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Shanti Das And EmPOWERED Serve To Explore The Reality Of Food Deserts

As AHA's first National Power Embassador for EmPOWERED To Serve, Shanti Das discusses discovering her hood was a food desert, how to join the movement and the threat of insitutionalized limited access with AHA's Crystal King.

I walked up to Shanti Das and Crystal King, heart racing and nerve-wracked because as a young professional aspiring to breakout into the music scene, being in the same room with the First Lady of LaFace Records is intimidating, yet exciting. But, as we unraveled the layers to her story in connection to the American Heart Association (AHA), through the EmPOWERED To Serve movement, my nerves calmed. She became more accessible and my menacing fear of saying the wrong thing, alleviated.

My feelings going into the conversation with Das and King mirrors the reality of the relationship between urban communities and social health determinants, prompting AHA’s EmPOWERED To Serve to get involved. Having no control over these external factors can welcome in the risk of heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, and stress-health concerns, which hits close to home for AHA. Once the time is taken in getting to know these issues and our knowledge is fine-tuned, we realize our anxieties are unwarranted.

Das joined AHA’s EmPOWERED To Serve community, not because she doesn’t like her job and the turn up, but because she wants her family to stick around long enough to enjoy all the highs right next to her. Das premiered her role as a National Power Ambassador in a big way this past Martin Luther King, Jr. Day (Jan. 16), with her Take Me Home documentary. The mini-film is centered around the dangers of food deserts, which refers to the “parts of the country that do not have ease of access to fresh fruit, vegetables and other healthful whole foods.” These are usually in urban communities where food insecurity is a part of everyone’s story.

“So, food deserts are very real and often times people don't even realize that they live in a food desert. I grew up in a food desert. I didn't know that. I just thought this is the way life was. We just went to Miss Annie's--a candy store--and that's just the way life was, you know… You don’t think of it as weird, that’s just your reality.” - Crystal King

But, EmPOWERED To Serve’s sole purpose isn’t to just make noise in the staple person-to-person, grassroots way. They are also adding a global and federal advocacy component to their strategy. Their goals for Black History Month 2017, but more generally 2017, is to host discussions, create sustainable solutions to close the disparity gap, and explore the social determinants of health. As King explains, the movement is so much bigger than a person-to-person solution because of the institutionalized threats.

“It's about the systems changing. So, we partner with major organizations and we partner with government entities, from a global-federal advocacy level, all the way down to the individual. We want to make the healthy options the default options.” - Crystal King

In an effort to usher in these alternative default options, the EmPOWERED To Serve community hosts an "EmPOWERED To Cook" series on their site. The series features recipes for healthier alternatives like Cantaloupe Citrus Water--which incorporates flavors with greater health benefits like ginger and turmeric--to spice up basic necessities, while treating us with a less sugar-packed staple dessert with their Blueberry Peach Cobbler.

The focus of this portion of the series, “Chapter 1: Take Home” featuring Shanti Das, is food access and choices. But, EmPOWERED To Serve plans to expand beyond just food, because a “healthy lifestyle” is more than just remodeling food deserts and making the right dietary decisions. Learn more about what EmPOWERED To Serve is all about through the movement’s first National Power Ambassador, Shanti Das, and AHA’S own, Crystal King.

So can we start off with you (Shanti Das) talking about your story and your connection to the AHA first?

Shanti Das: I'm really excited about EmPOWEREDToServe.org. It takes people of influence, like myself, back into their communities to really bring awareness to heart disease and stroke. It also focuses on discussing the social determinants of health so we can create new opportunities for healthy lifestyles. EmPOWERED To Serve did a mini documentary on me, called Take Me Home. They took me back to my neighborhood, which is Southwest Atlanta. I got to go in and kind of see what's going on in the neighborhood and what social determinants still stand. Also, taking a step back to realize what it was like growing up not having access to a good grocery store where you would have fresh produce and fresh vegetables and that sort of thing. All these years later, and there’s still not a great grocery store within a five mile radius--that’s ridiculous. But, still seeing that there is a Wendy’s and a McDonald’s or a wing spot on every corner. Where are the vegan spots or the entrepreneurs who are putting up the Smoothie Kings? They're not coming into those neighborhoods. As a result, our grandparents, aunties and our relatives that still live in that area are suffering. They're suffering from heart disease, heart attack, stroke, and high blood pressure. And even with children, you see how obesity is on the rise. We've got to get healthier options to these families and these urban communities because it's just not right. Taking it a step further, when you look at these urban communities from a gentrification standpoint, if you're not a part of one “cool” area of town, you don't have access. So with all of that, you have to wonder: "What's going to happen in our communities?"

Crystal King: I’m so glad you brought up access. I want to layer on top of that, so everyone understands what Shanti just laid down. It’s really about access. All too often, we have people who are dictating our communities saying, "Oh, you should just eat right" or "You should do better." But, it's not that easy right? Because we’ve all needed something to eat quick, or spur of the moment. Like with here [Manhattan], it may be easier to make a healthier choice than when you travel to Brooklyn. So, our focus is to show that it's not just about choices, it's also about access. It's the combination of the two.

Das: And what we want to do as ambassadors, is work with our local politicians by advocating and making sure that these zoning laws don't just help out the wealthier people. We want to prevent the funneling of fast food into our communities. They have to create better options for us and give us that access.

In addition to the advocacy aspect of EmPOWERED To Serve’s movement, will you be hosting events and partnering with other businesses with a like-minded goal in order to gain more awareness?

King: For us, it's all about systems changing. So, it's not just about that one-on-one behavior change. When we talk about events and awareness, that’s more one-on-one. Instead, we partner with major organizations and government entities, from a global-federal advocacy level, all the way down to the individual. But, we really need people to follow us to understand. And this generation is incredibly passionate about change. It makes me think about Common and the song "Glory" where he says: "it takes the wisdom of the elders and young people’s energy." So, we really want to give them the tools and the knowledge to be able to do that. The way that they can is by becoming an ambassador.

Das: And let’s be real clear about what’s going on in the country right now. If social security and all these different things start getting cut from our family members, they’re going to be even more stressed out. So, we have to make sure we’re eating right and staying healthy so we can survive these next four years. If we don’t have our health, we can’t work. It all ties in, y’all. It’s so real and we have to get it together. We talk about staying woke, well this is a large piece to being “awake.”

“Can I be honest? I didn't even know the term before I hooked up with [Crystal]. I was like 'Food desert? What? That's just my hood'... It's just the reality of it. But it is time to really educate people to say 'You know what? What you're dealing with is something that we can make progress towards,' if everybody just realizes.” - Shanti Das

I couldn’t agree more. So, could you talk about becoming an ambassador and what it takes to be one?

King: Becoming an ambassador is easy. Go to the website, sign up and we will push out opportunities on a regular basis. We connect people to AHA affiliates in their area so they can be a part of the change in their communities. Like I said before, this generation is passionate about the advocacy--we see that everyday. We just want to ensure health is included as one of the things that’s being advocated for, around, and on.

Das: Right. I feel like we’ve become desensitized to it. I’m sitting here thinking, "Okay, how many people do we know that look like all of us, who aren’t affected by high blood pressure?"

King: I don’t know anybody who isn’t.

It’s scary, but true that we’ve become desensitized. Sometimes it seems that we know so many people with these issues that we think it’s not going to happen to us.

Das: Or we see this as inevitable.

King: Or we have the “I’ll just deal with it when I get older” attitude.

Das: And of course, there’s nay-sayers out there who are like, “I know people who exercise, eat right and they still drop dead.” But those are one in a billion. You still need to do what you need to do for your life and your family. We have to go back into our neighborhoods and make sure--just like we're fighting for all these other rights--we have to fight for choices and access in our communities because we live in situations where we don’t know the causes for things. Can I be honest? I didn’t even know the term before I hooked up with you [Crystal King]. I was like ‘food desert? What? That’s just my hood.’  It's just the reality of it. But it is time to really educate people to say, "You know what? What you're dealing with is something that we can make progress towards," if everybody just realizes.

Since we’re on the topic of food deserts, during this conversation, I realized that I lived in one too. But a local food market, with fresh food options, opened up a few years back and now these options are only a short walk away from my house.

Das: That’s great! That's what we need more of and that's what we're trying to do. We’re setting out to create more opportunities for those types of businesses to come into these areas.

King: You know what’s real funny? We were heading to a meeting out in Brooklyn today and we pass Farragut housing. And I just thought to look it up because I just like to know the story behind things. I'm reading about Farragut housing and lo and behold, one of the things that they pointed out was 'there are a lack of affordable healthy food options in the area, making the area a food desert.' Options include a Chinese restaurant, some bodegas and a small grocery store with a single aisle of produce. One of the things that we talk a lot about, is when there's a food desert, it's typically a desert for a number of other things and not just food. We were talking with some of our partners in Chicago and the lead for one of our huge projects was saying, 'This is a pharmacy desert. Our elderly residents have to go however many miles away to get their prescriptions because the pharmacies are leaving the area.’ It's a pharmacy desert and a financial desert. They don't have any real banks in this particular area. All that exist are pawn shops and check cashing places. Just seeing Farragut Houses today and learning more about it made me think about that.

Das: Which makes even more sense for the millennials because this is who we’re speaking to, VIBE readers. You guys are going to be the ones from an entrepreneurial standpoint to break the curse of the food desert and step in. Not only by fighting with legislation for the access, but starting your own business and creating better opportunities and healthier choices for your families. Whether you’re getting married young, or whether you're single, not everyone wants to live in the ‘burbs. Some people might want to go back to where they grew up and live. Or you might not be able to get that job right out of college--or get that apartment--you might have to go back to the house, to the crib, to the hood and live. Then what’s going to happen? And you can quote me on that. So you guys have to create healthier options for yourself. We just want everyone to be around for a long time so the turn up is forever, and not just 20-30 years.

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Learn more about STRONG by Zumba fitness here.

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