PHENIX, Va. – To get to Nisani Farm, and the edge of a burgeoning food and health movement, requires going to the end of the road. Literally.
It means taking a 90-minute drive south from Richmond, Virginia, to the tiny town of Keysville, then picking up Route 40, a two-lane highway that rolls through the woods and past the occasional soybean farm. Around the time the cellphone navigation app loses service, a few turns past a dusty service station and the nondescript Bank of Charlotte County leads to a single-lane blacktop road.
Before long, pavement yields to gravel, and an “End State Maintenance” sign appears – a landmark for the rutted dirt track to Nisani Farm, Ann Codrington’s self-described “happy place.” Though it’s isolated by city standards, with her nearest neighbor roughly a quarter-mile away, Codrington is in the middle of a trend that appears to have gained momentum in recent years: She’s black and she’s given up meat. Today, she mostly eats organic fruits and vegetables.
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“I think that the key to eating a healthy diet is knowing what goes into your food, knowing what goes into your vegetables, knowing how they’re prepared,” says Codrington, the 54-year-old co-owner of Nisani, a small farm where she grows and sells the produce that she believes helped her recover from two bouts of cancer. “It’s not easy, but it is a choice that I’ve made, in part because of my health issues, in part because I’ve always been an environmentalist.”
That choice has landed Codrington in the middle of a back-to-the-future cultural and lifestyle shift that has increasingly taken root among black Americans: healthy, plant-focused eating. Vegetarian or vegan – part-time or full-time – the list of participants reads like a who’s who of black culture, from NBA stars Kyrie Irving and DeAndre Jordan to the Rev. Al Sharpton, actor Samuel L. Jackson and the late activist Dick Gregory. Even superstar entertainers Beyonce and Jay-Z have been described as “vegan curious.”
In some ways, it has as much to do with social justice, the environment and forgotten history as it does with the individual and collective health of the black community.
“I’m much, much stronger” because of consuming fresh, organic vegetables and herbs as part of cancer recovery, says Codrington, who went all-in on the lifestyle after moving to this blink-or-you’ll-miss-it hamlet three years ago. Plus, by eating food she grows herself, and by using organic methods, “I know that they are the cleanest and the healthiest that I can come by. … They don’t have (chemical) residues and pesticides.”
“The veganism movement has grown over the last several years,” says Tracye Lynn McQuirter, a nutritionist, author of the book “By Any Greens Necessary,” and editor of the “African American Vegan Starter Guide.” McQuirter – who gave up meat 32 years ago – says she has “definitely” seen a spike in African Americans embracing a plant-based diet.
Although data is difficult to come by, a Vegetarian Resource Group poll indicates about 3% of the nation’s adult black population was vegetarian or vegan in 2016, and 32% sometimes or always opted for meatless meals – no red meat, fish or poultry – when eating out.
Those statistics upend the dominant narrative: that going meatless or eliminating animal products entirely from one’s diet is a white-people thing, relegated to aging hippies, militant animal rights activists, big-city hipsters or rich progressives like actress-turned-lifestyle guru Gwyneth Paltrow.
Thrillist – a food, travel and entertainment website – put an even finer point on it by entering the phrase “vegan person” into a widely used stock photo database. The search returned more than 480 pages of images, but the first face of color didn’t appear until after three pages of scrolling.
Yet experts say plant-based diets are common across the African diaspora. Religious group the Black Hebrew Israelites follow a vegan diet, while the Nation of Islam backs vegetarianism – former NOI leader Elijah Muhammad linked abstention from meat with racial nationalism and eschewed Southern soul food and its links to slavery, according to an article in the University of Mississippi’s Study the South journal.
Activists in the 1960s and 1970s embraced plant-based eating as a way to become healthier and fight the power, and it’s not unusual today to see black-owned vegetarian restaurants in urban neighborhoods. A more recent list of 100 black vegans includes Coretta Scott King, wife of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, a Democratic presidential candidate.
While most ordinary vegetarians and vegans make that dietary choice for personal health and well-being, some see it as pushing back against various forms of inequality. Relatedly, research indicates some of the seemingly intractable health disparities between African Americans and whites – particularly when it comes to chronic conditions like obesity and high blood pressure – can be diet-related.
Black culture plays a role: Traditional soul food cuisine is usually based around fried meat, like chicken and pork. Even side dishes like collard greens are often seasoned with meat scraps such as hog jowls and smoked turkey necks.
Meanwhile, some studies show that companies pushing fast- and other junk food have targeted black children. And while supermarkets and other large-scale purveyors of fresh fruits and vegetables can be hard to find in many poor black neighborhoods, corner stores stocked with cheap, processed meat – burgers, meat pies and jerky sticks – are fairly common.
“Our food system is first and foremost a business,” says Tamara Jones, executive director of the Southeastern African American Farmers’ Organic Network, or SAAFON. “We have a corporatized food system that’s engaging in agricultural practices that actually undermine what is healthy for the land, what’s healthy for plants, what’s healthy for natural systems and what’s healthy for our bodies.”
Amen, says Codrington, though she ditched meat, quit her desk job, bought Nisani Farm and started growing her own vegetables and herbs for a far simpler reason: It made her feel better.
A former Environmental Protection Agency bureaucrat, Codrington, her husband, Bruce White, and their two children had a typical middle-class life in the District of Columbia suburbs, occasionally visiting a friend’s sprawling property in the Virginia countryside. The lifestyle, and seeing her children’s joy at playing and exploring in wide open spaces, convinced Codrington her family needed a spread of its own.
The search led them to a property just outside Phenix, which Codrington dubbed Nisani to honor her Belizean roots: Though she grew up in mostly black neighborhoods in Los Angeles, both her parents emigrated from the tiny Central American nation. Nisani, Codrington explains, means “sister”– it’s from the Garifuna language, meant to honor “the generations of Belizean women farmers who came before us” and those who will follow.
Still, it was the two bouts with cancer – and recuperating with the help of herbal remedies prepared by her mother – that led Codrington to quit her white-collar job, move to the farm and start growing her own vegetables full time. Her mother now lives with her in Nisani’s still-under-renovation farmhouse.
“My mother would make me ginger tea while I was sick, because it helped with the nausea” from chemotherapy, Codrington says. Because both her parents are Belizean, she adds, “ginger and lemongrass are herbs I’ve had in my entire life. My mother would make teas and poultices and all kinds of remedies” from things that grew naturally.
Having always had a green thumb – Codrington is a lifelong gardener who taught African farmers during her time in the Peace Corps – and having experienced the healing power of food, Codrington says becoming a farmer was a logical step, particularly after she had given up meat.
“Illness is often a combination of genetics and environment. Well, the one thing I can change, for sure, is my diet,” says Codrington, whose estate has all the trappings of a small farm, including a tractor, greenhouses and two dogs. “I also changed my environment by leaving the city, by leaving a desk job that was very stressful and coming to a place that for me is a sanctuary and (where) I feel very comfortable and safe.”
While her transformation was dramatic, Codrington acknowledges she occupies a unique space as a black female organic farmer in rural southern Virginia. While she “definitely” thinks African Americans should give up meat, for their own health as well as the health of the planet, she doesn’t shun or shame her carnivorous friends and family.
“I definitely try to explain to people as much as I can that they should eat organic, and that they should eat a plant-based diet,” Codrington says. “And when I talk to young people, I try to get them to see the value of laying off the processed foods and eating more natural food.”
Dana Hunnes, a senior dietician at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in California, says it’s a good thing that veganism and vegetarianism are catching on among African Americans, thanks in part to celebrity influencers. Yet while more plant eaters could favorably nudge the health-disparity needle, she says, persistent scourges like kidney disease and diabetes can’t be eliminated by vegetables alone.
“Unfortunately, there are several other social determinants of health, including both overt and more unconscious forms of racism, which can lead to chronic stress, increasing the risk of chronic disease,” says Hunnes, who also is an adjunct professor in UCLA’s Department of Community Health Sciences. “Also, a lack of health resources, access to health care, access to doctors and nurse practitioners who treat you equally, the types of jobs people have, are just some of the many factors that affect the health gap.”
Hunnes says it can be difficult for African American omnivores to make “one giant leap” and leave animal-based food behind, particularly after eating it over a lifetime. “It’s a lot simpler to cut back slowly on meat products and dairy, and other animal products, and to trend in that direction,” she says.
Nevertheless, she says, a transition to a plant-based diet can be made less arduous through “small, incremental changes,” like eating more in-season produce, taking advantage of ready-to-eat salads or adding a serving or two of frozen vegetables to meals.
And although some complain vegetarianism and veganism can be more expensive, treating problems like obesity and high blood pressure over a lifetime costs even more, Hunnes says.
In the long run, she says, going meatless “will save money and add both years to life, and life to years.”