“The government, the city, the state is not giving our community what we need so we’re going to create it.”
Alicia talks to Ysanet Batista, founder of the worker co-operative Woke Foods, which creates plant-based Dominican cuisine. They talk about how vegan food isn’t cruelty-free as long as farm workers lack labor rights, the West African origins of Dominican cuisine, and what a decolonized agriculture might look like.
Written and presented by Alicia Kennedy
Produced by Sareen Patel
ALICIA KENNEDY: This is Meatless, a podcast about eating, from How We Get To Next. I’m Alicia Kennedy, a food and drink writer. I’ll be having conversations with chefs, writers, and more about how their personal and political beliefs determine whether or not they eat meat. The show asks the question, “How do identity, culture, economics and history affect a diet?”
In this episode I talk to Ysanet Batista, who began the worker co-operative Woke Foods, which creates plant-based Dominican cuisine. Batista is also deeply involved in social and food justice work and is studying farm working in the hopes of one day having her own farm in the Dominican Republic. We talk about a speech she gave at City Hall, the naturally-vegan nature of Dominican food, and what it’s like to operate as a co-operative.
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ALICIA KENNEDY: Thank you so much for being here, Ysanet.
YSANET BATISTA: Thank you for having me.
ALICIA KENNEDY: I know you just came from City Hall and you have really squeezed us in today and I appreciate that. What were you doing at City Hall today?
YSANET BATISTA: Today we were speaking against Amazon headquarters coming to Long Island City, so it was a group of folks who were saying no to Amazon and trying to convince city and state elected officials, especially the mayor and the governor, to retract from giving the richest man in the world $3 billion to bring Amazon here, and there were folks from Amazon that have been treated, workers from Amazon that have been treated unfairly, and have had pretty terrible working conditions, and then there was people from different small businesses, like me, and so we were speaking out and letting state and city elected officials to support small businesses and worker co-operatives so that we can succeed in the city.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, and I noticed you mentioned “co-operatives” a lot. Could you kind of define what a worker co-operative is?
YSANET BATISTA: For sure. I think that’s something that not a lot of people know about, or not enough people know about. So worker co-operatives are businesses that are owned and ran by the employees, and so it’s a way to have democratically-ran businesses where every person has one vote and you’re sort of making decisions together, you’re creating your wages or your salary together, and figuring out what works best for the collective versus just a CEO or an executive director of a company.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, right, right. And you’re wearing Black Panther “People’s Free Food Program” earrings that are amazing. Why is it significant to you to wear those earrings while talking at City Hall about something that people might think, “That has nothing to do with food”?
YSANET BATISTA: Yeah. So I was actually wearing these earrings last night because I was speaking to a class about farming and worker co-ops and so I happened to, like, wear them again today. But, and one of the things I mentioned in my speech I gave a few minutes ago, was the importance for more support of people on the ground doing this work, and so the Black Panthers is the perfect example of folks, black people coming together and saying, “The government, the city, the state is not giving our community what we need so we’re going to create it,” and so something like a Free Food Program that is now a standard for the United States, and so many other things that have been started by people on the ground, not people that are serving or sitting on a city or state level but are really about the people and for the people. And so, for me that’s important, even though I have a business now, the, my business is very rooted in the needs of me and my people.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, right, right, and do you have employees? Is Woke Foods run as a co-operative?
YSANET BATISTA: Yeah, we’re run as a worker co-op. Right now we don’t, we have more contractors than worker-owners because they’re on a track to worker-ownership, so they have like a few more months to go, and then we can start the process of doing the paperwork for them to be worker-owners.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Cool, and so what is the process like of starting as a contractor and moving into that sort of position?
YSANET BATISTA: So, every worker co-op is different. For Woke Foods we have a ten month provisional period, so you come in as an independent contractor, you do a 1099, you sort of get paid in that way, and then after ten months we sit down and figure out if Woke Foods is the right fit for that person and if that person is the right fit for Woke Foods, given that you’re going to be owning a business and it’s not just like you can come in and come out. It’s like, legal and paperwork, so that’s why we have a ten month provisional period.
ALICIA KENNEDY: That’s cool, so to kind of rewind a little, can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?
YSANET BATISTA: Sure. I was born in New York City in Harlem on 135th and Broadway, or at least that’s where my family lives, and growing up I lived all over from what is now called Hamilton Heights to, like, I grew up and I lived in Washington Heights, and different parts of northern Manhattan, and then when I was 13 I moved to Florida with my mom because she wanted, she like said, “I want to leave this bad area,” and she wanted, like, better opportunities for her and me. So, I grew up eating I think, in both places, food that my grandmother would make me in New York, or if my mother and my grandmother and my aunts weren’t able to cook for me, we, I did grow up eating a lot of Chinese food and pizza because like that’s what was available in my block or also, like, Crown Fried Chicken.
And then in Florida, when I lived in Florida my mum was diagnosed with kidney stones and a few other health issues, so her diet kind of changed and I had to adapt to her diet, so we stopped eating red meat and stopped drinking soda, and so seeing her sick, that’s when I started learning about how diet impacts health. I was like, “Oh,” so I noticed, “Oh, you’re sick and your doctor is telling you to stop eating some things and start eating other things,” so there, that’s where I started making the connection between food and health.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, and so when did you decide to give up meat completely?
YSANET BATISTA: So, I want, I attempted to give up meat when I was in high school but I couldn’t because I, sort of, had to eat what was in my house.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, same.
YSANET BATISTA: And, and then when I graduated college I felt like I had more autonomy, I was making my own money and I could, sort of, go shopping on my own, and I found this program called “The Vegan Pledge,” and it was being hosted by the Peace Advocacy Network, and the whole idea was you would go vegan for a month, and every Sunday you would have like a support meeting with a group of these people that were also doing the vegan pledge with you. You would also get, like, a mentor that would, like, guide you through the month, and so it also happened that my mentor ended up being a Dominican woman, I’m from the Dominican Republic, and she was great. Like, she taught me all about, well, not, like, taught me, but showed me or opened my eyes to all the ways that Dominican food was very much plant-based and vegan, and so that’s sort of where I was like, “Oh, I don’t think I want to eat meat anymore.”
Then I sort of struggled and went, like, back and forth and then I ended up moving to the Dominican Republic, like, a year after that and I got sick from eating meat and so got parasites, so decided to eat more healthy, eat more plant-based foods and use food as medicine, so, like, using papaya seeds, and garlic, and honey, and different anti-parasitic foods to, like, heal my body from these parasites. I specifically had salmonella and amoebas, and that’s sort of how the journey started and that was in 2014.
ALICIA KENNEDY: OK, cool and then what was your road toward working in food, like, did you work in food before you started your business, or…?
YSANET BATISTA: Yeah, I went to college and studied hospitality, and throughout college I worked at Brown, I went to school in Providence, so I worked catering at Brown University, I worked as a cashier in, like, the food dining hall, and, yeah, I just worked in the food and the hotel business since I was 16, so even before going to college I was part of a hospitality program in high school, so I would always, like, work in the hospitality field.
ALICIA KENNEDY: So when I first heard of Woke Foods it was from a piece by Katherine Hernandez in Medium, and she said that you launched the company with $200, so can you tell me what inspired Woke Foods specifically and what the challenges were like for getting it off the ground?
YSANET BATISTA: A few things inspired Woke Foods to get started, and, yeah, I want to definitely give a shout out to Katherine for writing that because I think a lot of people learn about Woke Foods from that article and it being shared many, many different times. So, Woke Foods started during a time where I was organizing, community organizing with a group of, like, first-generation or second-generation Dominican women in Washington Heights. It was a group organized by Heidi Lopez, long-time community organizer from the Heights, and in that organizing group we were discussing a lot of the intersections of racial equity and organizing, and a big part of that was, sort of, us healing our body or us healing trauma by using foods and using herbs and figuring out what were the things that we needed to return to to connect with our people and our people’s roots. And, like, one of them being growing your own food, cooking collectively, figuring out skills where you could depend on each other versus, like, other systems, and so it was also about the same time that the movement for black lives was picking up and BLM started, or not started but was getting more recognition, and the term “stay woke” was going on, was going around a lot.
In full agreement of that and also, I, I and a few of my friends would always say, “We always have to stay woke about our food,” and in that organizing group I got to meet many other people, I got to meet folks that were doing food sovereignty work, like Soul Fire Farm and the Victory Bus Project, and Wildseed, and they were talking about the access to land that is not afforded to black and brown people, and the ways that, like, lands have, like, been stolen from Indigenous people from here, from the U.S., and, yeah, all these intersections made a lot of sense to me and I was like, “What is something that I could do?” And so the lane I chose was, “Well, I can create plant-based foods for people in my community,” people in Washington Heights, people in the South Bronx, people in East Harlem, basically the Bronx and northern Manhattan and that’s sort of how Woke Foods started. I was fresh out of AmeriCorps, so I was making, like, $900, $1,000 a month and so I was on food stamps, so I, like, used my food stamps money to buy the food at the farmer’s market for like my first few jobs with Woke Foods.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Wow, that’s awesome. So, so you do do a lot of work in farms and in farming, and how does that intersect with both veganism and, like, the explicitly political work that you do? Because I always want vegans or vegetarians to think more about farming and not, and less about, like, I don’t know, like fake cheese, you know? Like, can we work more with the land than with thinking about, you know, like putting vegenaise on something, you know?
YSANET BATISTA: Right. Well, I’m definitely in very, very beginning, beginning stages of a farmer. I’m currently in farm school in New York City, I’m enrolled in the certificate program for Urban Agriculture, and I think in farm school and just even in the community that is food justice and farming for people of color, we’re trying to have people understand that farmers of color, specifically immigrant farmers from Latin America and Southeast Asia, and even the Caribbean, are being exploited.
So even if they’re, you know, not all farms are doing animal husbandry or animal agriculture there, they’re also growing all of these organic fruits and vegetables that we get to enjoy, and so veganism and a vegetarian diet and a plant-based diet is not cruelty-free, because a lot of these, this produce is being grown in conditions where humans are being exploited or being harmed, are also dying from pesticides that are being sprayed at the farms, sort of, land on their skin on their body and they inhale that and over time they become sick and end up dying as young as 35. And even some farms I know that don’t give them access to breaks or the bathroom is so far away they have to wear Pampers on the field, and so these are stories that are being shared but I don’t think are being amplified enough, as much as the treatment of, as cruelty of animals is. I’m not saying that we have to prioritize one over the other but I think they should be talked about together.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Oh, absolutely.
YSANET BATISTA: And as a way to, like, yeah, for us to, like, know better because when we know better we do better.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Of course, yeah. So, how did your family react to you going vegan? Was there any friction there or…?
YSANET BATISTA: I think they, not I think, they called, my grandma called me ridiculous, and then over time I just started not really trying, I think in the beginning I was in a place of trying to convince them and trying to have them understand. For me it was, like, urgent, I was like, you know, “Family members are dying or are really dependent on pharmaceuticals and these doctors, and there’s so much trust put in these doctors that we’re not really taking control of our own health,” and so there was, sort of, this urgency and desperation in the beginning for me. But over time I realized that I had to lead by example, and so I stopped the talking and started more the doing.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, and have they changed how they react to it?
YSANET BATISTA: Yeah, they definitely don’t, don’t give me negative reactions anymore. They are more accepting. One of my grandmothers works with me with Woke Foods, so after this podcast I’m gonna go meet her because we have to prep for a catering event and then it’s, you know, she’s also grateful for it because it provides a job opportunity for her, and my other grandmother, you know, she’s getting more sick and more sick and she’ll say things like, “Oh, this is what I should be eating.” And I just, I don’t tell her, “You see,” or, “I told you so,” but more, like, “Yeah, this is something that you can buy here,” or I’ll tell her how much I bought it for or I’ll buy extra and leave it for her in the fridge. So, like, about two or three months ago I went to see her and I found that she had made kale guisado, stewed kale with the rice and beans, so I was like, “OK, I think, I think they’re catching on,” or they’re seeing the benefit of it.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, right, right and you have talked about how Dominican food is naturally pretty plant-based, and also when I saw you last week at a panel at the Essex Street Market talking about African foodways and how they manifest in the diaspora, you said that, “Dominican food doesn’t need to be decolonized,” and so as I, kind of, focus on Puerto Rican cuisine, which needs desperately to be decolonized, as, so does the whole island, but can you expand more on the idea that Dominican food is naturally plant-based and also doesn’t need, you know, a big decolonization moment?
YSANET BATISTA: Sure. So, when enslaved people from Africa came to Quisqueya Haiti, which then Columbus renamed Hispaniola, the, they brought seeds and brought different foods, so plantains, different, like, yams, Malanga and ñame, I don’t know how to say those in English but, you know, two root vegetables. So, there were a few things that the Indigenous Taino people left, I think particularly yuca cassava, but for the most part a lot of our ingredients or produce comes from West Africa, and so even the ways that we prepare our food, so the idea of mashing a root vegetable like a plantain comes from West Africa, so that’s why we have mangú, which is mashed plantains, and in West Africa they have fufu.
So, sort of these ways of making food or even, like, I guess they call it “food technology” now, but the idea of like preserving certain foods, so smoking food and things that are ahumado, or preserving food using salt, that’s why a lot of our cheeses are, like, salty, or even our desserts, are, like, very dried fruit or preserved fruit, or storing food under soil, or putting food like sardines in oil. So, the reason for this, so these sort of preservation techniques that enslaved people developed was because the climate was different, and so right now we still eat the same products, like, we’re still eating plantains, we’re still eating yuca, we’ve still eating auyama and ñame and yautía, it’s just being cooked different.
So in about, like, I think it was around the 60s that a big surge of commercializing our products started to happen and so I see now, like, my family cooking with the cubes to season the food, or buying products from Goya that are like a sofrito already prepared, but what we’re not realizing is that these products have to, or these companies choose to add a lot of preservatives and toxins to the ingredients so that they can travel across state lines and across islands, and so they can maintain a one-year, two-year shelf life. So if something is staying, food is not supposed to, like, stay preserved that long, and so the preservation techniques that are being used now are not natural, are not healthy for us, and so for me I think it’s more about decolonizing the way we prepare our foods and going back to the ways that we were preparing and preserving our foods, like the way our, our ancestors did and really saying no to using products like Goya and like the other companies that have been, like, co-opting our food.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Absolutely. So, can you talk, you did live in the Dominican Republic sort of recently, right?
YSANET BATISTA: Yeah.
ALICIA KENNEDY: And can you talk about what the agricultural foodways and systems are like there, that maybe are different from what we might see here, or…?
YSANET BATISTA: In many ways they’re similar in terms, at least the issues of, of like labor, and farming, and so, similar to here, the Dominican Republic is, has agreement with the Haitian government to bring people from Haiti to work the fields in the Dominican Republic, which is very similar to the U.S. in, like, the Bracero program and even now the U.S. has, like, a rule that they, if they cannot find workers in the U.S. they can put up advertisements across the different borders in other countries, and it’s, sort of, like, getting you to try this many times and if you still prove that you tried to get workers from the U.S. and if you don’t get any workers then you can go recruit in other places. So, it’s, like, very similar in that way that, but what happens is that the citizens of the Dominican Republic and also the U.S. that don’t know about these laws and these agreements that governments get into, and so there becomes a fight for, “Oh, they’re taking our jobs.”
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right.
YSANET BATISTA: And yeah. Also very similar, sometimes Dominican farm owners will call immigration on Haitian workers as a way to, like, not pay them for their work or their labor, and so what happens sometimes is that workers will, like, be violent towards the farm owners because they’re not paying them their wages, or we have issues around farm owners not paying their workers their pensions when they’re getting ready to retire, so there’s a lot of corruption in that area that is very racialized because of our neighboring island, Haiti, and people are, sort of, have a lot of, like, anti-Haitian sentiment.
Especially, like, the big industry that Haitian folks come to the D.R. to work is the agricultural industry. I think another big thing that happens in the D.R. is not being able, like, they grow a lot of food but it’s exported, so, like, not a lot of the food, there’s like a big, there’s a lot of food insecurity and a big hunger issue in, on the island, but we grow so much food, such an abundance of fruit and vegetables, but there isn’t, like, a lot of fruits and vegetables or a lot of produce in households, and so that’s what I experienced living there and what I experienced also, like, growing up and going back each summer. And I’m hoping to return this summer to do more research with, like, other folks, especially woman, Dominican women that are doing food justice work on the island.
ALICIA KENNEDY: What kind of food justice work is happening there?
YSANET BATISTA: There’s a group called CONAMUCA, I think it stands for Confederacíon de Mujeres Agricultura or something like that [Editor’s Note: It’sConfederacíon Nacional de Mujeres Campesinas], basically it’s Dominican women organizing for peasant farmers to get access to land, and also to end, like, violence and discrimination against campesina women. I think here they call it “peasant farmers.” Their whole mission is if you teach people to grow their own food then we can end hunger on the island, so that’s, sort of, like, the work that’s being done and a lot of it is at the intersection of violence against women and violence against darker-skinned Dominicans or Dominican-Haitian workers.
ALICIA KENNEDY: How do, does your, like, interest and work in food justice come into what you do at Woke Foods?
YSANET BATISTA: Well, in different ways. So one is labor justice, and so the first thing that we are able to do is pay our workers, including myself, $20 an hour. That’s, so we start at $20 an hour and depending on what we’re doing it can go up to $50 an hour, so that’s one way. Another way is prioritizing the hiring of women of color, particularly women that have barriers to accessing jobs, whether it’s an immigrant status or a criminal record. There’s also a priority of working alongside other co-operatives or other small businesses that are ran by people of color, or queer people, or trans people, or non-binary folks.
And so, we have one of our graphic designers that does a lot of work for us, runs a creative studio called Girasoles and they’re a non-binary person from Puerto Rico that came here right after the hurricane, so we, like, prioritize hiring them when we need, like, work done, or we prioritize doing our bookkeeping with a worker co-operative called ABC Bookkeeping. We hire BK Packers, another person of color-owned company to do our delivery, and so figuring out what are different areas of the business where we can, like, plug someone in or funnel money into, into that business, or even when it’s farming season sourcing our ingredients from local farms and prioritizing, even, like, going beyond local farms, prioritizing the local farms that are ran by people of color, and that we know they’re being paid ethically and being treated well.
So, like, looking at all the, all the intersections of different things and either funneling money or partnering with those organizations. Another way is that we were able to get a fiscal sponsorship and are now able to get grants, so we recently got a grant through the Citizens Committee of New York to do free cooking classes for people living in affordable housing, and so the idea is to do free plant-based cooking classes and also they get to take home a bag of farm-fresh food. So, those classes are going to start probably in April when farming season starts again. And then we, then we are able to do a lot of partnerships with other non-profits where they pay us our wages so then we can then provide workshops for free to the people they serve.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Oh, wonderful. Has there been any moment, because I know Woke Foods does so much, like, do you do classes and workshops, and also catering?
YSANET BATISTA: Mmhmm.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Has there been a moment since you launched when you felt like, “Oh, wow,” this is kind of like an emotional, but, like, when you are like, “OK, this is going the way I wanted it to,” and has it been going the way you want it to?
YSANET BATISTA: I had that moment on Sunday where I cried to my roommate because I’ve been going, going, going, and on Sunday I had a time to sit down and reflect and I was like, “Wow, other things that I initially had thought about are actually happening right now,” and I didn’t even notice because I was just trying to do it and so I realized, “I’m doing it, we’re doing it,” and it feels really special, and also it’s kind of tough. I think a lot of people of color that are business owners that are doing great things suffer from imposter syndrome, so that’s something I struggle with. It’s a challenge for me, and recently we got, I got interviewed by Forbes and this past weekend we had, like, the interview and the photoshoot and that’s sort of what came up when I was, like, sharing the interview, and I was thinking when I first started Woke Foods all the things that I wanted to do and all the pushback I got.
So, comments like, “You’re not gonna save the world with catering, you’re trying to do too much, that’s gonna last maybe a bit but it won’t last a long time.” And so, we have proven a lot of things wrong, and I don’t do things to spite the haters. I’m like, “I get it, I understand why people think that way,” so I’m not, I don’t get upset when people say those things, but I do have a lot of hope and faith in the power of our people and creating the things that don’t exist, or going back to the ways that we did things before, that worked very well, before colonizers and people from Europe and places of power decided to come with their ideas and impose them onto us.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Absolutely. What, to you, I mean, I’ve asked this question maybe once before, but, what to you does kind of an anti-capitalist decolonized food system look like?
YSANET BATISTA: Well, I think Woke Foods is part of a capitalist system.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yeah.
YSANET BATISTA: We’re still a food business that is capitalizing and bringing money, so I do see Woke Foods as, like, a middle ground, sort of like if we are going to play capitalism, let’s play it this way. And so, a decolonized anti-capitalist system is not an exchange of money, it’s maybe an exchange of time and resources. It looks like Indigenous people getting back their land, it looks like reparations, this is the work that, like, Soul Fire Farm is doing, reparations for black and brown farmers. It looks like, you know, like, policy, or rules, or paperwork to, like, access what is our right, it looks like water being free and being clean, and it looks like us being in a healthy relationship with our ecosystem and our planet, and our Mother Earth, where we’re sort of following the natural ways that our ecosystem operates, and not necessarily creating these, like, “innovative,” I’m going to use quotation marks there, to fix issues that, if we would just go back to how our ancestors did things, we wouldn’t be in the position we are now.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Absolutely. So, when, what do you hope now that you’ve had this moment where you’ve actually been able to sit down and say, “Oh, wow, I’m doing exactly what I hoped to do”? What is it that you see maybe in the next year Woke Foods doing?
YSANET BATISTA: Well, in the next year I would like to have the opportunity to bring more work to Woke Foods. With more work means more hours, more paying for the worker-owners and the other employees of Woke Foods. I would love to have our cookbook published and also we are starting our, like, a TV food show, amplifying the voices of people doing food justice work and so that’s gonna be, sort of, in the spring. And in the future? After that, because there are certain things that are, kind of, coming up soon or already in the works, but things that are not in the works is maybe Woke Foods having a place where people can come eat, whether that’s a food truck or a brick and mortar or something where folks can come five days a week maybe and enjoy the food of Woke Foods.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Thank you so much, Ysanet.
YSANET BATISTA: Yeah, thank you.