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Setting the Table – A Conversation about Food Access and Art

With Chef Nick Wallace, Urban Planner Dr. Mukesh Kumar and Artist Daniel Johnson

Through the Bloomberg Philanthropies Public Art Challenge, the City of Jackson Mississippi aims to address complex food access issues in the city. Their project “Fertile Ground: Inspiring Dialogue About Food Access,” will enlist an interdisciplinary team of local and national artists, landscape architects, filmmakers, farmers, chefs, nutritionists, and community members. The project teams will come together to create a city-wide exhibition with installations, performances and programming. Workshops and panels will address challenges stemming from a proliferation of fast food restaurants in the area and the need for healthy food opportunities for the community.

In the first episode of the Fertile Ground podcast timed for National Nutrition Month, Daniel Johnson of  Significant Developments, Nick Wallace from Nick Wallace Culinary and Mississippi’s first Food Network’s “Chopped Champion,” as well as Dr. Mukesh Kumar Planning Director for the City of Jackson and co-creator of the “Fertile Ground” project discuss the history of food in Mississippi, the current nutritional landscape in Jackson and some of the ways this project is using art as a medium to discuss these issues.

You can hear the podcast on SoundCloud


Daniel Johnson: Welcome to the Fertile Ground podcast, a window into the various artists and activities of the project as it unfolds and featuring a rotating slate of participating artists facilitating conversation among project participants.

In episode one of the Fertile Ground podcast I am excited to be facilitating a conversation between my friends Nick Wallace and Mukesh Kumar to “Set the Table” if you will. Discussing the work in Jackson, Mississippi which has led up to our being the most recent winner of Bloomberg Philanthropies Public Art Challenge. I am Daniel Johnson CEO of Significant Developments an artist centered company which performs problem solving and strategic planning through creative play. Our hands are in Fertile Ground at the Galloway Elementary school site. Nick Wallace is a chef from Edwards, Mississippi. His culinary philosophy and passion reflects the growing trend towards a healthier lifestyle and cultivating long term relationships with local farmers to source the freshest and healthiest ingredients. Dr. Mukesh Kumar is the Planning Director for the City of Jackson and co-creator of the Fertile Ground project. He moved to Jackson in 2004, and worked for over a decade with Jackson State University teaching in the Urban and Regional Planning Department. I first met him because he was actively present at all the local community meetings I would go to and clearly had a keen interest in equitable and human scale development.

It is serendipitous to begin our Fertile Ground podcast here in March which is National Nutrition Month. Nutrition is probably the right place to begin this year long conversation. And so for this table setting kickoff to our series let’s understand a bit more about the history of food in Mississippi, the current nutritional landscape here in Jackson and some of the ways this project is using art as a medium to discuss these issues. I’ve known you both for many years now here in Jackson. The great thing about a population this size is you run into the same actors over and over again which I think is an exciting part of this project and an exciting part of kind of coming into this moment together in positions to maybe address this in a unique way. And I’d like to begin with Nick because you began in Mississippi. Unlike either I or Dr. Kumar and not only have you grown up here but you’ve traveled throughout the state exploring Mississippi food. And I’m hoping that you can tell us a little bit about comfort and the soul foods that we’re known for and how that history relates to nutrition.

Nick Wallace: Thank you for having me. Yeah it’s been a journey in Mississippi when you’re talking about food, when you just talk about that four letter word. I grew up on a farm in Edwards, Mississippi which is actively still going. And I got to see a lot of curves in my family’s life but I was the spoiled one I had canning jars on the table and cast iron skillets bubbling with nothing but fresh vegetables. And so I saw that. And when I went outside it was fresh animals running in the yard. So it was it was an easy process. And the family was definitely healthy and they definitely had standards to it. So when I was nine years old I moved to Jackson. And I still went back to Edwards on the weekend. So I got to see two different variations of it. Now I got into public schools. So I never ate at the public schools because I just refuse to, my grandmother cooked for me.

You know I had all these great casseroles and definitely cornbread and all these grill fresh steaks and everything else so it was kind of hard for me to get a chicken nugget and say that I was OK, you know I was definitely a spoiled kid and I was the kid to snacks and things like that in my bag to things, that was wrapped in Ziploc bags and all. So I got to see both sides to it. But as I’ve grown, I always had a passion for cooking and I love to cook. So as soon as I get off the bus I’m starving and I go into the kitchen and I start cooking. And that’s what I did for me and my sister for ten years. And I was just good at it no matter what kind of ingredients we had and we were always growing something on the front porch so no matter if it was just herbs or squash or tomatoes or something. But we always had that connection to having something fresh so I elevated that even more. And I went to Hinds Community College and I got to learn the business side of things. And once I learned the business because I mean I just wasn’t saying that I was the best chef of them all but I think I had a natural knack for it because I was slinging flour and canning jars and getting burned on the skin, my arm, as a young kid. So I already knew that part of it. So it was an easy transition for me to come into cooking. It was natural. But the part in Jackson that was missing was the natural…where is the food. Where is it coming from? And I always like to cook a different way and it was always like my grandmother. Every weekend I go down to my grandmother and have some of the best food in the world.

But it was one transition with my grandmother that took a toll on my grandfather. We did wood paper, so he went out and cut pulpwood all the time. That was our family business and our family business was thriving so well at one point my grandmother stopped farming as much but when that happened health started going in the opposite direction. And that’s when my grandmother got diagnosed with diabetes and high blood pressure. And this was two years before my grandfather’s death. And my grandfather stopped working. He let my dad kind of take the reins of the business and he started focusing on the homesteading of our land and when he started bringing all the Rhode Island Red chickens back all the pullet chickens back. He started getting these heirloom varieties of pigs. He really started focusing right back until all the rooted vegetables and all. And then my grandmother, currently right now she’s 86 years old. She has no medical conditions. She’s still vibrant but that’s one thing that we learned that we know that works for us is home grown vegetables and it always worked for us. So me being in Jackson I always wanted to see what I can do to help transition people to think a little differently or think back to where we used to be because when I hear farm to table I think it’s something that is not a new way of living. It’s something that we just lost that we got to get back.

Daniel Johnson: You know it’s interesting to hear you talk and a question that I almost set up toward what I often hear in conversations around food where they’re critiquing Southern recipes, as if that’s what’s unhealthy. And you didn’t touch on that at all. It was about what types of food you have access to and so I’d be interested to hear you talk about is it not the recipes is it that this other piece that you’re talking about. That’s what maybe a consideration for health and wellness is? It’s that access to a particular type of ingredients and not necessarily that soul food that people maybe critique often.

Nick Wallace: I always ask this question to a lot of people, like, what is Mississippi identity of food? What’s our identity? And soul food is always what people come back to. I don’t believe any of that has anything to do with it. With all my traveling and going out to all these competitions and all that I do a lot of people really use that against me. They boast me about fried chicken, fried catfish, and comeback dressing. I don’t think none of that really means anything. Definitely, we got to add the fresh aspect of veggies and just like that whole analogy of dark the berry the sweeter the juice the darker the green, it’s the same philosophy. Those are one things that we really need to focus on but everything always has to be done in moderation. And I think in Mississippi we always did a little too much because in all my travels, eat what you’re supposed to eat, everything is supposed to be out in portions. So I think we get probably a little exaggerated on that level. And I think if we could focus on eating things in moderation, drinking things in moderation, eating more green vegetables, cooking things less, and the slow food movement has always been evident in Mississippi. Every time I say slow food people are like what is that?

Well the fast food chains created a concept that really works for folks because everybody wants things to be sped up but planning always work. My grandmother always had three or four jobs but she always did prep and things like that to always bring something that was scrumptious to the table every single time, that was good for us. So I really hate to hear a lot of that about Mississippi criticism barge recipes but I don’t really think that that is the focus though. I don’t think so at all. And choices are definitely always the thing that we really got to focus on too.

Mukesh Kumar: Thank you. I mean that’s really awesome. You’re kind of like the embodiment of how culturally food has gotten to a point it has and how you can actually do something about it through individual choices. But what I wanted to add was when we started talking about the Public Art Project that was one of the questions that we were struggling with about which particular problem we want to tackle through public art. And one of the things that became pretty clear to us early on was that individual choice is really just one aspect of our food how we consume it, what do we consume, whether we do it in moderation, or whether we do it in excess. There is an entire system out there which is trying to make food either scarce or sometimes abundant. The pricing system itself sometimes is devoid of what the market trends are.

Not just that, being planners in the planning department it became also very clear to us is that the built environment itself forces our food systems to function in a very peculiar specified way that does not always serve the interests of people who want to eat healthy or people who want to be healthy. And so we started asking ourselves, what prevents us from talking about it? I mean why aren’t we talking about the relationships between what the built in environment is, what the urban systems are and how did it end up affecting our choices in food themselves. And that’s how we actually decided to narrow the focus on food access so that we could talk about how individual choices matter. But what we also need to pay attention to it is how those individual choice sets themselves are highly constrained by the kind of system of the urban environment that we live in. So it’s really great to have you bring that up and in fact I know we have this discussion repeatedly that individual choice is important. Michael Pollan has this statement about if your grandmother won’t recognize it as a food you shouldn’t eat it. And so it seems like the trend often is that we want to talk about individual choices but we also need to be talking about the constraints so that we can work toward that system as well.

Daniel Johnson: Yeah. In our work we’re often thinking a lot about agency. How do you give more agency to someone that’s kind of trapped inside of these systems? And so I was excited about this conversation today because here we have Nick who’s kind of inside that system right at the table and oftentimes trying to think innovatively about his position of how does he reconfigure how you get food to that table and how you talk to people about being inside that system. And Dr. Kumar, you’re on this other end of that spectrum looking at all these different nested realities that are affecting what actions does someone actually have the agency to take when they’re at the table in a home that they’re trying to sustain and support and kind of move along in their daily lives. And so I’d be curious, Dr. Kumar, if you talked a little bit about that the beginning of conceiving that this project would be about food access and maybe if you could say a little bit more about what you saw was the landscape here in Jackson that made that the best choice to make for this proposal for this project.

Mukesh Kumar: You know I actually remember one time we were having this conversation and what came out immediately was that how do you talk about food in Jackson? And usually it’s about oh I like that restaurant. I like that particular food. It was never about the quality of food, the choices we make, how do we make them. And whenever you start getting to those conversations it very quickly becomes judgmental and then usually there’s this wall of silence in which you sort of know that the conversation has actually ended. And we have all faced that situation, we have all been in that situation, in which talking about healthy food/healthy life is usually passing a judgment on somebody else’s choice process passing judgment on somebody else’s decision making.

And so we’ve figured that by merely being critical of that individual choice making process we really needed to think about how can we actually create a platform where we can have these conversations without feeling judgmental without making other people defensive about the choices they are making so that we can have a more open conversation, so that not only can we discuss honestly the individual choice making process that we go through, but also the constraint in the system in which that agency needs to be exercised. So that’s how we sort of figured that public art was going to help us by creating that platform whereby we could identify the terms of discourse which are a lot easier and something that do not make people feel defensive. And so that we can have the honest dialogue about these choice making processes.

Nick Wallace: Yeah I agree and I think that’s one of the sensitive parts about it. And in growth too, we’re really close to 2020 right now. And if I had to guess I would think we should be far down the road about talking about food but we’re not there. But I tell you when I go into a lot of these communities and do some of these very random cooking demos I mean it’s almost like a pop up restaurant. I come in. I bring a table, tablecloth, and I put all the ingredients there and I demand that people sit in front of me and we talk together and we start playing with ingredients. But ninety-nine percent of these kids never seen a butternut squash or a beet. And then some of their parents and all are telling them that they don’t like beets. So therefore the kids completely take that out of their life completely at that point. But when I make it very cool for them and talk through them and do these cooking demos and serve them that’s the one thing I love about my job, being hospitable.

And that’s the thing I love about what my grandma had instilled in my life because everything happens over food. Everything happens over food. And I don’t care if you had a bad day and all food releases all and it’s surrounded by love. But at the same token the person that’s delivering that and putting it on a table, if they’re not surrounding that with a story and a point that it is going to be really, really good for your soul. So that’s the connection that I love. But every single time I present these kids with something new they love it and they want this to be different in their household. So we’ve got to target two different areas on that. But that’s why I demand that the kids come with their parents so I can talk to them so they can both enjoy it together because that’s what it’s all about too.

Daniel Johnson: And that’s what I want to highlight, that both of you are talking about conversation, storytelling, that these are drivers towards solutions. And I think oftentimes when we think about how do we solve a problem we don’t think about the cultural expressions of telling a story, sitting down over a meal and just talking and being together. And a number of people when I talk about being involved in the project they’re like, “Oh that’s great. This project is great. How does art really solve anything?” And so while I think we all recognize we’re not going to end this project and suddenly there’s no more problems with food access in Jackson, Mississippi. You know what is it that makes y’all think that this is worth our time? That Conversations creating this platform, telling these stories moves the needle.

Mukesh Kumar: You know what Nick just described that these conversations about food with tablecloth settings, basically the context, what we feel like a more fundamental question might just be, why isn’t that happening? Like I doubt if anybody will disagree with Nick that everything that he described is a very pleasant experience. It’s a very wholesome experience and everybody would love to participate in it. And so what is it that prevents us from doing it? And so when we start thinking about the local context what we noticed that in Jackson the built environment the constraints that it places in our food access is obviously there and we can analyze it and we do and we are already doing quite a bit of that. But even more importantly what we want to do is be able to create the terms on which we can talk about the issues not only about healthier food choices but also the systems themselves how the system will end up making our choice sets bigger or smaller. And so that we can choose better. And so with this project what we are expecting is that a very simple concept about that we intend to highlight is that there are three different typologies in the city of Jackson. And so the three different sites that we have they identified these three sets of challenges or these are sort of like sets that we are trying to tackle. And how do we talk about this particular challenge in one setting and another one in another setting. So to give you an example, there is a very specific set of challenges we face with the distribution and the production system of food itself. And so at Ecoshed we intend to figure that out and have a conversation about the production process itself, the distribution process, the choices we make during the production, the choices we make during the distribution. How do we market it? How do we present it? So that it is something that gets on the choice set of people. At the Galloway site we’re talking about something a little different where we are in fact trying to put food directly into the context of the Earth itself and that’s where we are trying to explore using public art. We are trying to figure out if we can get children and the community members to understand the production system as well as how our consumption choices and how our consumption of built environment itself affects it. And then at the downtown location and that’s another unique typology that we think has its own set of challenges where we would like to have dialogues on an employment center where people do have at least one meal every day during the daytime at least some of the people who work longer hours sometimes they may end up with all three of their meals there. And but we want to have that conversation about how do we deal with food access in these kinds of settings where it’s really largely professional. And so by using these three typologies we think that a bulk of food access challenges we can start highlighting and talking about them in a more honest manner so that there is no sense of defensiveness. We can come up with appropriate solutions, solutions that we can all back and buy into and we think that it actually makes sense so that all the conversations that Nick is describing actually becomes real. And so that we can actually do it and not keep constraining it in which it takes monumental effort on the part of someone like Nick to produce that kind of context because that needs to happen a little more naturally and we all need to participate in it in a meaningful way.

Nick Wallace: Yeah exactly. When I just listened to you talk I was just thinking about all these different presentations that I that I’ve done and the latest one has been over about there by the Medical Mall. And I was doing a presentation with a few community members in the Medical Mall because I honestly want to bring a restaurant there and it’s the same for Ellis Avenue in West Jackson. And talking to people about it really didn’t do anything because they were saying that that ain’t the type of place that we need because it’s too bougie, too sophisticated, whatever it might be. But that’s the part that I was telling, like everybody I really think we need to do better and treat ourselves better. So once I started cooking and presented them the concept meal and then when one lady said, “I’ll never go out and eat things that’s not above board like this.” So I like that sense that it gives people, it makes them feel better and me as an African-American too I can speak on the fact that African-American and restaurants we haven’t delivered that sophistication that it deserves. So it needs to be a form of nothing but art. But we all deserve it. It has nothing to do with fine dining or nothing of that sort it’s the philosophy that my grandmother has always instilled in me. And she is saying use your hands and take it slow and I’ll take that same philosophy in everywhere I go when I’m in the kitchen you know I bring love when I when I cook. And then when I present it to people, you know Daniel, I fed you numerous of times but I just love what food kind of does to people. And I think when we start presenting different other items to people and showing them what ways that you can even incorporate this into your household it’s going be a movement. And I think this is what about this Fertile Ground project that’s going to be explosive for Jackson.

Mukesh Kumar: And in fact you just triggered another thought in my mind that art many times can be very exclusive. But public art by definition isn’t. And so it is perfectly accessible and open to everybody. And so and that was one of the reasons why we think that public art which actually gives us the option of creating that platform that is open and honest at the same time so that we can talk about how these issues. And I just wanted to tackle one more issue that I have heard from some people that some of the food sophistication ends up moving into the little more bourgeois portion of spectrum of things. And I often think classifying food in those cultural categories doesn’t necessarily help move the discussion anywhere. You know we need to talk about food as food. We need to talk about food as you know it is the most vital and most basic stuff we need along with food, water, and air. I mean those are the three things we need to survive on. And so we need to be talking about these things more as our day to day existence, how it fits into our day to day living, and also how it fits into the larger system. And so thank you for bringing that up because I think that’s a really important point that we don’t need to be classifying food into particular categories. We need to be really thinking about food at this most basic level.

Daniel Johnson: And you know I mean this this categorization of food it’s kind of a trick of history of historical circumstance. That the food that the common person was not the snack cake 100 years ago it was the greens. And so it’s kind of all these things that happened through history and ideas around convenience and kind of the excitement of convenience when it was invented that kind of twisted that path. And so it’s nice to kind of get to a place in history where food can be this loving gift again. And we can kind of reorient and kind of reawaken who we were and who we are. And it made me think about in the context of this conversation where you know Bloomberg Philanthropies is allowing us to think at a certain scale about this together. You know I’m curious how we can imagine that on that end of the spectrum where Dr. Kumar’s looking at this, how it has that sense of intimacy. So thank you all so much.

Salam Rida: Thanks for listening to the Fertile Ground podcast. Our first episode “Set the Table” is brought to you by Bloomberg Philanthropies, the City of Jackson, and Red Squared Productions. This episode of the Fertile Ground podcast was created by Daniel Johnson, Salam Rida, Travis Crabtree, and Roderick Red. Special thanks to Mukesh Kumar and Nick Wallace. For more information on their projects check the show notes for links. Fertile ground podcast is recorded in Jackson, Mississippi at Red Squared Productions in the lovely Midtown neighborhood. Our outro jingle is by Jackson’s own Pink Palaces titled “Frequency”. We are on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @fertilegroundjxn. I’m Salam Rida and this is the Fertile Ground podcast.