Like so many good things, Growing Resilience In The South (GRITS) was born at Sadé Meeks’ grandmother’s kitchen table.

Several years ago, the South Jackson native, a registered dietitian, was working a traditional job in her field and realizing that there was a disconnect between the information she wanted and needed to provide to patients and their receptiveness to it. 

One day she and her grandmother, who is now 101 years old, were eating grits at her grandmother’s kitchen table in Yazoo City when her grandmother began to fondly tell Meeks about her garden. Meeks’ grandmother grew everything she needed in her own garden and fed her eight children in the process. 

Her grandmother’s story served as a contrast to the narrative she learned in school about Black people’s relationship with food, and it encouraged her to create GRITS. Instead of combating the rise in food-related chronic disease through opaque materials, Meeks realized she can do so by connecting people and their communities to “food, improving their food literacy skills and bridging the gap between culture and nutrition.”

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Mississippi Today: What led you to create GRITS?

Meeks: I was working a traditional role at the public health department, and I felt limited and boxed in, like I couldn’t really reach people in the way that I wanted to … My grandmother had eight kids, so they grew a lot of their foods. The thing that got me was how positively (my grandmother) talked about food — cultural foods, at that. In research and in the media, I always saw Black people associated with bad eating habits, and that’s not our story. That might be part of someone’s story, but that’s not our whole story. 

I kept seeing this one-sided story about what Black foods are to us. Hearing her talk was a lightbulb moment because I felt so empowered by her story. It was like, ‘These stories that I’m hearing aren’t true because my grandmother is sitting here, almost 100 years old, telling me all these things about food.’ It was empowering and refreshing to hear her talk about food in that way. I wanted to continue to tell stories about Black food and Black foodways, but also have them connected to our health, as well. That’s why I started GRITS, Growing Resilience in the South, to connect people to these stories. I also say the South is a metaphor because … the South is the genesis of Black America. I really want to connect all Black people to help them connect to food in a different way, but also a way that helps them improve their health.

MT: What programming are you most excited by?

Meeks: The book club … The book club wasn’t something I had been planning to do for a while. I’ve been reading so much since I became a dietitian. Before I became a dietitian, I got interested in books about food and foodways, and that’s how I began to dismantle narratives about Black food stereotypes — it was by reading. I kind of built this library, and I posted some of my books on Instagram. Someone asked me if I was starting a book club. I was like no, but that’s a good idea and I went with it … I was surprised by the feedback and the response I got. 

The first day I posted about it, I had 40 people sign up and I didn’t do much promotion. It’s (up to), like, 70 people now. I got the mini grant right before I made the announcement, so I was able to help purchase books for people who couldn’t afford it. It’s just been a really great experience, the response and also the conversations. Sometimes I’ll read books and just want to talk about these things, but I don’t have anybody to talk about it with. Now we’re having these discussions about food equity, food sovereignty and reconnecting with foods. These are really valuable conversations that are part of the work. Part of GRITS’ work is narrative change, so when we’re having these conversations about changing the narrative with food and helping people connect with food, that’s helping the community do the work for themselves as well. 

MT: What has been the most interesting or exciting text you all have read so far?

Meeks: Our first book was called “Eating While Black: Food Shaming and Race in America” by Psyche A. Williams-Forson. She recently won the James Beard Award for food issues and advocacy for that book. I’m glad we started the book club off with that book because it requires you to really unlearn some things about anti-Black racism, especially when it comes to what we eat. The book mentions how so many cultural foods have these ‘unhealthy’ parts of their food, but Black foods are the only foods that really get surveilled and criticized, and it’s not because of the food, it’s because of our race. It was really helping us unpack a lot of things about food and food shaming. Sometimes as Black people, we might food shame and not even realize it, so it was a very informative book that made you be more aware of how you think. Sometimes that can be hard conversations to have, so I’m happy GRITS was able to cultivate this safe space to have these hard conversations. 

No one wants to think that the way they think is wrong or biased or anti-Black, but in reality, we all can fall victim to that in some sense. Creating a space where we can talk about that and unlearn some things has been really good. The next book is ‘Catfish Dream,’ about a farmer in the Mississippi Delta’s fight to save his family farm.

MT: Why do you think an organization like GRITS is important, specifically in Mississippi?

Meeks: I know we hear a lot about health sometimes. I didn’t want to just preach health because a lot of times when people hear health, the two things they may do are kind of shut down because they don’t feel like they can be or fit that idea of ‘healthy,’ or, two, they go to an extreme … I feel like health can look so many different ways, and GRITS’ approach to health and nutrition education is so different. Even though I am a dietitian and I do promote healthy ways, I don’t approach it with nutrition education; I approach it with stories and connecting people with culture. I think the way that I use stories and cultures as a bridge to understanding our health is unique, and I think that that’s important because of the connection it’s building. 

I would be in the health department and sometimes I felt like what I was doing wasn’t as effective because the patient wasn’t connecting to what I was saying. You can preach and you can give someone all this nutrition information, but if they’re not connected to what you’re talking about, it’s not effective. Being in Mississippi is a powerful thing for me. I feel more connected to my state and to the people here than I ever have … and I think it’s because I built connections with people and there’s something powerful about that. Through GRITS, I want to help people not just build connections with food, but build connections with their community, with Mississippi, and be proud of their roots. There’s so much culture, there’s so much history, there are so many things about where we live that can empower us and I want people to feel that. 

I want people to hear Mississippi and be proud because they know their history, they know how connected they are to this place. I can say I am proud. Growing up, I don’t know if I would’ve gone somewhere else and be proud to tell someone I’m from Mississippi. But I love telling people I’m from here because I know what this place has. I know how valuable Mississippi is, and I think GRITS is just another way to connect people to the state and connect them to different parts of their heritage and culture.

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