It’s an unusually domestic call to arms: “Cooking a pot of beans is a revolutionary act.”
For those involved in the “Decolonize Your Diet” movement, the phrase is a truth that guides choices in the kitchen, the grocery store, or, better yet, the garden.
The movement and eponymous website ( decolonizeyourdiet.org) was launched by Oakland-based professor Luz Calvo in 2010 as a Facebook group for her students. Decolonize aims to teach people with Meso-American roots how to attain health and vitality by rejecting the “Standard American Diet (SAD)” in favor of foods their ancestors ate before Europeans arrived: plenty of nopales (prickly pear cactus), peppers, grains such as amaranth and quinoa, avocado and, of course, beans.
The movement has attracted hundreds of followers in Sacramento, many of whom attended workshops hosted by Calvo and her partner, Catriona Esquibel, at the Sol Collective, a center for arts and activism, this winter. Some are also members of the Facebook group Indigenous Food Network, an online community run by higher-education administrator Iris Aguilar. The group shares recipes, photos and stories about days, weeks and months spent consuming only foods native to the Americas.
“We want to demonstrate that our holistic native diet has every single nutrient your body needs to stay balanced,” Aguilar said. “Not just your body but your mind and spirit.”
More than a healthy way of eating, a decolonized diet allows people with native ancestry to reclaim their food culture and fight the onslaught of fast food, sugary soda and processed snacks that Calvo, an associate professor of ethnic studies at California State University, East Bay, sees as a modern manifestation of colonialist oppression.
“When the Spaniards colonized Mexico and the rest of Latin America, people were eating a very plant-based diet. There was no beef. There was no cooking with fat. There were no oils,” Calvo said.
Obviously, diets and access to food have changed since then and not always for the better, especially for minorities and the poor. According to a 2013 report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Trust for America’s Health, 45 percent of Mexican American women were obese in 2010, compared to 32 percent of white women.
Calvo, no stranger to concepts of cultural reclamation, said she was inspired to start thinking about how one might decolonize his or her diet after she saw some of her ethnic studies students at CSU, East Bay, selling Krispy Kreme donuts for a fundraiser.
“I said to them, ‘That’s colonizers’ food,’ kind of joking,” Calvo said. The students, pointing at labels stating the donuts include no trans fats, claimed the snack was healthy.
Disturbed, Calvo decided to tie food awareness to her academic work and created the East Bay ethnic studies course “Decolonize Your Diet: Food Justice in Communities of Color.” At the same time, she was recovering from breast cancer and began to think about the healing capabilities of food, sparking another mantra for the movement: “Comida es medicina” – food is medicine.
Calvo was also inspired by the work of food intellectual and author Michael Pollan, whose famous recommendation to “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants,” dovetails with the teachings of the decolonized diet. She views her program as a Chicano’s/Chicana’s answer to Pollan’s work.
Jessica Alvarado, co-director of the Sol Collective’s Curanderismo Series (a monthly workshop about traditional Mexican healing methods), said the most challenging part of keeping a decolonized diet is eliminating cheese. She also said family gatherings with relatives who “aren’t on the same journey” with regard to diet can be challenging. She thinks the rewards of the diet are well worth the sacrifices, however. Besides feeling more in control of what she eats and more in touch with her ancestors, Alvarado has noticed major physical benefits.
“The biggest difference is you definitely see a change in your energy level,” Alvarado said. “I just feel like my immune system is up and through the roof.”
She also thinks sticking to an indigenous diet of mostly beans, homemade salsas, leafy greens and pineapple improves her mood and reduces anxiety.
While Decolonize Your Diet is a social justice movement, it’s also quite simply about food. It’s important to Calvo and others that the recipes they publish and prepare are delicious. She favors a flexible approach that allows for the inclusion of some non-indigenous foods, such as olive oil and cilantro to ensure recipes are affordable, accessible and flavorful. But all of the dishes are composed primarily of native plants.
Though Aguilar often develops new recipes to share, she tends to stick to staples, favoring a nopales-pineapple smoothie for breakfast. Lunch is often tacos with corn, squash and kidney beans. Dinner might be a soup made with the famous three sisters of native cuisine: beans, squash and maize.
“Don’t be afraid to keep it simple,” Aguilar said. “It’s a new diet, but it’s old foods.”
Call The Bee’s Isabelle Taft, (916) 321-1101.