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‘Food is doing more injustice than mass incarceration’: New York mayor Eric Adams on veganism

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One morning in March 2016, before Eric Adams burst onto the national stage as the charismatic new mayor of New York City, he had a very rude awakening.

The then Brooklyn borough president was startled to find that he could barely see the alarm clock that was sounding his morning call. His bedroom looked shrouded in mist.

“I thought it was just sleep in my eyes and my eyes adjusting to the light,” Adams says. “But the cloudiness didn’t change. Something wrong was going on here.”

He leapt out of bed only for the horror to intensify. Through the fog he could see that his right eye was bloodshot. His left eye was totally blind.

“I had a piercing pain in my stomach which didn’t leave. I guess everything was breaking down all at once.”

Adams is no stranger to fear. As he lays out in his book, Healthy At Last, he experienced plenty of it over more than two decades as an NYPD officer, patrolling the streets at night, raiding drug dens, investigating homicides, investigating the dark side of urban American life.

This was different. This was the start of a journey into his physical dark side and the ugly truths he found there. He was quickly delivered a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes. Doctors told him that his condition and the multiple pills he would now be forced to swallow every day would define him for the rest of his life.

American politics thrives on personal narratives of overcoming adversity, and Eric Adams is no exception. He didn’t accept the medical advice. He kept on searching until, with the help of scientists at the Cleveland Clinic, he discovered a way to beat his ailment with a radical whole-food plant-based diet.

Now 61, Adams is reveling in his new stature as New York’s second Black (after David Dinkins in the 1990s) and first (almost) vegan mayor. Since he started in the post on 1 January he has been ubiquitous, popping up all over the city brandishing his trademark swagger. “When a mayor has swagger, the city has swagger,” is his mantra.

There are many aspects of Adams’ first month in office that beg attention. He likes to present himself as the future of the Democratic party, a “radically practical” politician who is tough on both police brutality and crime, who gives working-class New Yorkers what they need and want while being scathingly dismissive of the progressive left.

The stance clearly resonates with many New Yorkers who narrowly gave him victory in the Democratic primaries in July and with it the keys to Gracie Mansion. But Adams has had a troubled start, some of it self-inflicted.

He tried to put his brother Bernard into a $210,000 job as his top bodyguard (the city’s conflict of interests board whittled that down to a $1 salary as an adviser). He appointed as head of public safety Philip Banks, who in 2015 came under federal investigation as an “unindicted co-conspirator” in a major NYPD corruption scandal.

Adams doesn’t want to talk about all that. Before he sits down for an interview with the Guardian, his press team stipulates that he will answer no questions about politics – he will only talk about his journey back from ill-health and his exuberant championship of a plant-based diet, as laid out in his book.

Even here Adams is placing himself in choppy waters. A few days after the Guardian interview, he incensed groups helping those impacted by the opioid crisis by likening excessive cheese consumption to heroin addiction.

Then Politico came out with a report that quoted several people claiming to have seen Adams regularly dining out on fish. The story inevitably spawned the Twitter handle #FishGate, and forced Adams to put out a statement saying “I am perfectly imperfect, and have occasionally eaten fish.”

Adams clearly needs to get his story straight. Is he a strict vegan who only ever eats plant-based foods? (No.) Is he a pescatarian? (Maybe.) Is he someone who was given the scare of his life by contracting a devastating disease and drastically changed his life as a result?

At least that last one is a definite yes. After Adams received his diabetes diagnosis, he began asking himself difficult questions about his lifestyle. He started reflecting on all those years of NYPD night shifts and the terrible diet that entailed.

There were the inevitable McDonald’s drive-throughs and Wendy’s shakes and burgers. He became a connoisseur of the dollar menu, the double cheeseburger, coffee and fried chicken at KFC. It took its toll – by the time of the blindness episode he had such a stunningly elevated blood sugar level that his doctor said it could have put him in a coma.

Eric Adams has a vegan sandwich at Marinello’s Gourmet Deli in Brooklyn. Photograph: Pacific Press/LightRocket/Getty Images

And then Adams dug deeper. Looking further into the root causes of his condition, he thought about the soul food that he had grown up with in New York and that his mother Dorothy and forebears had consumed in rural Alabama. He thought about the sugared buttered rolls, the chitterlings (pigs’ intestines), pigs’ feet and ears, fried chicken, ham hocks, fried steak and catfish.

He thought how delicious. And how deadly. So much of it smothered in sugar, high in cholesterol and saturated fats, contributing to the epidemic of modern American diseases – diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and heart conditions.

And then he thought, picking up on a debate that has been happening in African American communities for many years, this is not soul food, this is survival food, slavery food. “This was the diet our slave masters gave to us hundreds of years ago,” Adams writes. “We adopted a diet born from slavery and made it our own.”

I asked Adams to elaborate upon the idea that the modern diet of millions of Americans today, in 2022, has its roots in the scraps of food tossed at slaves from the master’s table. All these years later, he replied, the long tail of slavery is still killing African Americans through morbid ill health.

“Sometimes we think of being enslaved and we think about physical restraints,” he said. “Our hands and feet are in shackles. And we don’t acknowledge that the term ‘enslaved’ also applies to something you can’t free yourself of – and that’s what bad food is.”

He goes on: “We have to free ourselves of it mentally. Sometimes physical restraint is easier to free yourself from than emotional restraint.”

It’s striking that at a time when the enduring injury of slavery is increasingly being studied and debated, whether in terms of racial inequality or the injustices of the criminal justice system and mass incarceration, the same unbroken link to enslavement is rarely drawn when it comes to American food.

“Food is doing more of an injustice than mass incarceration,” he says. “They are both bad, but the number of lives we are losing from bad food are X times the number lost to mass incarceration.”

That’s a bold statement, given that there are about 670,000 Black people currently behind bars in the US. Yet Black Americans are almost twice as likely to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes than white Americans, and that more than five million of them are assailed with the illness today.

Certainly, he has witnessed the impact of food-related ill-health within his own family. He describes how diabetes was so rampant among his relatives that they even had a pet word for it – “sugar”. His aunt Betty died of sugar aged 57 – one year older than Adams was when he was struck with temporary blindness.

No matter how prevalent disease has been among his community, it must have been a tall order trying to persuade people accustomed to soul and fast food to follow him into the strictly vegan, no-oil, non-processed, plant-based and whole food diet he has adopted. Among the recipes offered in his book are quinoa and tempeh stir-fry, chia oats with berries, and sweet potato and flaxseed smoothies. Try selling that to someone accustomed to St Louis ribs, hush puppies and oxtail.

Adams said there have been times when friends would accuse him of elitism, turning his back on the traditional foods of his community and going all “white” on them. “There is a lot of pushback,” he told me.

“Remember, when you talk about what a person is eating you are also talking about the emotions attached to what they are eating. When you talk about not eating soul food, people tend to believe that you are too good for it. ‘My grandmother was raised on this’, they’ll say.”

So how does he go about trying to get beyond such resistance? “I give them the history. I make the connections. Sometimes people just need to connect the dots. When you start showing them the origins of fried chicken, the origins of chitterlings and pigs’ feet, of all the other food that were the scraps and waste from the slave master’s table, that hits folks and they begin to think differently about it.”

It is ironic that his book, with its recipes and self-help bullet points, is focused very much on the individual. But out in East New York or in Brownsville, where Adams was born, and other low-income areas of the city, African Americans have scant chance of eating healthily even if they wanted to, given the food deserts they live in.

Isn’t it the case that in neighborhoods where fast-food restaurants and delis stocked with sugary fatty products are the only outlets, a more systemic – rather than individualist – approach is needed?

Yes, he says. “What I’m hoping to do, it’s almost like the Marines taking control of the beach. If I plant this seed in the minds of people while we are transforming these communities to have access to healthy food, then we will go from ‘Wait a minute, I don’t have access to it’, to ‘Hey, this is what Eric was talking about’.”

I ask him what he means. “Imagine you see something on the shelf like quinoa and couscous, and you have no idea why you would want to eat those meals. But if you are given information before you walk into the supermarket then you might try this healthy meal next time round.”

That’s all very well, but how are the food deserts in low-income African American neighbourhoods ever going to get access to the kinds of whole-grain, plant-based foods that Adams espouses? There is no shortage of guidance that Adams could draw on from other parts of the country where Black communities have long experimented with community gardens and vegan hot lunches in schools.

When he was Brooklyn borough president he initiated “meatless Mondays” in local public schools, and campaigned to have all processed meat removed from school meals. Now that he’s mayor, he is expanding his push for healthy food. This week he introduced “vegan Fridays” for all New York public schools – a reform to the quality of school food that Adams still stands by despite his difficulties with #FishGate.

Will there be more coming, and if so how will he use his new power to make lasting change?

“How do I do it?” Adams says. “I look at where as government we are feeding people and I change that. We feed 1.1 million New Yorkers every day at school, people in hospitals, correction facilities, senior centres. How about giving them all healthy food?”

It’s early days for the Adams administration, too early to make firm assessments. So far there are no signs of detailed plans emerging for actually carrying out such a food revolution.

It leaves a question mark hanging over his undoubtedly powerful and positive mission to change what we eat. In his own life, the results of the transformation are dramatic and unanswerable, fish or no fish. He shed 35lbs, kicked diabetes, and now exudes glowing good health.

He appears to have had some personal success, but can he replicate it among all New Yorkers?