Decolonizing our diets

Claudia Serrato had a wakeup call when her uncle was hospitalized as a result of a heart attack. When she began filling out medical forms asking for diseases that ran in the family history, she began checking the boxes off.

Looking around her community, she realized most people could name someone with high cholesterol, diabetes, or who has had a heart attack. The life expectancy of the people in her community had dropped to 55 from 65 in only 20 years.

“It’s nutricide – genocide by food. The food is literally killing us,” says Serrato.

This realization was something that she could not ignore, something she had to share. The idea for Decolonial Food For Thought started one night at—where else?—a kitchen table with chef Chris Rodriguez.

“Not only has our land been colonized [Aztlan or the U.S. southwest], but so have our bodies [Aztlan],” says Serrato. “How? Through the imposition of a heavily meat, dairy, and processed food diet coupled with a capitalist patriarchal food/agricultural production paradigm.”

Serrato, who is working on her PhD in Medical Anthropology, began organizing with Rodriguez under the project Decolonial Food for Thought, which promoted community education. Her journey to a return to traditional eating practices all started by doing something she said she did not want to do – tracing back the European food ways.

“Decolonization is any lived experience which does not legitimize colonization. It is a continuation of years of Indigenous resiliency. Decolonization is a colonial way of understanding that resiliency,” says Serrato.

So what did that painful and uncomfortable quest for the origin of a diet that was killing her community yield? Her ancestors ate a plant-based diet. This finding created some resistance between her and her community when she first presented it.

“People equate veganism with being white, or as a white way of eating. But, I believe in Indigenous veganism,” says Serrato.

Serrato found that when the invasion of North America by the Spanish began, they brought their ways of eating with them; including eating a meat-heavy diet. This lead to the import of cattle and chickens for mass consumption and the introduction of regular meat-eating into the diet of the Indigenous people.

Since their ancestors have been eating a meat-filled diet for so long, many Mezo-Americans believe that it is the way they are designed to eat, when it is actually making them sick. Much of the meat products they first consumed after initial introduction of Spaniards was food waste – like posole made with pig’s feet.

“What we call tamales now would have never been made with pork or pork fat. It would have been made with the minerals from the lakes and stuffed with avocadoes, tomatoes, or fruits. You won’t see that in urban cities anymore.”

To Serrato, decolonizing the diet is about removing items from the diet that would not traditionally be there and rejecting the food pyramid.

“It says you need to have milk, you need to have cheese – all these processed foods. It’s all part of a political project. Removing these things allows for a remembering or a return of an Indigenous food way,” says Serrato.

So what does a decolonized diet look like? “Local, Ecological, Sustainable, Organic, Native, and Seasonal” or LESONS is the acronym and theory that best embodies the philosophy. This leads to a diet that looks much different geographically, but starts with a plant-based diet and eating food that is traditionally grown in the area.

In Manitoba, this would involve lots of wild rice, berries, seasonal vegetables like squash and potatoes, and the occasional animal flesh like fish in the summer or venison in the winter. Community is also crucial to the process and discussions around decolonizing diet; relational accountability and support can make all the difference.

Rodriguez says that telling people not to cook with meat puts them at the same level of arrogance as the colonizers.

“The idea is to help our communities [to] remember that eating plant-based—80 to 90 per cent plants, grains, fruits, legumes, nuts, seeds and veggies—is Native and a step towards decolonizing our diets,” says Rodriquez.

“We must share the role of the kitchen space,” says Rodriguez. “Teach ourselves, each other, our children especially. Our children, the future generations, need us to cook in the home using the LESONS. Let’s start from the home, with our children, the youth.”

Most of all, they say, it’s important to remember that this way of eating is natural, and for the many diseases that are epidemic to Indigenous people all over the world, food also has to be the answer for a healthier life.

“Our bodies are craving nutrition and that has been lost down the genetic line. But our bodies remember,” says Serrato.