"My diet has changed dramatically. I don't really drink processed drinks; I drink water, mainly. I don't really like lemonade anymore. I do more infused water and just lemon in water. I try to eat more vegetables and fruits. I don't eat as many snacks. I try to be aware."
These aren't the words of some emaciated starlet telling a tabloid how she dieted into her cat suit for her new movie. This is 15-year-old Jaylon Ogolsbey from North Minneapolis, one of the worst food deserts in America, telling me how he started eating healthfully. "I talk to [my friends] all the time about the stuff they're eating," Ogolsbey continued over the phone. "I say, 'All y'all really eat is hot Cheetos, and they're kinda nasty.' You can't really force someone to eat better, but you can always try to influence them and encourage them to start doing better."
For the past year, Ogolsbey has been working for the Minneapolis-based organization Appetite for Change (AFC), which aims to reshape the way that the local community (and beyond) approaches cooking, eating, and growing food. Founded in 2011 by Princess Titus, Michelle Horovitz, and Latasha Powell, AFC's primary objective is "to use food as a tool to build health, wealth, and social change." The soldiers of its operation are young people frustrated by their neighborhoods' plague of fast-food chains and dearth of wholesome options—and the impact of all of that sugar, fat, and salt on the well-being of their parents, friends, and neighbors.
As of 2006, food deserts—urban areas without access to healthy foods such as fresh produce, meat, and dairy products—constituted half of Minneapolis, according to USDA data. Most of these neighborhoods are concentrated in North Minneapolis, an area that has been left behind as the Twin Cities have enjoyed a cultural and industrial renaissance of sorts in the past two decades. Many of the neighborhoods in North Minneapolis have issues with crime. The inequality is stark: While James Beard award–nominated chefs (13 of whom were from Minnesota this year) enjoy a thriving culinary scene in trendier pockets of town, North Minneapolis is unable to serve even the basic needs of its community.
When AFC got its start, Titus said, the kids in the program surveyed the area and found that there were 38 fast-food restaurants in a two-mile radius "and nowhere that you could sit down and eat." In addition to nutritious food, AFC hopes to offer optimism for disenfranchised families in the area. Titus learned at an early age that one solution to being denied quality ingredients is to grow them yourself. "My grandmother had a friend who grew food. She always had greens and tomatoes," she told me. "I feel like we don't take advantage of that opportunity." Today, AFC operates several community gardens, where it teaches kids to grow and harvest fresh fruits and vegetables that are then sold to local restaurants and vendors, as well as used in AFC's cooking classes and local cafe, Breaking Bread, which employs young people from its programs. In 2016, its gardens collectively grew more than 9,000 pounds of produce. But the biggest thing grown in AFC's gardens so far is a music video.
Last year, the organization released a hip-hop track called "Grow Food" with an accompanying music video that quickly went viral, garnering more than 300,000 views on YouTube. The song's beat would fit in on a playlist with Lil Uzi Vert, but its lyrics—written and performed by kids in AFC with the help of Minneapolis-based after-school music program Beats & Rhymes, which was also behind the 2012 hit "Hot Cheetos & Takis"—are less expected. It's safe to assume that no other music video has ever seen 4- to 22-year-olds spitting verses about staying hydrated and eating spring mix salad. Media outlets, including VH1, BET, Refinery 29, and Modern Farmer, took note. The internet loved it. But it's more than talk for young people in North Minneapolis, and understandable why they might write verses such as: "All this talk about guns and the drugs pretty serious / But look at what they feeding y'all, that's what's really killing us."
"Mostly what I've known is fast food," Ogolsbey told me by phone in March. "I know a lot of kids who have family members who they grew up with who had diabetes. I see a lot of kids in my class who have chips and stuff for breakfast, lunch, and dinner." Seventeen-year-old Larrion Davis, who is also featured in the music video, left his job working at the Mall of America—where he told me he "went to Burger King every day"—to work with AFC. He is in the Community Cooks program, which teaches members of the local community how to reinvent their favorite foods in healthier ways, such as pan searing and herb-seasoning chicken instead of frying it, or adding vegetables to macaroni and cheese.
On the culinary side of AFC are Michelle Horovitz—a former public defender and another of the organization's co-founders, who worked under the award-winning chef Michelle Bernstein in New York and now handles many of the program's business initiatives—and Lachelle Cunningham, who comes from an administrative and catering background and now oversees the offerings at Breaking Bread. Together, they envision empowering young people in Minneapolis by teaching them to think beyond the status quo—cheeseburgers and Pepsi and Ding Dongs.
"You can't really force someone to eat better, but you can always encourage them to start doing better."
"They are really being exposed to some life-changing, paradigm-shifting experiences," Cunningham explained. "A lot of people have a lot of food and housing insecurity. But when you look in our community in particular and the placement of [processed food]—when you walk in [to a store], do you see fresh produce? No, you see packaged products and chemicals that we're calling 'food.'" In this sense, eating healthy is a subversive act for many of the young people in North Minneapolis.
Rejecting the political and capitalist incentives that put fast-food chains on every corner means rejecting the means by which food deserts keep local families weighed down—in many cases, literally. According to the State of Obesity, a national obesity-rates tracking project sponsored by the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Minnesota's obesity rate hovers at over 26 percent, a dramatic increase from 16.4 percent in 2000. Among its black population, that number is 3.5 percent higher.
Teaching teenagers to be passionate about growing spinach may sound like an uphill battle, but rather than lecturing young people, AFC strives to listen to them, build them up, and hand them the reins. "This has become the safe space that young people needed," Titus told me. "They come in and empty my garbage, and I say, 'Are you on the clock?' They're like, 'No, I'm just doing a little extra homework, thought I'd grab a salad.' A salad?! You got off school, you took out the garbage without anyone asking you, and now you're gonna eat a salad?'"
Recruitment is primarily either by word of mouth or as a last chance for listless kids who can't seem to fit in with other social programs. "Princess Ann is the street recruiter," Titus said, referring to her own 11-year-old daughter, who appears in the "Grow Food" video. "She rides around with a pack of applications in my car, rolling down the windows like, 'Hey! What are you doing this summer with your life? You gonna be standing on this street? It's not safe out here. What'd you eat today? Here's an application, so you can eat and be off the street.'" The program also gets applications from Minneapolis schools and the YMCA, including, according to Titus, "the kids with truancy and juvenile justice issues, chemical dependency, homelessness, gang affiliation—the kids who don't fit their qualifications, who don't fit in." Breaking Bread has also brought jobs to youth in the neighborhood. Fifteen-year-old Aaliyah Demery got a job there in June 2016 while looking for a place that hired teens. Some of the only other options were at fast-food restaurants. "Honestly, I don't see any other organizations doing anything that AFC is doing," she told me. "I want to see more people eating healthier, because it affects everything in life," she added. "You can be intelligent about what's going on in your body and have the knowledge."
"A lot of people said they loved the video," Davis told me. "A lot of parents say they changed their habits, how they cook for their kids." When the video came out, Davis added, "People cared about us." For urban youth in North Minneapolis, according to Titus, the question has remained: "Is the food here because we eat it, or do we eat the food because it's here?" But with AFC producing change in a community that eagerly seeks it, North Minneapolis's growth toward a better future might just start in a vegetable garden.
Hilary Pollack is culture editor at MUNCHIES. Check out more of her work at Munchies.vice.com.