ASAP likes to share the stories of people who help us fulfill our mission. This month we’re talking to Shaniqua Simuel, founder of Change Your Palate, a grassroots whole-food meal prep program focusing on BIPOC people who suffer from type 2 diabetes and hypertension. Shaniqua also works with the WNC Food Justice Planning Initiative and Shiloh Community Garden.
You grew up in Asheville?
I was raised in the Shiloh community. My grandfather was the president of the Shiloh Association. I’m his oldest granddaughter. People call me his shadow. I went wherever he went. He died 10 years ago. I wanted to continue the legacy. Currently, I’m a coordinator at the Shiloh Community Garden. There are three of us who work there. The other two have a green thumb. I’m working on community engagement and with youth.
How did you come to your work in health education and food justice?
I went off to college and eventually earned an MS in Public Health. For my Capstone project, I wanted to address food insecurity in the rural county where the college was. I was working with a local food pantry that happened to get lots of fresh produce. But nobody was taking it. I asked if I could I make two meals that are friendly for type 2 diabetes and petition the people that stand in line. I ended up with eight families for a qualitative study. I did something like Hello Fresh, creating a meal prep bag that had fresh ingredients from the food pantry. I created a recipe card and laminated it. I would sit with each family in their home for an hour and ask questions about their grocery shopping habits, their label literacy. What made them go to that particular food pantry? How do they know that they’re eating healthy? What indicators are there? One lady said the colors. I thought, “Oh, maybe she’s getting produce!” But she was talking about labels. I learned that people really depended on food pantry in that area, that cost was associated with their health outcomes. People wished they could have a meal when they left that food pantry. They didn’t always know what to do with the food. You couldn’t always afford to go grocery shopping in addition.
After graduate school, I applied for Americorps and Peace Corps and got into both. I took the Peace Corps option as a health educator in Ethiopia. I was supposed to be there until May of last year, but of course COVID pulled me out after three months. I moved back home to save money and just to collect my thoughts. I didn’t have a pandemic plan. Nobody did. Phyllis Utley, who I knew from A-B Tech, suggested I apply for a grant, which I received, and then I learned about another one. With grant funds, I was able to start Change Your Palate, a whole-food meal prep program that focuses on BIPOC families that have type 2 diabetes and hypertension. I got my certification as a community health worker and I’m partnering with ABIPA for my first families. We’re subcontracting through the Health Opportunities Pilot.
I want to focus on the social determinants of health and how the non-medical needs that we have affect our health outcomes. I’m learning more about trauma-informed nutrition. What you experience as a child in your household affects the choices that you make today. I’m hoping to take a little pressure off of people when they have to make another health choice because of a diagnosis like type 2 diabetes. I want to learn more about local food systems—who’s connected to who, who’s already doing what works and how I can partner.
How did you connect with ASAP?
I learned about ASAP thorough the WNC Food Justice Planning Initiative. I’ve been the coordinator for Healthy Food Distribution and Nutrition and Cooking Education for six months. David Smiley was part of the healthy food distribution group [through ASAP’s Appalachian Farms Feeding Families program], and he connected me to Larissa Lopez and the Farm Fresh for Health program. At the first Farm Fresh for Health symposium, there was a nurse practitioner with a pediatrician’s office who talked about having fresh fruits and vegetables available for the children when they have their appointments. Hearing stories like that and hearing what other people are doing is amazing. I’m hoping that by continuing to show my face, talk a little bit here and there, I can build trust and connect with the right people. And I got to pick lemonade blueberries!
What’s are some of your most memorable local food experiences?
We do a lot of good things in Shiloh. I love talking to the people when they come to the garden for our free market. Last year we were growing Malabar spinach. It’s a little bit thicker than a traditional spinach. People looked at it and said, “Oh, this is beautiful,” but they weren’t taking it. So I learned to make some fritters with it. When people liked what they tasted I took them to the garden and showed them where it was growing and talked a little bit about how the sliminess is good for digestion. That got people’s minds going and some took a nice bit of it. I like doing that. We recently had a Juneteenth celebration. We had collard greens that we picked from the garden that were prepared certain way. Someone made cornbread and talked about the history of corn. Someone made vegetable skewers with okra and talked about the history of okra. Someone else made hoppin’ john and talked about black-eyed peas. People learned about that food and why one culture had more access to it than another, or why that was part of their plate consistently.
My grandfather planted pear trees in the garden over 10 years ago. They were dying earlier this year. They were all brown. I said, “Someone teach me how to prune!” Now we have pears. When I first noticed them, tears came to my eyes.
The reason I chose this avenue, other than my experience in graduate school, is my grandparents. My grandparents loved food. My granddad had a huge garden. He had four deep freezers in the basement. But I watched him and my grandmother take a lot of medicine for heart conditions and cholesterol. I was giving my grandmother and her mother insulin when I was eight years old. They died early. I know there’s a high chance that I could develop those problems if I don’t take care of myself. I’ve tried it the wrong way, losing weight quickly. I want the people in my household, in my community, to make different decisions around food. We’re still a butter-loving family. But there’s a chance. I’m always after that one family. If I contact 100 and there’s one family that makes different decisions that are going to help them generationally, then I feel like I did what I needed to do.
ASAP’s next Farm Fresh for Health Symposium takes place this Thursday, July 28. Register or find out more about the series here.