Businesses can come together to find out what communities want and need and find a way to bring services that are missing into neighborhoods. Community gardens are a great example of grassroots initiatives that bring green spaces and fresh food into areas.

In many parts of the United States, there is a crisis caused by people having limited access to healthy & affordable food options. This in turn is creating a host of health and social problems. What exactly is a food desert? What causes a food desert? What are the secondary and tertiary problems that are created by a food desert? How can this problem be solved? Who are the leaders helping to address this crisis?

In this interview series, called “Food Deserts: How We Are Helping To Address The Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options” we are talking to business leaders and non-profit leaders who can share the initiatives they are leading to address and solve the problem of food deserts.

As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Maya Feller, MS, RD, CDN of Brooklyn-based Maya Feller Nutrition.

Maya is a registered dietitian nutritionist who is a nationally recognized nutrition expert. In her practice, she provides medical nutrition therapy for the management of and risk reduction of non-communicable diseases. Maya received her Masters of Science in clinical nutrition at New York University, where she is an adjunct faculty. Whether addressing the nation or working one on one and with groups, Maya believes in providing nutrition education from an anti bias patient-centered, culturally sensitive approach. Maya is dedicated to promoting nutrition education that helps the public to make informed food choices that support health and longevity. Maya shares her approachable, real food based solutions to millions of people through regular speaking engagements, writing in local and national publications, via her social media account on Instagram, @mayafellerRD, and as a national nutrition expert on Good Morning America, GMA3: What You Need to Know and more. She is the author of The Southern Comfort Food Diabetes Cookbook: Over 100 Recipes for a Healthy Life, and an upcoming book out in 2022 with goop/Penguin Random House.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

My undergrad work was in experimental theater and philosophy and when I finished there, I worked in the community as an arts & education teacher for at-risk youth in Title 1 public schools around the five boroughs of New York. I did that for a number of years and it was a mixture of my undergrad arts combined with serving lower-income, marginalized communities.

Then I decided to go back to school to study nutrition. Around that time I was actually volunteering at The Junior League and I was co-chair of the playground committee which was focused on serving low-income neighborhoods to refurbish parts of the parks and playgrounds. At that time I was working on a park in Harlem. When I say refurbishing, I mean it was quite hands-on: cleaning, painting and planting — we were doing it all ourselves. We didn’t change anything but rather we gave spaces a big spruce up.

At this time I was also training for the Boston marathon in addition to trying to figure out what my next steps would be. During training, it’s so funny and so straightforward but I kept wondering what’s happening to all the food that I’m eating and why I’m always hungry when I hit mile 13 and when I’m done with mile 18 I’m ready for food right now. I thought, “I bet I could study this.” That’s how I ended up in nutrition.

Once I began my studies it was really clear to me that the field was overwhelmingly white and privileged. There were a lot of providers who were going into communities that they didn’t know or understand in fact, these were the very communities that they passed judgement on and wanted to change. And I don’t mean change in a beneficial way, I mean in the sense of a takeover and “do it my way”.

My first job as a RD, I started working in the community. It was mix of what I had been doing before, going into lower-income neighborhoods and working with Black and Brown people, but this job was centered around infectious disease. It was a demanding job with a HUGE learning curve. It challenged me to check my biases and rethinking much of what I had been taught about nutrition.

Eventually, I moved on to start my own private practice. The reason I left the position — and I’ve really only just started telling this story — when I became pregnant with my daughter we thought about what was needed to support a two-child family. After we did the family math, we saw that I couldn’t actually afford to stay in my position as a manager. We then decided that I should take a maternity leave followed by going into private practice. I never used to share that because I felt bad about leaving work that I loved. I now think it’s important for people to understand that people choosing to work in service of the community are making a choice that has a significant financial impact on their lives and sometimes finances are not a concern. Either way, they are there because they believe in community service and they are passionate. And when people leave those positions, sometimes it’s because they can not afford to stay.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

There are so many stories it’s hard to pinpoint just one. When I was working in the community we conducted home visits as a part of our program. Many of the program participants lived in transitional housing or single room occupancies. For the most part, many of the participants were very welcoming. I remember visiting an SRO for the first time, the kitchen spaces are shared. This was an up close of how shared kitchen spaces had a significant influence on what my patients were able to eat and if they were able to prepare their foods. I was forced to take a number of variables and rethink how I counseled people. I had to consider variables such as do people have a safe space to leave food they have purchased, do they have adequate storage, so they have pots, pans, knives and cutlery as well as space to wash and store their kitchen utensils. It was very valuable and reshaped how I entered every session from that point forward .

Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?

For me it was really about consistency and perseverance in terms of when I began to see an increased interest of people talking about and focusing on nutrition separate from being part of mainstream culture.

Talking about health disparities as well as the wealth gap in communities of color has always been intertwined with my work as a RD. These discussions are uncomfortable for people of privilege so often shied away from. If I were to identify a tipping point in the recent past, I would say the racial awakening in this country helped the general public recognize that systemic racism exists and that racism, not race, is at the root of inequities when thinking about social determinants of health.

Importantly, before I was even in diapers, many many social justice activists have been talking about these very issues and coming together to find solutions.

I’m very clear on my ideals and also the importance of staying consistent. This is something that I’m going to continue talking about and centering in my work. So what I would say to people is if there’s something that you’re passionate about and it serves others, find a way to weave it into everything you do and continue to make it relevant for you and others.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There’s no way that I could have remained singularly focused without familial support, specifically support from my husband. There were many years where we had discussions about whether or not this was feasible for me to continue with few people listening. So I would have to say that without his support and that of my mom — the combination of the two — this wouldn’t have worked.

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Compassion, perseverance, positivity. At the heart of my work my job is to enhance a person’s experience with food / and improve their health outcomes. My major role is to support, listen, learn and provide person centered guidance. The harsh reality is that we live in a tough world and there is a large majority of the population that are struggling. I keep compassion at the forefront and respect each patient’s lived experiences. I work to provide evidence based sound nutrition recommendations, not just the newest trend. And I always keep it positive.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“If you want to have a life that is worth living, a life that expresses your deepest feelings and emotions and cares and dreams, you have to fight for it.” — Alice Walker

I have been able to do the work that I want to as a Dietitian, it was not by accident. I have been persistent over time and stayed clear and strong on what I want to talk about as well as the importance of continuing to stand for marginalized people.

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about Food Deserts. I know this is intuitive to you, but it will be helpful to expressly articulate this for our readers. Can you please tell us what exactly a food desert is? Does it mean there are places in the US where you can’t buy food?

Let’s reframe and rename. I’m clear to use the words food apartheid or fast food swamp, rather than food dessert. Additionally we have to acknowledge that there are systemic reasons why there are places in the US that have limited access to safe, affordable and nutritious food. It is not by mistake that these disparities exist. Grocery stores that are affordable and carry nutritious, safe foods have chosen to remove themselves from certain urban areas and not put themselves in rural areas because they don’t deem the areas to be valuable or lucrative. It’s important for us to have that discussion from that lens.

I also talk about limited access to food as being linked to redlining. Redlining is a term that has been used around housing, what we see if areas that have limited food options as well as excessive availability of fast and processed food. Across the board that tends to be people from black, brown and indigenous communities that tend to experience that limited access more than their white counterparts.

Can you help explain a few of the social consequences that arise from food deserts? What are the secondary and tertiary problems that are created by a food desert?

The social consequences are a public health crisis. These communities experience disproportionate disease burden when there is limited access to safe, affordable and nutritious food. We see higher rates of non communicable conditions — specifically diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular conditions, and we see higher rates of stress and it goes on and on and on and on actually… There’s all of this research around kids who go to school in areas where they don’t have access to nutritious food and reduced rates of high school completion and attention issues in classrooms and it’s multifactorial and it’s really deeply linked to what’s going on at a systemic level.

At the surface I would say what you see in areas where there’s limited access to safe, affordable and nutritious food is higher rates of non communicable conditions and that disproportionately affects black and brown people as well as indigenous people.

Where did this crisis come from? Can you briefly explain to our readers what brought us to this place?

This is by no means an exhaustive explanation, just a scratch on the surface. We got here because of how the country was constructed and built. And it really goes back decades if not hundreds of years. Think about the dominant groups and their food access fast forward and think about how neighborhoods were developed, who was allowed to live where and who controlled the wealth. We want to take redlining of neighborhoods into consideration as well examine how fast food became coined as , “Black Food.” There was a time in the 1960’s where funds were given to black people from the Small Business Administration to open up fast food franchises in their area. These opportunities were among some of the first ways that some Black people in the U.S were able to become business owners. It was a combination of an opportunity with food that is killing people and overpopulates these areas now. There’s a really wonderful book called “Franchise, The Golden Arches in Black America,” that highlights how fast food became black food. The reason that we’re here is multifactorial and linked to systems.

Can you describe to our readers how your work is making an impact to address this crisis? Can you share some of the initiatives you are leading to help correct this issue?

I think the way that my work is helping… It’s a public health crisis so this impacts everybody across the nation so I think it’s really important for readers to understand that it’s not simply a Black issue or a LatinX issue or an indigenous person issue. This is an issue about democratizing food and when food is not democratized, everyone suffers. I’m talking about human rights where there is equitable access to safe, affordable, nutritious food. I think we have to reframe it as such.

I’m glad to have the opportunity to engage in direct patient work that supports people on a micro level. Additionally my practice is able to consult for organizations that are leading focused on food justice. I sit on the board of two incredible organizations WITS and The Jinny Chalmers Fund for Education Justice both organizations have a mission of meeting the needs of underserved students of color.

Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?

I really value my patient work and having the opportunity to work with people and I value that they share their innermost things with me. I’m always appreciative when they’re able to gain tools that allow them to make changes within their circumstance. I think the most valuable part of my work is when people allow me a glimpse into their lives and allow me to be part of whatever transformation they’re undergoing in whatever way is meaningful for them. I am on the micro level one-on-one. Nationwide I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to talk about multiple aspects of food.

In your opinion, what should other business and civic leaders do to further address these problems? Can you please share your “5 Things That Need To Be Done To Address The Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

Civic leaders and elected officials can really look at making policy changes. For example, modifying zoning laws and infrastructure changes while thinking about providing the variables that are needed for their communities to express their optimal health. Some questions I would want our leaders to think about are: do underfunded neighborhoods have full service grocery stores, do they have green spaces, or spaces for people to move their bodies? I also think that leaders need to look at how safe neighborhoods are in their districts, as well as examining police and community relations.

Businesses can come together to find out what communities want and need and find a way to bring services that are missing into neighborhoods. Community gardens are a great example of grassroots initiatives that bring green spaces and fresh food into areas.

I would like to see increased funding for school foods as well as nutrition education in schools. These changes happen on the federal level, state and district level. Leaders can fund relationships between farms and schools as well as support organizations that are working within school communities to modify school foods.

Modifications to the farm bill. I know this is a big one but I think increasing funding for SNAP dollars is really important for the most food insecure in this country. Green markets accept SNAP dollars and also incentivize using them. More of this would be excellent around the country. It benefits the user and the farmer.

If we want to see change we need to vote people into office and support businesses that mirror our values.

Are there other leaders or organizations who have done good work to address food deserts? Can you tell us what they have done? What specifically impresses you about their work?

WITS (Wellness In The Schools) — which is where I sit on the board — is really looking at changing the foodscape of schools and giving kids strong health wellness nutrition education to improve their health outcomes.

Nutrition behaviors are built over time, giving kids access to different types of food from an earlier age has a significant influence on their food behaviors later in life.

I want to be clear here — I’m not saying that we need kids to all eat salads. Children should eat the nutritious cultural foods that are made in their homes without feeling that there is just one way to eat healthfully. The US is home to many racial and ethnic minorities, from a nutrition perspective I want families to hold on to their food traditions and continue to cook at home. WITS specifically focuses on scratch cooking at school along with nutrition and health education.

There is a beautiful Afro-Indigenous farm in upstate New York, Soul Fire Farm, with all sorts of awesome farming initiatives.

I respect organizations that center marginalized groups who have historically been pushed out of conversation and access. If we’re democratizing food, then we have to make it so there’s not one specific space of food, not just one way. We must recognize that health and wellness exists on a spectrum. You can center your culture and still feel good about making choices on your own.

If you had the power to influence legislation, are there laws that you would like to see introduced that might help you in your work?

The list is long so I’ll try to be concise. Absolutely, I would love to modify the Farm Bill specifically in terms of what’s subsidized and crops that are grown. I would want to diversify those because if the majority of what’s subsidized is corn and wheat, then that really defines what we see on our shelves and impacts our food systems.

Enhancing the current school food allocations in terms of the amount of dollars allocated per child would be very beneficial. To serve delicious food, more dollars are needed per child. I want to see nutrition education in schools along with cooking classes. People are not well acquainted with the insides of their kitchen.

Also I want to see changes around subsidies that are given for WIC and SNAP, so many of my patients have previously reported that it was rarely enough for a month.

And lastly, people need to be paid a living wage. That’s part of the problem especially for low-income communities is that people have to put together several jobs in order to make ends meet. When people have multiple jobs there is less time to think about things outside of primary needs being met. Policies need to change the playing field and make the social determinants of health more equitable… not equal but equitable.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Perhaps a movement where people have agency for themselves. In this movement, people would recognize that they have the right to choose and also the right to dream and imagine. Especially after the year that we’ve had, the metaphorical light has been snuffed out in a lot of folks. And I would like to inspire a movement to focus on turning that light back on within people.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Poet Amanda Gorman. I’d want to have lunch with Amanda so my kids could meet Amanda.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

They can follow me across social: @mayafellerRD or visit my website

This was very meaningful, thank you so much, and we wish you only continued success.

Thanks so much for having me share with your readers.