Changing the dynamic: A focus on nutrition is helping residents of north Minneapolis to make lasting changes

12 July 2023

Sierra Carter remembers what she described as the lowest point of her life.

“I had severe anxiety and depression. I was the heaviest I’ve ever been, emotionally overeating, completely neglecting myself,” she said.

With inspiration from one of her friends, she started making changes to her diet by going plant-based. Not only has she turned her life around, she said, but she has also created spaces for people in north Minneapolis to do the same.

In 2018, she started The Zen Bin, a pay-what-you-can space for yoga, cardio workouts, meditation, acupuncture and cooking classes. Her newer endeavor, Heal Mpls, is a plant-based cafe filling the food needs in the area.

“We needed something else in the ecosystem to help promote more intentional living. We needed the education component where we could offer these plant-based cooking classes,” Carter said about Zen Bin. “We also just needed food options in north Minneapolis. It’s mostly fast food like McDonald’s, Subway, and a few Chinese food places and fried chicken spots.”

Creating access to spaces

According to Carter, food can heal in its natural essence. However, she noticed other forms of healing, like physical movement, were not accessible to her community. She remembers feeling judged when going to Lifetime Fitness for not being a size four or not wearing Lululemon pants.

Heal, an acronym for Herbs. Eats. All Love, officially opened in September 2022. Located on the corner of 42nd Street and Lyndale Avenue, this plant-based café aims to offer culturally relevant foods that make people feel like they were “made with them in mind,” Carter said.

Heal. has incorporated East African, Creole, Southern, and Jamaican flavors into many of their dishes, reflecting the food innovations created from throughout the African diaspora and during times of enslavement.

“As African Americans, we don’t know where we come from. We were just brought here. It’s like, besides your grandparents or whoever you immediately grew up with, you don’t really know where you’re from,” Carter said. “Being able to incorporate our ancestors’ food is important and being able to teach culture through the food.”

Carter sees that people are constantly in survival mode, especially when it comes to eating habits. Her goal is to pull people away from that mindset.

Karen Blanchard is also bringing intention to the kitchen table. Blanchard has been a registered dietitian at NorthPoint Health and Wellness since 2005. She sees around 10 patients a day; patients who are referred to her by their primary physician at NorthPoint. She commonly sees people struggling to make their meal plans affordable and balanced.

“Oftentimes, parents will say, ‘Well, Karen, I want to give (their children) fruits and vegetables. They don’t eat them, and they go bad.’”

So she finds ways to work around that.

“Well, I say, ‘You can have canned, you can have fresh, you can have frozen … Choose some fruits and vegetables that will not go bad so quickly. And then we talk about how to store them,’” she said.

NorthPoint’s human services department offers some SNAP programs through a food shelf. Many times, Blanchard connects her patients will those resources.

“When I think of disparities, it’s about access, affordability, understanding that something may be good for me … yet I can’t get it. There are obstacles in my way. It could be transportation, money or not knowing if (a person) will like it because it’s something unfamiliar,” she said. “What I try to do is help them understand that let’s try it, and if you can’t try it because you don’t have access to it, I connect them to resources where they can get it.”

MinnPost photo by Ava Kian
Karen Blanchard poses for a portrait inside the NorthPoint Health and Wellness administrative offices on July 5. Blanchard has been a dietitian at the site since 2005.

Since fast food is often the most accessible and affordable option, Blanchard encourages her patients to consider what a balanced meal at a fast-food place could be.

“If you go to McDonald’s, sometimes they have sliced apples and salads. You don’t have to get a drink every time; you can drink water,” she said. “Let’s say you want pizza. You can pair it with a salad and a fruit if you take it home. Sometimes these options aren’t available at the pizza place, but the point is if you want to take it home, you can do that. If you get pizza, you don’t have to get the wings too.”

What success looks like

Blanchard’s favorite moments in her job are when she gets to see a patient’s progress in action.

“One time, I had this man knock on my door, and he had these pants, and he dropped his pants,” she said. “Now he had shorts underneath. He was just showing me how much weight he had lost. I said, ‘Oh my goodness.’ So we clapped hands and rejoiced. I’ll never forget that.”

Carter says many of her health concerns were resolved after going vegan.

“I went vegan and it regulated everything. I healed myself of PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome). My ovaries went back to normal size, and I didn’t have any cysts anymore. I started losing weight, and all those womb issues or hormonal issues that I was told I had, being able to correct them with a diet, that intrigued me,” she said.

While her café is plant-based, Carter doesn’t consider it a “vegan” café.

“It’s about how we can get more fruits and vegetables on people’s plates,” she said. “We’re doing this so we can have a long life and reduce diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood sugar and all those health issues in our area.”

Blanchard said the same health concerns, like diabetes, heart disease and blood pressure, have stayed present in the community over the past 15 years she has worked at NorthPoint. And while many of her patients have had success, she’s had to attend some funerals.

Taking back power

Carter wants to prevent any more funerals in the community that could have been prevented by changing eating habits. She believes the rise in businesses with an emphasis on nutrition is Black people taking back their power.

“For a long time, people were waiting for reparations or whatever to address all the trauma that our ancestors had to endure. But now, there’s so much information out there that’s teaching us the power of who we are because we, as Black folks, were never really exposed to that due to living in a predominantly white society,” said Carter.

“From my perspective, I feel like people are ready to start living and not just surviving. Black people are tired of being tired. We go through so much trauma. It’s hard to be Black in America; it’s a real thing. Now it’s like, how can we actually enjoy our lives instead of just living the life that society has predetermined for us?”

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