Jerri Evans insists that black people deserve access to healthy food. Poor neighborhoods with a high percentage of black residents have scarce healthy food options and more fast food restaurants than more-affluent areas do, studies have shown.
In Washington, D.C., the two highest-income (mostly white) locales have one grocer for every 12,000 residents. But in the city’s two lowest-income areas — which are predominantly black — there’s only one supermarket per 70,000 residents.
Evans, the founder of Turning Natural, a small chain of juice bar–cafes, opens shop in these areas. She’s working toward providing residents with access to healthy, reasonably priced food options to combat decades of policy decisions that have quarantined black folks in food deserts.
She makes it fun too. Menu items are plays on the names of pop culture icons or local legends — such as the Green Latifah and J Coal juices and the Marion Berry smoothie. Black people desire healthy food options despite the subconscious bias held by some that we want to eat only unhealthy foods, she said. Want isn’t the issue; it’s access.
During a conversation with her for Women’s History Month, Evans spoke at length on the importance of meeting people where they are in their health journeys, creating a space where people don’t feel embarrassed to ask questions and making healthy food accessible.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What inspired you to service low-income communities with healthy food options?
I’m from Southeast D.C. It is, essentially, the ’hood. And my mom started us on this healthy journey because she was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer in 2001. Our life drastically changed then, even though stage 2 is relatively early. Two years before, we lost my aunt to stage 4 breast cancer. So in my mind, we had to move fast.
But in Southeast D.C., we didn’t have access to healthy food options. There wasn’t a healthy grocery store. There wasn’t healthy food options. We didn’t have a Trader Joe’s, we didn’t have a Whole Foods. We barely had access to food that wasn’t fried or that wasn’t sitting for hours.
I left D.C. at 17, and I went to school to become an aeronautical engineer. In that time, my mom was in remission. Everything was fine. Then cancer came back, and it was much more aggressive. It spread to her bones, and then it was in her liver. Within two weeks of us finding out that it had come back, my mom passed away. Life just drastically changed for me again, because now home is no longer home, and my mom isn’t here.
I went through a really rough two years trying to figure out what was next. I was working as an aeronautical engineer. And I just quit my job in Atlanta and decided that I was going to move home. I had no clue what I was going to do. I just knew that I needed to make some adjustments. I came back, and I said, “You know what? I want to take what I know and put it in a community that ultimately helped grow me and groom me.” And I’ve been doing it ever since.
That’s a very powerful backstory. Why is it important for people who live in food deserts to have access to healthy food?
The communities that are normally within food deserts are often black communities. They’re often the forgotten communities. What I tell my customers is, I know that you need it, I know that you want it, but ultimately at the top of my list is that you deserve to be able to walk down the street and get something healthy and not have to search for it.
Our juice bars are in walking distance for most of the community. And it’s important because it determines the health of the community — not just physical health but mental health. Food is medicine. So how we receive food, what we’re putting in our body and how the body is going to process it determines how we think, how we feel and how we perform. So having healthy options in food deserts is vital.
Black people are probably at the top of the list of people who don’t have access. So not only do we need it, we deserve it. And we also want it. I think there’s a stigma that we’re not eating healthy, we’re used to the carry-outs and the corner stores. When the reality is that I have people who come from far and out to get access to our stores.
That’s especially important for black communities because there are so many health issues that disproportionately affect black people. I started my own health journey a couple of years ago. And just changing the way I ate, I felt so much better. I felt sharper.
Yeah, definitely. Your energy is different — not just what you’re able to accomplish in a day but how you think, what you think about. All of those things play a part.
Do you see your work as activism in any way?
I guess you can call it food activism because we’re also educating. We’re explaining the benefits of juicing and smoothies and how sugar has got to process in the body. And we’re talking about food combining and how often you should have fruits and vegetables in your diet, the amount that you should have, talking about serving size. All of it is really important. Yeah, I guess you can say I’m kind of a food activist.
And it seems y’all meet people where they are.
Absolutely! It’s important because even our staff, when they come in, sometimes they don’t have the full knowledge of things like the benefits of flaxseed or chia seed or wheatgrass. So it’s about building a bridge for people. That’s really important for me.
We want to make it relatable, and that’s why a lot of the names for items on the menu are plays on hip-hop or other genres of music. So we have a Green Latifah, we have a Mi’Kale Jackson, we have a Swizz Beets and a Just Blaze. Normally that entices people to say, “You know what? Let me try that.” Just because it makes them smile or they like the ingredients in there. Or they may not know what the ingredients are, so they try it because it’s new.
Meeting people where they are, especially when it comes to health, is extremely important in making it relatable.
That’s so important for black people because we often go into these juice bars, we see a list of ingredients, and we may not have the understanding of them or we may not feel welcome there because everyone’s white.
Yeah, a lot of it is just over people’s heads. So make it fun, make it cool. Again, health can be taboo to people. Can you imagine if I had named our green juice — and no shade to any of the businesses that have their green juices called Green Goodness — but there is nothing that is enticing about something called Green Goodness. There’s nothing at all.
Especially not to a child.
So what would you say is the importance of not just your presence but your store’s presence and the way that you’ve structured your organization? Why is it important for a place like Turning Natural to exist?
I’m very big on core values. I have my personal core values, and then my business has its own core values. I want to always make people feel seen. I think that, especially in the black community, we feel unseen, and that’s why we have things like Black Lives Matter and a black woman is the head of the Me Too movement, because often we’re overlooked.
And when you have someone who looks like you and who is letting you know, “I see you, I see your needs, I hear your needs, and I’m going to do everything I can possible to make sure those needs are met,” it meets the core value and my business value all in one.
It’s very important that we see more of ourselves in the health world. I got so tired of looking for books, recipes and healthy ways of eating and only seeing people who didn’t look like me or people who didn’t understand the ties to black food culture or how to help me break some of those ties.
I go to juice bars all over. Two of my favorite places are where juice bars have completely saturated — LA and New York. And because I’ve been juicing for almost 22 years, I’m OK if you don’t put pineapple or apple in my juice. But you’re talking about the average person, they’re like, “Get out of here. I don’t want that.”
It is a big separation to understanding the benefits of stuff when you start talking about spirulina and different types of seeds. People are like, “What? Just give me something green and something that I can recognize, like kale or spinach.” When you start talking about Swiss chard and arugula and sometimes dandelions, people are like, “I don’t know.”
How can those less popular foods or smoothie additives or juice additives make people feel isolated from this world of health and juicing?
People don’t want to feel embarrassed. It’s that “I don’t want to read out loud in class because I may mispronounce a word” feeling. People don’t like to be embarrassed, because when we don’t know something, it’s like, “OK, I’m just going to be quiet” or “I’m not going to ask questions.”
I would never want that in my space, where people don’t even feel comfortable enough to ask a question for the simple reason that you don’t know.
And I don’t know if other places are even trying to bridge that gap for people.