How One Chef Is Fighting On The Front Lines For Food Equality

When I first met Chef Bryce Fluellen, we were at a food sustainability roundtable, hosted by Erin Schrode and Evan Marks of The Ecology Center. Eventually, the conversation turned to food deserts — lower income neighborhoods where stores selling vegetables are far more rare than dialysis clinics. Having covered Bryce’s work before, I knew that he was perhaps the most suitable person at the table to take the lead. If someone deserved to be a know-it-all, it was him.

But Bryce didn’t do that. He sat back, he listened, he processed. Later that night, at dinner, he drew parallels between the viewpoints we’d heard and the conversations he has about similar issues in south Los Angeles. As Bryce spoke (and I wolfed down the best Mexican food in Orange County), I realized that I was listening to a man with vision, a man who would most certainly be on the forefront of food equality and sustainability conversations for years to come.

To sit with Chef Bryce now, is to see a passionate man whose dreams seem to all be congealing at once. He launched a book three months ago. Last week, he held a pop up dinner with the Detroit Food Policy Council; this week, he was filming on The Bailey Rae Show. His innovative series Kids at the Table has been hosted by the likes of CBS and Nike and somehow, amidst all this, he still finds time to teach teens every week. It’s a hustle, and an important one.

As Bryce raced from Detroit to Hollywood, he made time to chat with us about how to kickstart change within our food systems at the community level and the importance of empowering kids.

Tell me about your goals in the food sustainability movement, and also the food representation conversation.

I think that food is that connector for a lot of folks. It’s universal. What I’ve found is through the power of food, you’re bringing people together to have conversations about other things that are impacting their lives.

By the summer of 2018, I really want to have a summer camp where I bring teenagers from under-served areas together for three to four days and we focus on — not only healthy eating and cooking — but raising their consciousness around the environment, and then also raising their consciousness around policy, because all three of those things intersect.

A lot of times people who haven’t worked with kids will say, “Oh, kids don’t eat healthy. They won’t eat this.” What I’ve found is that, they haven’t been exposed or they don’t have access to certain ingredients and certain foods, so they don’t have that familiarity. Once they do, it’s something that they hunger for, and they often wonder and they question, “Well, why is it that we don’t have access to healthier food, but we have an over-consumption and over-access to soda, chips, everything else in our community?” They ask those tough questions.

Part of the problem seems to be that people are having a lot of conversations about good food and what it means to eat well and what it means to take care of your body and what it means to be healthy. But at the same time, we have food media which — ourselves included — is focused on cheap tasty, fattening food and it’s implied I think, in our minds, that we’re talking about food that’s a little bit of a treat.

But when you write about it every single day, it’s not always clear that you’re encouraging people just to eat them in moderation.

That’s where the whole genesis of my program, Kids at the Table, came about. As you know, these pop up dinners have been around forever, but most of the time it was something that only people with means had access to. I started to say, “Okay, I want to have a popup dinner for underserved teens, to give them that opportunity to have a whole, fresh meal and sit at a table that’s decorated with flowers and just have that whole experience.”

I said, “Okay, knowing that the dinner table is the centerpiece of connection, community and communion, let’s get these young people together over food, but then let’s also teach them and show them what eating healthy, good food is like.”

Right now, not a lot of leadership is really taking that approach where they say, “Hey, we’re really going to be the change makers and going to be leaders at the forefront of making sure that not only we educate our young people properly, but we also feed them properly and we give them the food that they need to nourish their bodies on a long term basis.”

That’s got to be our standard. You often see — even at some of schools that have privilege and access — you’ll see that they have some of the best educators in the world but when you look at their lunchroom program, they got a bunch of junk, fast food, sweets. There’s always a ice cream parties, there’s always a cupcake party, there’s always a pizza party. They don’t necessarily take that part of education seriously. They do take it from a literal standpoint, but from a health standpoint they don’t really.

It also seems like people who don’t have means end up carrying the brunt of this. First of all, they’re left out of the “good food” conversation, and then the food that they have access to is literally a burger every day. It’s not a fun treat for them. It’s literally like —

What they have access to.

Right. Do you feel like people who don’t have money are being left out of some of these important food policy conversations?

I definitely see that. That’s the reason why I want to work with the young people and actually educate them about policy and some of the policies that affect their communities. Why do we have 20 different fast food restaurants in south LA within one block, but maybe one in a more affluent neighborhood? I think that oftentimes, people who have the privilege and have the means, a lot of them mean well — they’re willing to have those conversations and want to help change things — but they’re not including the people that these issues are actually affecting.

I’m a huge advocate of teaching people how to fish. That means that just because somebody comes from a poor neighborhood and has less means doesn’t mean that they don’t want to be involved in change in their community. I think sometimes we have this mentality of, “I’mma go in and save everybody.” Which, okay in some instances, but you’ve got to go in and work with the people and help the people that are living in those communities and help them learn how to find their voice, so they can be an advocate and be on the front lines for the change that they want to see, where they live.

We all have our different worlds that we’re in and we’re operating in those worlds, and sometimes, there’s people that are doing whatever their passion is, that that’s what they’re an expert at, so they may not even be aware of, “Oh yeah, you’re right, I didn’t even know that people in certain communities don’t have access to fresh food. I never thought about that, because that’s never been an issue that I’ve had!”

Right, because it’s not my community. Which doesn’t help. Though when I see your work in Southern California, I’m seeing a clear sense of leadership in the “food systems” conversation emerge.

People are bombarded with so much information now on a day-to-day, second-to-second basis, that it takes a lot of repetitive bombardment for people to actually start paying attention. First, you have to cut through the clutter and then once you get through the clutter, then you get catch somebody’s attention, and then when you catch somebody’s attention, okay, now they have the information but then they need to absorb it, and then once they absorb it and kind of understand it, then they eventually start to get into action, whether that’s sharing a post with someone to say, “Hey, did you know this?” Or “What can I do hands on?”

I think to your point, the voices are out there, and I think that they’re coming to the forefront. It’s going to take time and it’s going to take more people being vocal. I think the last administration definitely helped — with Michelle Obama and her initiatives. I just don’t want that to die out, because she’s gone. A lot of the issues that we were talking about last eight years still exist, there’s been some progress made, but there’s still more work to be done.

Just because you say, “Hey, we want this to change!” That doesn’t mean it’s going to change. You got to stay on the throat of the thing sometimes.

And you’re doing that because you’re working with the youth, that next generation. People always say “The kids are our future, but you’re walking the walk!”

I’m so passionate about showing young people that they can use their voices now, then saying, “Now, you guys figure out what you want to talk about, what you want to change in your community.”