A Conversation with Brooklyn Chef & Food Justice Activist Tara Thomas
“Changing the way that you eat is the biggest change you can make.”
At first glance, you may think we pulled this quote from some idealistic nutritionist or a hopeful Weight Watchers commercial. On the contrary, these are the words of 23-year-old Brooklyn-based chef, food-space consultant, and food justice activist Tara Thomas. It’s her belief that “changing the way you eat” goes far beyond meeting your weight loss goals - it’s about changing the world.
From Accidental Vegan, to Food Justice Activist
Food justice advocacy weaves itself into all of the work that Tara does. As a consultant and executive chef for food spaces like Sincerely, Tommy Eat & Stay and The Break Bar—an upcoming affiliate eatery to the Brooklyn-based, Black-owned lifestyle brand and boutique — Tara advises sustainable food sourcing practices and means of community building. As a chef, all of Tara’s ingredients are grown from community gardens, sourced from local farms, or acquired from artisans. Most importantly, Tara takes every measure in her personal and professional life to educate others and herself about the injustices of our food system.
“The biggest takeaway I’ve had [while working in the food justice space] is just that we need to share our resources with one another and that we need one another to even realize the systems we’re in and devise ways to exercise our way out of them,” Tara said.
But before she had the knowledge to become such a prominent voice in the worlds of radical agriculture and food justice, Tara had to make her own big changes. The first being her transitioning to veganism.
While they’re slowly but surely changing, perceptions of veganism haven’t always been so positive. Plenty of stereotypes and misconceptions come with the idea of an entirely plant-based diet. Tara’s faced them all and then some, especially while living with her father whose “diasporic Louisiana” creole cooking meant an affinity for meat on his side of the family. However, Tara also had a healthcare professional for a mother, so leaning towards foods that made her body feel better, in some ways, was intuitive.
“My mom was always very anti-’eating bad things’,” Tara explained. “She’s always been very protective about food things, and I appreciate that now as an adult. She would give me information about the foods we were eating.”
So, when she made a vegan friend at 16 years old who showed her what abstaining from animal products would look like, Tara found herself accidentally doing so for two months. Despite her doctors’ doubts, an annual check-up confirmed that Tara’s overall health had been outstanding since her accidental transition. She stuck to a plant-based diet, this time intentionally. Doing so led to an overall shift in the ways Tara thought about wellness and food consumption, both on a personal and collective level.
“[Changing my diet] was my first epiphany—the self-actualization—where I was like, ‘Alright, if this made me feel better, how can this make others feel better?’,” Tara said. “It allowed me to observe different issues with food and how food makes others feel...sharing information with one another has been very eye-opening in building community around food: having conversations around food, and looking to [food] as the answer to ailments we’re feeling rather than looking at something bigger and out of our reach.”
Inspiring people to eat better, for Tara, became about empowering herself and her communities to resolve seemingly insurmountable issues, starting with the stuff on their plates.
Moving Towards A Circular Economy
Parallel to the movement for food justice is the movement for sustainable agriculture. This practice of sourcing food using environmentally sound methods makes food sovereignty a lot more feasible. Attaining food sovereignty would both allow for and rely on communities practicing radical agriculture, which Tara defines as “taking ownership of the land in doing regenerative [agricultural] practices,” including "giving the land back to indigenous communities, Black people, and people of color.” And, in completing this cyclical relationship, sustainable agriculture allows for radical agriculture practices, providing those very communities Tara mentioned — the ones experiencing the most food injustice — with the most accessible, enduring, and culturally affirming resources possible.
While the relation between these concepts might seem daunting to some, for Tara their correlation is both rational and crucial because “It’s our right to eat local and accessible foods”. Of course, “understanding the systems we’re in” and explaining the importance of these “circular economic systems” are not simple tasks. Tara relies on a holistic method of showing clients just how embedded in these systems their businesses are.
"When I work with my clients, I really try to set boundaries: ‘Here’s what I do, these are the things I believe in, these are my expectations, and here’s what’s important when I’m working with you – what you’re signing up for’,” Tara said. “I have to explain that if you’re looking to have more local food, don’t expect cheaper food. You want labor at your restaurant? We’re not going to pay people under the table. It is possible to create these systems if we really invest our time in making sure the people in our system are provided good benefits so that we have a good relationship with the community, therefore we have a successful business.”
But in a city like New York, where profit and a fast-pace dominate every industry, including food, Tara's work isn’t always received with open arms.
“The responses to my work are very mixed. Sometimes you just have to let people learn [on their own],” Tara said, the contemplation clear in her voice. “Sometimes when people hire you, they think that they have power over you. But you have to show them, ‘hey, if you’re going to push my boundary or cross my line... maybe this isn’t the right path for you.’”
Triggered by memories of poor consulting experiences, Tara went on to tentatively describe instances where companies have felt threatened by the values and expectations she brought to the table. As shiny as Tara’s goals of equity and sustainability seem, once it gets down to it, it’s clear who is willing to do the work and who is not.
“Once things start moving towards action, [some clients] say ‘Oh my gosh, that’s crazy! That’s going to cost a lot! That’s so unrealistic!’ and so on, but I’m like...these are things that just should happen. I thought you hired me to not take the easy route?” Tara said. “I was going to help you build a system, and you need to believe in it first before you judge it. You’re coming from a place of fragility at this point.”
Thankfully, this doesn’t describe all of Tara’s experiences. Respect, empathy, and humility shape the relationships Tara builds with her more receptive clients. These grounded, like-minded collaborations thereby lead to healthier and humbler relations with the community, which is Tara’s ultimate goal. After all, as much time as Tara spends educating others about food justice, she’s still learning every day.
“I feel like some people may feel that, ‘Tara’s coming from some place above,’ but I’m also coming at it from below. I’m still learning and trying to move through this with my community because I’m nothing without the community.”
Regardless of the traction food justice gains in her professional life, it will always shape every aspect of Tara’s work, relationships, and vision for the future.
Putting Our Best Food Forward
As a Gen Z-er herself, Tara knows the future of the movement is with our youth. If it weren’t for the pandemic, Tara would be expanding her work at the Phoenix Community Garden in Brooklyn and volunteering with youth. The importance of introducing radical agriculture practices at a young age, specifically for children in marginalized communities, is essential to facilitating self-sustenance and sovereignty according to Farming While Black by Leah Penniman, Tara’s favorite resource. The book outlines the kinds of programs and routines that allow marginalized folks to bring home their own food, as well as other crucial bits of knowledge like the origins of veganism.
Besides empowering her “kid friends” to participate in food justice, Tara continues to integrate her food justice advocacy not only into her consulting work, but as co-founder of Breaking Bread - a volunteer-based fundraising organization which ignites food security by redistributing funds in local communities. Above all else, Tara intends to continue sharing her knowledge and resources. She says that at the heart of her work is allowing communities to recognize the oppressions they face so that they can aptly fight against them.
“Food justice is also making people aware about food injustice, and making them aware of what they’re experiencing so they can seek justice for that, and seek equity and equality through food justice” she said.
The easiest way to come to these realizations, Tara says? Immerse yourselves in the people, places, and systems around you.
“I felt very upset with the food system in New York when I moved there, especially having come from Portland [which is] such a privileged place. In New York, it was like ‘Why is there no healthy food? Why is the healthy food so inaccessible?’ And that’s when I walked around, did some research, and found the community garden, which healed me in some way. So, I shared that information and made it more accessible to others, because we’re all seeking that. We’re all seeking opportunities to be closer to our Earth, to ourselves, and to our community.”