Karen Washington – A Food Justice Warrior in New York City
By Cherise Shockley
diaTribe’s community manager Cherise Shockley interviewed Karen Washington, one of the stars in the PBS documentary Blood Sugar Rising, about her work to make healthy foods accessible and her vision for the future
Watching the PBS documentary, Blood Sugar Rising, brought back childhood memories. Growing up, I remember watching my mom buy healthy foods whenever she could. We were not allowed to eat junk food. However, healthy food was not always an option in the places we lived. Our neighborhood had corner stores and gas stations with overpriced eggs, milk, cheese, and bread. We went grocery shopping in the suburbs on the weekend so we could get high-quality produce, and when there was a sale on meat, we would drive to the inner city to get the best cuts that our money could buy.
Karen Washington, a champion food justice warrior, immediately caught my attention and respect. As a physical therapist and single parent of two in the projects of New York City, Ms. Washington learned that fast food and processed food were affecting her community in detrimental ways. Inspired by her strong presence in Blood Sugar Rising, we interviewed Ms. Washington to learn about her purpose, her work, and her passions.
Cherise: We are in awe of your story and the message you relayed during Blood Sugar Rising. Tell us about yourself.
Washington: I could not work in physical therapy without understanding my patient’s relationship with food and exercise. I could not help them get better without knowing the things they were eating. As we all know, what we eat influences our physical nature. Over 30 years in physical therapy, I came to truly understand the harm of junk and processed food – the damage it can cause to a person’s body and health. It was killing my patients and community.
This broke my heart because the majority of my patients were raised on farms. In their childhood years, they were surrounded by non-processed foods, and their parents tended to live long healthy lives without the threat of kidney disease.
I left my career in physical therapy because I wanted to make an intentional difference in other ways. I had to get healthy food to my community. It wasn’t easy – I had to be an agitator and advocate, and I had to hold people accountable. I had to do this to get people to understand how food was killing us, and the important link between food and health.
Cherise: What do you want people to take away from Blood Sugar Rising?
Washington: One, we are trying to get the word out to local communities to use their local gardens. Two, we need to get people to read food labels. If you cannot pronounce the ingredients, you should not be putting it in your body. And three, we need more food education within our neighborhoods, in both English and Spanish.
Cherise: What is your relationship with your community and with local healthcare professionals?
Washington: Our relationship with the healthcare community is strong; they love us. Out of 62 counties in New York, the Bronx is rated number 62 for health – our county is the unhealthiest. The Bronx health department, community groups, and hospitals are working together to reach out to the type 2 diabetes population to get a better understanding of how diabetes affects the community. We want the community to understand and join the conversation. Healthcare professionals are starting to add diet to the conversation.
Here’s the future: the message given to people with type 2 diabetes will not be solely focused on medication and exercise, but it will be culturally-appropriate and will include information about how to access the right food.
Cherise: You mentioned that generations ago, Black/African Americans were living until they were in their late 80s. Why do you think this has changed over the years?
Washington: Our ancestors grew up eating from the land. Even though our diet used to be primarily plant-based, the current systems in the United States have made it very processed for our communities today.
Our history has been robbed from us as people. Our relationship to food was robbed from us. Growing up, I feel like my relationship to agriculture was always through the lens of slavery. Farming has always been slave work. But now, the truth of the matter – why were we brought here? We invented agriculture. Understanding our relationship to the land as black people – our knowledge of agriculture – can help us with a power shift.
This shift has infused young people to want to go back to the land. People are ready – and are demanding – this shift. We understand our relationship to food in such a way that we must demand healthy food.
We need to have that conversation in such a way that people understand their sense of belonging. That’s what I say to young people who come into the garden. Put your hands in the soil, feel that connection and smell it. Then you can talk about health and diet-related disease.
Cherise: We were live-tweeting during the premier of Blood Sugar Rising. People were especially inspired by your work in the community garden. What advice would you give someone who wanted to do the same for their community?
Washington: You can grow a garden in your windowsill to help the community. If you cannot grow a garden, support a garden.
You can be an educated consumer by going to the grocery store and asking where does the food come from? Where are the fruits and vegetables? And challenge them to bring in fresh fruits and veggies.
Cherise: How has COVID-19 affected your community?
Washington: March 14 [when social restrictions were imposed] was tough. People are out of jobs. A lot of food pantries and soup kitchens serve food that is processed. It is a catch-22 – while we absolutely should be thankful for getting food, the food is not healthy.
As we come out of the pandemic, we need to do some healing first. We cannot jump straight into “eat healthy!” People have lost lives. We have to be careful that when things come back there’s healing and tenderness – then we have to make sure people understand we can’t go back to how things were.
What are we doing about diabetes rates in low-income neighborhoods? How can we get more community gardens? I have people willing to set-up farmer’s markets in an area that has no fresh produce. We have to help people understand their power and voice to say and do something.
Cherise: As a society we tend to jump into trying to fix things first without understanding the mental and physical toll that something like a pandemic has on people. I loved that you mentioned healing, tenderness, and time. We need more of that in the world. What is your dream and hope for the future?
Washington: My dream, where I wake up, is to have, in my neighborhood, a system whereby all families are making a living with a decent wage, able to pay for rent. There would be more black and brown entrepreneurs and more investments coming back into the community. People are educated and understand the importance of financial literacy. For me the future is in how we get people off government assistance so that people are given the opportunity to be self-sufficient and self-reliant.
Cherise: Your community is lucky to have you and other stakeholders driving change. Some might think changing the current structure will take time and might not happen. How do you envision your hopes and dreams coming true?
Washington: The decision makers are the community. We need to support the creation of entrepreneurship for black and brown people and build a financial structure that feeds into the community and stays in the community. It’s about people understanding their power and self-worth: investment, land acquisition, and education.
Cherise: I agree – it is important to make sure all communities have access to healthy food. Local mom and pop shops should be given the resources to carry fresh produce and incentivized to collaborate with local farmers to provide healthy food. Until the environment changes for underserved communities, the system will continue to perpetuate inequities for communities of color and in rural areas. We have loved learning about Rise and Root Farm in New York and invite readers to watch the farm grow this summer on Instagram and to support the work here.
Go to pbs.org/bloodsugar to learn more about Karen, watch the film (in English or Spanish), and find resources for classrooms.