For Padma Lakshmi, Change-Making Is Personal

Written by Abbey Stone
Designed by Natalie Carroll

The Emmy-nominated host, best-selling author, and advocate opens up about finding her voice—and using it to bring attention to the needs of those who are underserved, underrepresented, and underappreciated.

It’s difficult to imagine Padma Lakshmi being at a loss for words. Whether she’s critiquing a contestant’s use of spices as host of the Emmy-nominated cooking competition Top Chef or delivering a keynote at the United Nations’ Social Good Summit, she projects confidence and eloquence. She seems right at home commanding a room’s attention. But, chatting on Zoom before the launch of a pop-up restaurant with KIND Snacks highlighting the brand's commitment to whole nutrition, Lakshmi tells me that finding—and learning how to effectively use—her voice has been a “journey.” “I just didn't know that I had anything to say for a long time,” she says.

Lakshmi identifies her diagnosis with endometriosis at age 36 (after living with symptoms for decades) and subsequent co-founding of the Endometriosis Foundation of America in 2009 as a catalyst for her advocacy work. 

“[My endometriosis was] a personal, private issue that I dealt with for years and felt very alone in…I think it was just getting so frustrated [with the lack of attention this condition was getting] that made me speak out,” says Lakshmi. “Then I received this outpouring of support from other women who said, ‘Oh my God, thank you for speaking up.’ And that gave me further confidence [to get involved with activist causes].”

Today, Lakshmi gives voice to many communities who have been silenced or ignored through her work with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the United Nations (she was named a Goodwill Ambassador in 2019 and was recognized as the United Nations Correspondents Association’s Advocate of the Year in 2021), Planned Parenthood, and World Central Kitchen. 

In November of 2022, Lakshmi was honored by the James Beard Foundation for her work advocating for a “healthier, more sustainable, and thriving food system,” according to James Beard Foundation CEO Clare Reichenbach. In her acceptance speech during the organization’s annual Gala for Good, Lakshmi made sure to acknowledge the individuals and communities who have enabled her work, most recently on the production of her Hulu series Taste the Nation, in which Lakshmi spotlights the rich culinary traditions of various immigrant communities across the U.S. “The success I’ve had in my career is only possible because of the food workers, culinary historians, foragers, and immigrant families who invited me into their homes and shared their stories of pain, joy, and triumph,” Lakshmi said. 

In our conversation, Lakshmi and I talk about the barriers to accessing healthy food for so many Americans, the dire state of women’s health in this country, and the need for greater appreciation and understanding of cultural traditions. Lakshmi tells me that she feels strongly about “giving credit where credit is due,” like she did at the James Beard Gala, but there’s no denying how much credit should be given to Lakshmi herself for using her platform to push continuously for progress.

I’m thrilled to be able to speak to you for Well+Good’s annual Changemakers issue. To dive right in: I'd love to hear your thoughts on the ways that pushing for food justice and expanding access to healthy foods has been a common thread through your work.

Padma Lakshmi: One of the biggest reasons that Americans can't get more fresh fruits and vegetables into their diet is because they live in a real food desert. I think the figure is only 12.3 percent of Americans are getting enough fruit and vegetables into their diet. That means that 88 percent of us are not. I think a lot of it has to do with accessibility and has to do with costs. It's often cheaper to go to a fast food restaurant to feed your family, or to buy a package of something instead of a bunch of carrots or eggs. And we are seeing food prices just skyrocket; it's been hard for a lot of families. At a time where we're subsidizing grain, but then we're cutting food stamps, it just seems like our food policy is upside down; it's not thinking about what's best for the American family. 

And so a lot of the initiatives that I've been supporting are just to talk about how interconnected our food system is. [We need to be] looking at what is going to be great for our farmers and great for our manufacturers, yes, but at the end of the day the American family should be first as a priority in our decisions. And I just don't think that it is a lot of the time. That has to do with food sovereignty, food accessibility. It's often cheaper to go to a fast food restaurant to feed your family. It's often cheaper to buy a package of something than a bunch of carrots.

Another piece of it is teaching children about food, how to make a healthy meal. What are the foods we should be eating more of? Why? My mission throughout all of my writing as well as my shows is to say, "You don't have to choose between eating healthy or eating delicious.” They can be synonymous.

I love that you're talking about knowledge and education as being empowering for kids, because really, having access to this information is empowering for everyone. Something that really shines through in your work, most directly in 'Taste the Nation,' is how you work to expand the knowledge that a wide audience has to the food practices of different cultures as well. A big conversation over the past few years—finally—has been around how food media often whitewashes or acts as a gatekeeper to traditions and recipes. And we see that a lot in the healthy food space too, that in order to “healthify” a dish, it's often stripping some of its cultural significance from it.

PL: A lot of these ethnic foods are very nutritious! If you look at Thai cuisine or many of the Asian cuisines, it's totally vegetable-filled.

But yes, the whitewashing of ethnic foods for credit is a big subject with me, too. I'm Indian, but I don't only cook Indian food. I think it's important to give credit where credit is due. So it's not that, oh, you're a white person, you can't talk about turmeric. No, of course you can. But you just have to say, "This comes from this culture, which is thousands of years old, and that's where I'm taking it from, but I'm using it in X and Y ways that either are different from that culture or that I'm taking from that culture." It’s important to give a notation of where you discovered it instead of acting like you invented it.

Getty / Joe Kohen
I've been a 'Top Chef' fan for a long time, I feel like I've been watching it for my entire adult life. It's been on the air since 2006, and the food landscape has changed so much in that past 15 years. As executive producer on 'Top Chef,' are there ways that you've pushed the show forward in order to introduce more points of view to its massive audience? How are you bringing some of these stories of cultural significance to life on 'Top Chef'?

PL: I think one of the things that Top Chef has done well is to evolve with the times; that's the reason we're still on the air. I think changing the city every season really helps to keep the show fresh and also to remind people how regional American food is...because we take a lot of inspiration when we're designing the challenges from the city that we're going to. The things that you're going to find in Tucson, Arizona, you're not going to find in Miami, or the things you find up in Boston you're not necessarily going to find in Kentucky, let's say. So being sensitive to those local traditions is not only the right thing to do, but also makes the show better and makes it fresher. 

From the start we’ve employed a very obvious affirmative action policy in our casting. The food world is famously male dominated. I think the only sector of our culture that's more male dominated would probably be the military. But we've always cast an equal amount of male and female contestants. And then we've also tried to cast a lot of people from different backgrounds, both ethnically and from the LGBTQ+ community.

I do think that at some level [greater diversity and representation within the food industry] has to happen before a chef even is thinking about coming on our show. And what I mean by that is that I would love for captains in our industry, big famous chefs, to not only recruit from whoever reaches out to them to say they want a stage or they want to work for them, but to actively go out into urban environments and recruit and talk in high schools. I didn't know this was a career that could be open to me when I was in high school. I couldn't imagine what it would've felt like [and how useful it would have been] to have somebody like Ina Garten or Jean-Georges come into my high school career day and be like, "This is also a possibility for you."

I also think in our culinary schools, we should be teaching Indigenous food. Because [those cuisines are all about] living in harmony with the environment and that is really what American food is. Correct? All these other things—including all this Germanic food and all this French food that we now extol to be the highest on the culinary totem, those are all imported things. Those are all immigrant foods. We don't think of them as that because now, of course, the Western European descendants have taken over and that's what's considered “American,” but it's not. Brown people were living here before anybody else. So let's teach their food. Let's learn from their food. Let's learn to live in harmony with the seasons.

You've been very open about and vocal about your advocacy work and are involved in groups like the ACLU, the UN, World Central Kitchen. Was there ever a moment in your life or in your career where you shied away from being seen as an activist?

PL: No, I don't think I ever shied away from it. But I just didn't know that I had anything to say for a long time. I think it takes time to develop your own sense of self, but also a set of beliefs that you can speak eloquently to. Every issue that I've spoken out about has come from a personal connection to it. Perhaps that's given me the courage I needed to speak with some authority on it.

That started with the Endometriosis Foundation of America (EFA). [Having endometriosis] was such a personal, private issue that I dealt with for years and felt very alone in, that when I finally started speaking out about it, so many millions—I mean, literally millions of women—came out of the woodwork and said, "Me too. I also had this problem. I didn't know what the hell it was, and doctors weren’t finding solutions." 

So I think that really galvanized something inside of me…and that gave me further confidence to get involved with the ACLU, and then with the UN in 2016 when there was so much vilification of immigrants. I really felt that I had to speak up because I lived in these communities and the image that was portrayed about immigrants in the media and coming out of Washington just wasn't true. My own journey with advocacy has been just a continually growing one since we started the foundation in 2009. And that is what gave me my voice. 

I love that you said “gave me my voice” because I feel like when it comes to women's health in particular, women so often don't feel heard; they feel overlooked and ignored. And I'm just curious, you named some of these amazing things that the Endometriosis Foundation has done, but what does progress in the women's health space look like for you? What do you think needs to happen?

PL: Unfortunately we are seeing the opposite of progress right now. I think the first thing that needs to happen is that, constitutionally, we need to enshrine the fact that every human being has to have bodily autonomy. They have to be able to decide what happens and doesn't happen to their body. I think we can just start there. And until we have that, we don't have much else.

Whatever my personal feelings are about abortion don't matter. What matters is that we all have the same rights. There would be no way that [these restrictive laws] would apply to the male sex if men could get pregnant. And the fact that we are still being subjugated without equal rights is the first big milestone that we have to really once and for all settle, and everything goes from there.

What does a changemaker mean to you, and what changes do you think need to happen in the food equity space in the coming years?

PL: I think to me, a changemaker is somebody who brings [attention to] issues that maybe were there all along, but nobody is raising the volume on. So I think anybody is capable of being a changemaker. Anybody who really has thought about how to bring about change for the better and then implements it through their actions is a changemaker.

The changes that I would like to see in our food landscape is to make better whole foods—nuts, vegetables, fruits, legumes—available at different price points more readily in the whole country. The best thing that you can do for your family's health is to eat at home. But we need the government to help us make sure that every community has access to the resources they need to feed their families. [We need to] look at our food system in a holistic way, and not silo off our industrialized agriculture from that small family in Louisville, Kentucky. It's all connected, and the more we make those connections, the better off we'll be.

Is this something that you feel like needs to happen at a policy level, a public health level? I find the onus so often falls on individuals or individual businesses.

PL: The way we handle laws for corporations, laws for agriculture, [and government assistance programs like] food stamps is all connected and needs to work together from a policy standpoint, from an education standpoint, and also from a distribution standpoint. We want to make sure that we're looking at every policy—whether it's for a small business or a big corporation, whether it's for a small farm or an industrial farm, we want to make sure that those laws are all working in tandem with what is best for the health of the average American family.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.