When the opportunity to become executive director of the Black Vegetarian Society of Maryland first presented itself to her in 2011, Naijha Wright-Brown declined. At that time, she had just opened Land of Kush — a vegetarian soul-food restaurant in Seton Hill — with husband Gregory Brown and, as first-time business owners, their hands were full.
BVSMD was established in 2008 but there are other Black Vegetarian organizations across the country in states like New York and Texas. The society educates the public on vegetarian and veganism by tabling at events, giving out vegan samples, doing cooking demos and hosting festivals.
BVSMD collaborates with organizations like Food Rescue Baltimore in order to provide fresh produce to food desert communities. In 2017, it received a Certificate of Recognition from former Mayor Catherine Pugh for its first Musical Meatless Monday event hosted at Northwestern High School.
“We were focusing on what we had to do to keep the business alive,” Wright-Brown said with a laugh.
By that time, BVSMD’s founder was ready to pass the organization along. To him, Wright-Brown and her husband, were the perfect new hosts.
“There was a gentleman by the name of Julian that had founded the Black Veg. Society of Maryland, was already on Facebook as of 2008 and he saw how well we were doing with the restaurant,” she said. “He kept on trying to give the responsibility to us to manage the site, but it was just so much for us to do at that time.”
She didn’t want to take on something new until she felt like Land of Kush could stand on its own two feet.
“In 2014, once I was able to figure out what we wanted to do with the organization and Land of Kush was at a point where success was climbing, we formalized the (nonprofit status) . . . and now we’re bringing the BVSMD to the community.”
On June 15, BVSMD hosted their first Keep It Fresh Fest in partnership with Changing Lives MD, The African Griot Book Fair and Safety City at Druid Hill Park. The festival showcased local black businesses, independent authors, and of course — vegan and vegetarian restaurants — along with live music. White tents lined the grass displaying everything from children’s books and hand-made jewelry to essential oils, as the aroma of spices wafted through the air. Children ran around, weaving through the tents and Afro beats blasted from the speakers.
BVSMD was awarded $5,000 from the MECU Neighborhood Event Grant. The program was created by the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts in 1989 to assist local groups and nonprofits to produce events in Baltimore communities, BOPA spokeswoman Tracy Baskerville said.
BVSMD is not the only vegetarian group in Baltimore. The Vegetarian Resource Group is a non-profit organization, based in Baltimore, that produces journals and cookbooks to educate the public on vegan and vegetarianism. The Greener Kitchen, previously known as PEP Foods, makes affordable plant-based foods for Baltimore residents and local vegan chefs.
To Wright-Brown, having an organization specifically for black communities and providing these communities with knowledge of how to maintain a plant-based diet was the key to having a direct impact. Unlike Land of Kush, BVSMD gave them a place to communicate directly with Baltimore residents and help in a different way.
“There are numerous examples of racial inequalities in health that are related to diet. Large disparities exist in terms of diet quality — what Black Americans are eating — and risk of chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease and diabetes in this country,” Dr. Sara Benjamin-Neelon associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health said.
Although eating a vegan diet can help reduce body weight which can lead to chronic disease prevention, a vegan diet is not a cure-all especially when it isn’t balanced.
“Not all vegan diets are created equal,” Benjamin-Neelon said. “Eating a vegan diet that is high in refined grains like highly processed white bread isn’t as healthy as eating nutrient-dense plant foods.”
According to the Baltimore City Health Department’s 2017 Community Health Assessment, 35 percent of African Americans live in a food desert followed by 15 percent of Hispanic/Latino, 11 percent of Asians and 8 percent of white residents. That compares to a citywide average of 25 percent.
Farajii Muhammad host of “For the Culture” on WEAA has been vegetarian for 19 years. He recently decided to go vegan in January and frequented BVSMD’s website when he was starting out.
“My journey to veganism is actually new, very new, but it’s something that I’ve been thinking about for a long time,” Muhammad said. “The website that BVSMD (has) is very helpful. I know Naijha Wright and Greg from Land of Kush, so it gave me an opportunity to really do my research.”
Muhammad, 40, has abstained from eating meat for almost half his life. For him, chicken was the hardest thing to give up.
“Chicken was a little hard,” he said, laughing. “Once you get past it then you’re able to just make the decision to kind of go forward.”
As a frequent customer of organic supermarkets like MOM’s, he recognizes that for many black Baltimore residents, the same option may not come as easily. Muhammad believes that events like the Keep It Fresh Fest are important for communities in Baltimore that don’t have access to supermarkets and grocery stores fully stocked with fresh, plant-based foods.
“An event like this is important because you can connect with people and resources that can help you to know what that network looks like,” he said. “A lot of people do their food shopping online nowadays, but you need to at least know or be connected to a network.”
BVSMD’s motto is “meeting you where you are.” Like Muhammad, the organization does not want to force veganism and vegetarianism onto those who aren’t interested.
“My wife is not a vegan or vegetarian, but she eats very good, healthy chicken and beef. My son is not,” Muhammad said. “I totally understand it’s not all for everybody, so you have to know what works for your body and what doesn’t work for your body. That requires time and energy and a lot of knowledge.”
SOURCE: OYIN ADEDOYIN, AP