During my trip to Pittsburgh, I met Yejide KMT, a 27-year-old resident of the City’s Homewood neighborhood, mother of five, and founder of the Black Mommy Circle. Notoriously one of the City’s most dangerous and under-resourced districts (The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported that it had perennially topped the list for the most violent crime and drug offenses in the entire county), Homewood also has severe issues of poverty, and disproportionally high rates of diet-related health problems and infant mortality. “We’re not even touching the poverty line,” Yejide told me. “We can’t even jump and touch it with our fingertips.”
There are no grocery stores and little car ownership, she noted, so people have to go to the closest store on a bus line. Among the roughly 25 corner stores in the neighborhood, almost none carry any healthy items, and virtually no produce. Consequently, food insecurity is rife and residents are afflicted by far higher rates of diet-related health problems than those living in more affluent areas a stone’s throw away.
Yejide was born in Homewood and raised in the City’s East Hills housing projects. She returned to Homewood to raise her children, and several years ago started the Black Mommy Circle, a support group for black mothers in the community, when one of her daughters was born with severe eczema and a host of other serious health problems.
“She just had issues,” Yejide says, remembering how she had to hospitalize her daughter at least twice a year when she was a small child. The various doctors did little to ameliorate her situation; it was only when Yejide drastically changed her family’s diet that, she says, her daughter’s health significantly improved. The change in food purchases was certainly not a decision rooted in any kind of short term financial sense or logistical convenience. Not a car owner, she began regularly walking a hefty distance to a cooperative-run grocery store- the closet place that sold fresh, natural foods - and trudging bags of groceries home. Her family’s food bills exponentially increased – an affront to their already tight overall budget - but she decided it was an indisputable necessity, and began cutting out non-essentials.
It was also a bit of a culture shock: “When we started out at the co-op I didn’t know how to cook tofu. I thought, ‘This is the nastiest stuff.” But she forged on with the plan, cleared out all the old food from her cupboards, and began trying new recipes. The health results in her children, she remembers, were immediately noticeable, and most of her daughter’s symptoms faded.
Further inspired by the Jane Goodall book , “Harvest for Hope,” Yejide found herself apologizing to the meat she cooked for her family, and several years later cut out animal flesh entirely (she, herself, is now a vegan). “
Yejide has no false pretences in thinking that her friends and neighbors will undergo the same extreme dietary changes that she felt compelled to make for her family. But she is determined to provide her community with resources and information in order to urge them to change their diet gradually, one of the premises behind the Black Mommy Circle. Participants meet monthly in Homewood to discuss nutrition as a crucial component tied to range of other pressing community issues, and come up with holistic solutions to ongoing local problems.
“We’re dealing with a unique set of circumstances here” she says, noting the strikingly high numbers of mothers in Homewood struggling to raise families singlehandedly (Yejide is married, and shares the parenting responsibilities with her husband). “Historically, black mothers have dealt with inequity within society. The African American community is often considered the canary in the mine. In Homewood, we have some of the highest infant mortality rates and levels of stress and depression. We have a lack of outreach. And nutrition is one of the key components, which is why my group is focused on cooking and bringing healthy snacks to the community.”
BMC, she insists, is about self-empowerment and determination, to “support, educate, empower, and advocate.”
“There is an inequity of information dissemination. If two people are given the same amount of information to make healthy choices for their families, both would make the healthy choices. But because the information is not equally distributed, some people don’t have the resources to make the right decision.” The shift happens, she adds, “when you empower a mother not only with the right information, but with the belief that she is capable of taking care of her family and making changes that are positive. … Too often a lot of ‘experts’ tell us: ‘You need to do this or that.’ Mothers, armed with good information, will make good choices.”
But it goes beyond just information, she adds. It’s also about the availability of resources, cause even the best intentions for healthy habits don’t amount to a hill of beans if the food isn’t available or affordable.
“At the end of the month, if you don’t have any money, you either buy a big ass bag of plain potato chips because at least they don’t have artificial flavors or MSG in them, or you steal your food, get caught, go to jail, and get labeled as a horrible person. … Information can alleviate may problems, but there is a fundamental inequity that is historical, that goes beyond merely informing an individual who needs to be addressed.”
The solutions, she says, can’t just come from outside the community. She recognizes the good intentions of individuals from more privileged walks coming into her neighborhood with the aim of helping to “fix things,” but notes the inherent conflict that emerges when people come to the community with firm ideas of what should be, but don’t first stop and listen.
“Don’t come in the community with preconceived notion about solutions,” she asks of those not rooted here. “Come in with respect and understanding. You can’t give the gift of healthiness. The scope needs to be broader. You can’t be like, ‘We’re doing this for you. Aren’t you so grateful to us?’ You’re not going to come up with solutions we’re capable of using.’
Yejide, who also helps lead the Ujamaa Collective, another community action and support group, has recently focused her efforts on not just food buying choices, but also local food growing and producing opportunities. The agricultural component includes working to start community gardens in the neighborhood, as well as gardens for children, to convince both mothers and their kids that it’s alright to play in the dirt, and to tie agriculture with economics and encourage small-scale local agricultural entrepreneurship. She hopes to roll out a handful of community programs and opportunities next summer.
I asked Yejide if, looking forward, she was hopeful about her community’s health.
“I’m neither optimistic nor pessimistic. I believe in every community’s self-determination. If I’m out here doing whatever I can to help make a change, the change will occur. The community will determine whether or not we want to be healthy.”
She paused for a moment.
“I’m here, so we can’t be that disempowered.”