Liz Jones (center), stands with volunteers and partners at a New Year's celebration in front of Elmira's Market, passing out free black-eyed peas and greens. (Courtesy of Liz Jones)
Liz Jones (center), stands with volunteers and partners at a New Year's celebration in front of Elmira's Market, passing out free black-eyed peas and greens. (Courtesy of Liz Jones)

Liz Jones founded the nonprofit Greenwithin in 2020, to create sustainable food opportunities for underserved D.C. communities through local organic agriculture, plant-based food and nutrition education. In 2021, the Black Voices for Black Justice Fund DMV selected her out of over 300 applicants to join the 10-person inaugural Black Justice Fellows cohort of local leaders.

The 34-year-old mother of two spoke with The Washington Informer’s Kayla Benjamin about her mission and why access to healthy, home-cooked food matters to her.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Kayla Benjamin: Tell me a little bit about what you do, and how you got into the food space.

Liz Jones: So, I’ve been cooking for the community since around 2014.

I started doing pop-ups with vegan, plant-based food. And I started to realize that my demographic — they either just couldn’t afford the food or they didn’t see the importance in buying it. It wouldn’t be their first choice in a pop-up. So I figured that there was just a lot of work that needed to be done on the education part. And it probably wouldn’t be smart for me to continue to charge people for food that they weren’t gonna buy. So in 2015, I kind of switched up my entire model and just started my nonprofit work, and I re-entered these spaces with free food that I will get the community, for the most part, to pay for. And over time, that just turned into me getting kind of out of the more for-profit spaces and just getting directly into the community. I started driving up and down, through Ward 8, with a whole bunch of my friends, just cooking every Sunday — delivering 200, 300 meals every weekend.

[We were] partnering with Elmira’s grocery store, over in Ward 8, partnering with local farms and farmers markets. And then in 2020, I was able to get my own farm [in Maryland]. So we’ve kind of been growing food for our community meals and trying to figure out really how

to just scale up that entire process.

KB: Why did you get into plant-based cooking to start with?

LJ: I grew up with my mom and my grandma, and my family’s from North Carolina. So I just always have been outside. I’ve always foraged, gardened — we had apple trees and just a bunch of stuff down on the land. I grew up in Takoma Park, and we’ve always gone to co-ops and cooked fresh stuff. And my mom’s family have a lot of Indigenous ancestry, and my mom got like the natural download of all healthy things. So she’s been like our shaman, you know, our holistic doctor. This has been my entire life. And so it really was getting back to that after kind of going to high school and just kind of falling off from what I know is right. And I’ve always been very aware of how food affects your mental and physical health.

After I had my kid, I think I realized that I can’t kind of BS it anymore. I was kind of the ‘unhealthy vegetarian’ that ate pizza and Chipotle all the time. And I was moving around a lot. I was living in New York, and when I came back to D.C. to have my kid, I moved back in with my grandmother. She was like my kitchen person — she taught me how to cook, how to navigate the kitchen, how to peel potatoes at like 6 years old.

KB: What, to you, defines healthy food?

LJ: I’m big on listening to my body. My mom has always just made us aware of how we’re energy beings — you’re introducing energy to your body in different ways. Every day you just have to be aware of how it impacts you. And so I started to notice, just how I would feel after eating certain things, how I feel after eating meals with my grandma that were really heavy.

I’m not into feeling guilty for eating anything, or restricting yourself. You know, it’s really about just figuring out what makes you feel good. You know what makes your skin glow. What gives you energy, what keeps your health in optimal shape.

And I feel like the earth just kind of tells you what’s healthy. We live in America where there’s a lot of fast, convenient type of stuff. But my grandmother cooked every day — we have a huge family and she cooked every single day. I didn’t really grow up on fast food and didn’t grow up on TV dinners. We cooked fresh: we shucked corn in the kitchen, we snapped the ends off of string beans. So I would like to think that I was just lucky enough to never have broken my natural relationship with what is healthy. I feel like we are taught kind of the opposite of that — but I think we’ve just been kind of rooted in that as a family, and I’m very grateful for that.

KB: You mentioned an education component to your work. What barriers do you think people in the communities that you serve face when it comes to healthy cooking?

LJ: A lot of it is really generational. You see families that have just been making ends meet for generations. And it’s about accessibility — you can tell people a lot, but when they go outside every day and there’s just like Chinese carry-outs and McDonald’s, even if you can provide that information, you lose it if you can’t use it.

It really comes down to just the mindsets in the households, the information that was passed down. How you witnessed your elders being able to eat, and your parents. Whether you have a mom that works every day and just can’t come home and cook, and if she just doesn’t know any better, or even if you do, just having access to be able to implement the things you learn.

I think the food culture in America genuinely does not revolve around being healthy, period. I think the ‘healthy food movement’ in America has become very capitalistic and gimmicky and unhealthy. There needs to be a wave of encouragement, to get people to even understand that it’s probably not your fault if you’re not eating healthy — and that you deserve to eat healthy.

KB: What are your top three tips for someone who says ‘I would like to get better about healthy cooking,’ either for themselves or for their family?

LJ: I would say one, involve the whole family. Because the entire process of sitting down to plan a meal, going to the store to pick out the produce, taking it home, washing it, prepping it, cooking as a family, sitting down to eat — that’s a lot of time designated to something really positive and really healthy.

[Secondly], coming up with a few solid recipes that you just will take the time to get right, that you enjoy and you don’t mind eating a few times a week. People think that once you start eating healthy, it’s kind of limited, and in a way it may feel like that, especially if you’re trying to keep the cost low. Just making sure that you’re evolving the whole family, getting a few staple meals that you really just enjoy and can cook and prepare quality cooking you know quickly and easily [is important].

And also just kind of not being afraid to try new things. Your plate should just have a variety of colors. I try to get away from cans and stuff like that, just getting in the produce section, picking up new things. Buy new things that are seasonal and on sale.

Kayla Benjamin

Kayla Benjamin covers climate change & environmental justice for the Informer as a full-time reporter through the Report for America program. Prior to her time here, she worked at Washingtonian Magazine...

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