapeutic place for students. Teachers now have passes they can give students who want some time to themselves. Students can hoe, pick weeds, or just be in the environment to deescalate from heated situations.
The garden is made up of a series of raised beds. Growing in them: rosemary, chamomile, strawberries, greens, broccoli, lemon balm, mint. There’s also chocolate mint, chili peppers, sage and cayenne peppers, as well as lemons and other fruit trees.
“When kids get in conflict and kids are stressed, we try to use the garden,” said Jennifer Proffitt, one of four teachers, along with Tinson, Dawn Williams and Aaron Ward, who have been working this year to find ways to bring the garden more closely into their classroom lessons.
In math class, students took measurements of the raised beds. In Spanish, they created labels for plants en español. When they learned about scientific observation methods in social studies, students applied those techniques to plants, noting their size and appearance, and whether they had leaves vs. flowers.
Prior to Friday’s event, there had been some smaller-scale cooking on campus: one class made salsa, and there’s a monthly “family dinner” for parents and other relatives of students to come together to discuss issues of import. But Friday was the first time the entire campus community banded together to prepare a meal.
As they chopped the herbs and onions, bell peppers and garlic, the smell of fresh produce filled the room. At times, it was a bit chaotic as the minutes of the day’s final block ticked down, but students and teachers focused on the work and threw themselves into the tasks at hand.
“Everybody tried something,” said Tinson. “You would come around, start handing out supplies. They’re asking, ‘Can we get another this?’ ‘Can we get another that?’”
Senior Brianna, known on campus as “Pineapple,” said she liked having the chance to cook with friends, and to eat healthy. She also liked the format: The event began with everyone seated in a circle, echoing restorative justice efforts on campus this year that use the circle format to bring students into closer contact with each other. She said classmates seemed more willing to interact and talk as a result.
“Everybody was hands-on and cooperative,” said Alaunte, a 17-year-old junior, who helped make the fruit salad, chopping pineapple and peeling oranges alongside about six other young men who gravitated toward that recipe.
“It was a nice break from being in the classroom,” added Errianna, a 16-year-old senior.
In BTA’s small kitchen, 17-year-old senior Raynette was stationed at the oven. She said she often cooks at home, due to her mother’s arthritis, and didn’t mind the responsibility of being at the stove.
“You just have to make sure people like what you make,” she said, matter-of-factly. She’d sautéed the onions, garlic and bell peppers that had been chopped by other students, as well as the garlic for the gumbo. She said she actually hadn’t known the activity had been coming up that day, but had liked how interactive it was. Students who might not usually talk to each other found themselves mixing it up.
“‘Do you know how to do this?’ ‘Help me,’” she said she heard others asking. “People were stepping out of their comfort zones.”
And, even though at times it got hot and crowded in the kitchen, she said people were making jokes and having fun. Then she excused herself for a moment to pick up a phone call from her mom.
“They got me cooking!” she exclaimed, adding: “No meat.”
That morning, said Spanish teacher Dawn Williams, many students had been skeptical about the recipes.
“There was some anxiety about it being vegan. A lot of our students are used to eating meat,” she said. “But by the time we started cooking and everything, and the smells and the community building, they weren’t even thinking about that.”
They enjoyed it so much, Williams said students told her they hope they can repeat the experience. Having their hands on the food, being able to chop it and smell it and cry with the onions: It’s a different way to learn and be together.
“They said, ‘We should do this every Friday,’” she said. “The folks who were able to really partake in the food actually really enjoyed it, and I was really happy about that.”
Originally, the teachers had considered doing a sort of “Iron Chef” cook-off. But the idea evolved through discussions with Terry, who came up with the recipes for the students to tackle, and brought in his philosophies about food politics. To make sure there were enough utensils and dishes, the organizers had to put out the call to all BTA teachers to bring in what they could.
“Teachers just really came through,” said Williams. “Our staff is just really motivated to do the best that we can for our students.”
Thursday, Williams went on a shopping trip with a handful of students to get all the needed ingredients. She teaches Spanish, and she made sure to speak it during the market run as a way to combine the curriculum with the task. She said the ingredients cost only $104 at Berkeley Bowl, even with organic produce. That translated into just $2 to feed each person, she added.
“It was really a great example of our community coming together,” said Williams. “To be able to build our community like we did… it’s a powerful experience for the students.”
Tinson, the English teacher, said the event had multiple goals: building community, sharing information about black history, offering a hands-on chance to work with food and with each other. Teachers had also wanted to incorporate the garden and ideas about healthy eating. It all pretty much came together as planned, and Terry said he hopes to return to BTA for another event in the future.
“It was overwhelming here and there, but what cooking project isn’t?” Tinson said. “Nothing happened that made me feel like we couldn’t do this again.”
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