"As a dietitian of color, I want to always tell the world we exist." So says nutrition expert Maya Feller, RD, who aims to help people eat well while honoring their unique cultural culinary traditions. Here, in conversation with Well+Good Council member Latham Thomas, she describes how she works within her Brooklyn community, why nutrition is an individualized endeavor, and the traditions that inform her work.
Latham Thomas: Let's start by telling readers a little bit about you and the work that you do.
Maya Feller: I'm a registered dietitian nutritionist. I live in Brooklyn, and I work predominantly with people in areas of diet-related chronic illnesses. That would be medical nutrition therapy focused around the reduction of diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease, and reducing the risk of developing them.
Are there particular communities that you work within or where your work is primarily needed?
Absolutely. I actually started my work as a dietitian in Brooklyn, in Flatbush and Prospect Lefferts Gardens. I was working with people whose income was 120 percent below federal poverty guidelines. They had a dual diagnosis of a chronic disease, but specifically an infectious disease; they were homeless or unstably housed; and they usually had a mental health condition. Because of how systems in the U.S. work, most of those people were black and Latino.
I started my work by founding that program, and when I left to open my own private practice, I continued to work with people who were lower-income—still predominantly with people of color. The switch was, instead of the infectious disease, we were moving toward a diet-related chronic illness. The majority of my patients are women and men of color, and the rates are very high.
There's a lot of discussion around access to certain types of food—specifically food that is, I would say, appealing. Because when you go into certain neighborhoods, you only see the cast-off produce, and nobody wants that. So I'm having discussions around how we can modify and change the diet to incorporate foods that promote health and reduce the way that these diseases are taking hold in their bodies.
"I will honor your food pathways and histories without saying you have to eat a specific way."
What inspired you to do this work? When did you realize that you were meant to serve others as a practitioner in this way?
I come from a line of activists. My biological mother is a black feminist. I was raised up in this movement of women who were working for other women and for people living in the diaspora. It was much less of a calling and much more of a, "Well, of course that's what you're going to do."
When I went to school, dietetics was predominantly white. I was one of maybe two or three people of color in my program. I always wanted to go and work in the community. It was important for me to work in settings where people would be allowed to come in and talk about who they are, how food fit in their families, and that I wouldn't be demonizing that. I wanted folks of color to know that there are black dietitians out here, and that I will honor your food pathways and histories without saying you have to eat a specific way.
To expand on that a little bit, how do you celebrate ancestral tradition through food? You just pinpointed it when you said that it's important to honor people's pathways to nutrition and what makes sense for them, culturally and in terms of access.
I work from the idea—like, deep within my soul—that everybody's story has to be heard before you do any type of work. So anybody that comes to me, I always say to them, "Why are you here? What do you want from nutrition?" I let them tell me where they are, because I cannot purport to know what it is to walk in their shoes. This is about them.
So, for instance, I've had people from the Philippines come in and say, "Well, I want to have soup for breakfast." And I'm like, "All right, let's do it!" When they are able to share their stories with me and their food stories, I then can say, "Okay, that's fantastic. What if we swapped this out for that? Would that would you be open to that? How do you feel about that?" It's really individualized, and it's much more of a discussion and keeping their food choices as liberal as possible, rather than giving a prescription.
"Everybody's story has to be heard before you do any type of work."
How do you take care of yourself? What are some of your practices for mind, body, and spirit that help you connect to self care?
As with every provider, it ebbs and flows. There are times when I am absolutely wonderful with self care. Then there are times where I could benefit from engaging in it a bit more. I find running incredibly meditative; I really enjoy running in all the parks in Brooklyn. I also really enjoy spending time with my children. I know that is something that doesn't necessarily conjure the image of self care, but I would say unscheduled time with them is really precious. And I have a deep love affair with my hair. There's a lot of time spent washing and deep conditioning, and oiling and twisting. That's my happy place—in the bathtub.
What’s your wellness mantra?
I probably have a combination of wellness mantras. I'd include something "from the ground up," meaning that we're grounded in earth and dirt and things that come from the earth. If I think back to my family in the Caribbean, there's a lot of connection to the earth. And I'm that person that's like, "Well, could you put a veggie on it? Could you put a green on it?" Those two, for me, are very grounded in who I am and how I think about food and nutrition.
People get really caught up in rules and trends. Where do you think the confusion lies as it relates to nutrition?
There are so many factors that play into why people are confused around nutrition. One of the main things is time. Many folks have one, two, if not more jobs, to varying pay scales. The average American family of four is making something like $45,000 a year. When you look at those numbers, and you think about time, and then you put on a layer of eating food that's going to nourish your body and reduce your risk of developing illness, of course people are confused when we add all those layers.
So that's where I think these fads step in, because the fad is offering you a quick fix. If we don't have time, it's so much harder to be intentional. If you don't have a support system, or someone who's backing you up every single time, it's harder. From my perspective, the society that we live in is a major culprit for this consumer confusion.
Would you mind sharing any ancestral practices that you pull from that might inform your work?
I have always used herbs and spices as the basis for all of my meals at home, just because it's something that I grew up with. I have wonderful memories of my grandmother in Trinidad, who would make green seasonings from everything in her garden. That's how she marinated tofu, fish, chicken, meat, you name it. Cooking this way is very widely done throughout the Caribbean. You know, when folks talk about seasoning food, they're not talking about just throwing salt on your food. Whey're talking about Well, did you put chives, shado beni, onion, garlic…? That's something that I work on with my patients—actually flavoring their food with herbs and spices.
Can you share a piece of advice that elder may have passed on to you?
If I think about some of the older folks in my family, one characteristic that they all have in common is gratitude. I think of my grandmother, and I think of my dad. He's Haitian, and all throughout my childhood, he was building a center in Haiti that was focused around education and music. It brought arts and culture alive for the poorest kids there. But he was always grateful for what he had in the U.S. He and my grandmother were grateful for what they were able to build in terms of themselves, their family, their community.
So I think in 2019, when we look at this society of instant gratification and constant consumption, I try to step back and find deep gratitude for the meaningful moments.
What—or whom—should Latham write about next? Send your questions and suggestions to email@example.com.
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