Voices for our Future: Jill Guerra Burger

Voices for our Future: An EFF Interview Series

I’m tired of “experts”. I want to hear real people talk.

I started writing about food and health because I wanted to share my struggle, and my successes, with the world. But I wouldn’t have had those successes without being inspired by the lives of others. No one reaches their goals in a vacuum.

Sharing stories is a powerful way to communicate. It connects us with a basic feature of the human mind: the narrative. It also helps us to see the world through another’s eyes. My new series, Voices for our Future, will share the stories of people who are struggling and succeeding with, thinking about, cooking, eating, and learning about food. Different voices, different goals, different approaches…all working hard to understand food and their relationship with it, and to help others do the same. I hope you’ll enjoy the interviews and find relatable stories, and if you have a story to share, please let me know so your voice can be heard!

Jill is an elementary school teacher and mother in Oakland with a recently-developed passion for healthy eating, especially for a plant-based diet. She struggled with recurring stomach pain for years before discovering that dietary changes could completely alleviate it. I first met Jill many years ago when we both began working at a school called Sankofa, where she still teaches. We held our interview at an indelible North Berkeley fixture called Guerilla Cafe and discussed food, education, and family life.

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So first thing, if you could talk about what you ate when you were a kid, what that part of your life was like for you.

My mom did all the cooking in the house. We were really basic. I feel like what we ate was kind of the same thing all the time. We had a lot of quesadillas, Campbell’s tomato soup, lots of comfort food…grilled cheese, that kind of thing. We ate meat and all that. I don’t think it was super healthy. I know I hated vegetables growing up. As an adult, when I look back, I don’t feel like my mom was this amazing cook, but I LOVE my mom’s food because it’s like home. Still when I go to her house I want the old things.

My dad’s rule was that we had to eat everything on our plate, but then–this is a total example of how everything was with my parents’ relationship–my dad would be slamming the table, saying we can’t leave the table until we finish all our food, and then he would leave, and my mom would pour it down the drain or something, and let us get up. Or I would get punished and be sent to my room, and she would bring food up to my room. (Laughter)

I don’t know where it came from, but I feel like I became a comfort food person. I don’t know how that happened, if it’s a personality thing or an addiction thing… But somehow I grew up to be a person who eats for comfort.

I didn’t really learn to cook until I was on my own with my daughter Sophia, and I didn’t have her until I was 22. I don’t know why my mom didn’t teach me to cook. She just did it for us, and I ended up doing the exact same thing with my kids. My daughter was one who probably wanted to be in the kitchen, but she was just so into being her own self, that I was like “no, no, you’re making too much of a mess.” But I ended up doing the same thing, and being the cook of the house. And my cooking, when I was running my own household beginning when my kids were little, it was very similar to my mom’s. Cheese, pasta, frozen vegetables, not very exciting. My kids are six years apart, and with Sophia I did exactly what my dad did to me, telling her, “you have to eat all the food on your plate,” and she’d cry, big drama, whatever. And then with my son, I had moved to Berkeley and our pediatrician said, “Put it on the plate, if he doesn’t want it, he doesn’t want it.” So he didn’t get forced. But now Sophia eats all these vegetables and he doesn’t, so…I don’t know. (Laughter) But I really did not eat vegetables, maybe like salad or corn, some frozen stuff.

At some point when I was 24 I had a leaking appendix, but the doctors didn’t know what it was. I had all these really severe stomach pains, I was throwing up, I ended up not really eating for almost a month. For two weeks I kept trying to eat, but I kept having these violent stomach aches and going to the emergency room. They’d put me in and they’d do all these tests and they couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Eventually they did exploratory surgery and discovered it, and then that was two weeks in the hospital after that. I lost all this weight, I couldn’t eat well. After that I was living with my mom for a time, I was a single mom, so she was still doing a lot of the cooking for us.

Exactly 10 years later after my appendix surgery, in 2000, I got really really sick. I got the same symptoms that I had when I had the burst appendix, but obviously I didn’t have an appendix anymore…I was having violent, just severe stomach pains. I’d be on the floor on all fours, crawling, I was in so much pain. I would go into the bathroom, try this, try that…nothing worked. I ended up in emergency a couple times. And the pain would last 18-24 hours. They would just have me in the emergency room, they couldn’t figure out what it was. They’d give me Morphine for pain. I’d be in there and they’d do all the same tests, x-rays, barium solution, and they could not figure out what was wrong. It never got diagnosed. Anytime I ate anything, I would get the pain. So I didn’t know what to eat. Once I went to the hospital, and when I got out and I was really careful, but then I just started eating normal again and it happened again. So I didn’t know what was wrong with me. At that time I was like a size 10 pant…I went down to a size 6! I was afraid to touch food; I didn’t know what would happen.

My mom took me to an acupuncturist, and he told me to start with just boiled rice water, and then add vegetables…so I, for six months, ate rice and vegetables, and cooked fruit. Nothing else. For six months. I was so afraid of food! Little by little I started adding things, but at that time I stopped eating meat, because I knew meat was really hard to digest. I wouldn’t eat any fried foods at all. Anything that I thought was hard to digest I wouldn’t eat. That’s really when I started to become aware of food issues. There’s a woman on KPFA, I don’t remember her name, but she does like a food and health segment, and my mom got her number and she charged $75 for a phone consultation. So I talked to her on the phone. I don’t remember everything she said, but she asked me what I ate and all that, and she told me to stop eating rice, to stop eating cream of wheat (which I ate at the time), sugar…I did some of the things she said, but not all of them. She said, “Do NOT let them x-ray you, anymore! Don’t let them do these tests on you anymore!” So then after that I found this holistic doctor out in Marin somewhere, it was like $300 per visit. But she was so thorough, she asked me about my life from childhood on, “tell me everything that was going on, your emotional stuff, your learning…” EVERYTHING. She asked me all these questions and then she just gave me this kind of like…I don’t wanna say diet, but just these rules. She would say “Your plate is like this: half your plate is vegetables, a quarter of your plate is protein, and a quarter of your plate is (I forgot what it was, carbs or something). No more processed flour, use olive oil, coconut oil…” So that plan I followed, and she also gave me all these vitamins.

So when was that, like 2002?

Yeah, shortly after that. So then I started changing there. Since then, it’s kinda just been a back-and-forth thing, up until just recently. At certain times I would discover that I could eat fried things, for example, or pizza. I had stopped eating pizza because it was oily, and everythime I ate oily things was when I would get sick. But then I discovered that little by little I could start doing it. I never went back to beef, sort of, but everything else I started to eat. But if I go somewhere with oily food, if I ate like at a carnival, I would get a stomach ache. Not as severe, but I would get uncomfortable.

So it can still happen.

Yes. My mom did this “Clean” diet, she did it primarily for weight loss, and my mom lost about eight pounds. I was reading it, and the first thing the author does is ask you cut out all the high allergy foods, so he’ll list the things you can eat and the things you cannot. Some of it was fascinating, like peanuts! That’s like a huge allergen. Shouldn’t be eating peanuts. You could eat corn tortillas, but not breads. But the biggest change for me is being aware of how food makes me feel. That’s the biggest thing for me. Because you can make all these rules, don’t eat this, don’t eat that, but it’s really about…Looking back, I feel like I’d gone on autopilot. I’d gotten really comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. Growing up with like a standard American diet, cow milk, bread, cheese…and going around always feeling…not necessarily like you have a stomach ache or you get sick or anything, but just this like bloated, uncomfortable feeling. I’d gotten totally used to that. I didn’t do the Clean diet, but I think I cut out some of the things it wanted you to cut out. When I cut out bread, I was like, “Oh my god, revelation!” And dairy; I can’t totally cut dairy, but when I cut a lot of it out, because I used to eat a lot of cheese, it was a huge change. I was like, “Oh my god, this is what normal human-ness feels like!” I think from then on, that’s kind of been like my guideline. But sometimes I’m willing to have a stomach ache. I’ll think, “I want to have ice cream today, so I’m just gonna go ahead and have a stomach ache.” Someone recently told me to try organic ice cream versus regular ice cream, and it’s totally true. If I buy like cheap Dreyers or whatever, I feel sick, gassy. When I eat the Organic ice cream, like Three Twins that they sell at the farmers market, oh my god, it’s DELICIOUS, first of all, and I don’t feel sick after I have it!

That’s interesting, because I grew up drinking, kind of industrial milk, and I was super into milk and cheese, and I had asthma and all these problems. I went vegan and cut out milk, and all those problems went away. But I actually drink milk now, but I get the non-homogenized Strauss milk in the glass bottle with the cream on top…no problem when I drink that. It’s straight up milk, you know, it’s full fat and everything, and I have no reaction to it.

So I’ve then just really been becoming aware of how food makes me feel. Then I was dating this guy for a minute, he called himself a “foodie.” I don’t know what that really means. (Laughter) He had a garden, he was totally into it, he taught gardening at a school, and he just LOVED to cook. He’d come over and just cook. One thing he told me was that, like with apples, you don’t always need the whole thing to be perfect. I would try to cut out any bruises, and he would say, “You know, that’s not gonna hurt you. We have this obsession with everything being perfect, and it doesn’t have to be.” He would do a lot of Bryant Terry recipes, and I went through that book…

Since probably about 2008 is when I think I started to be aware of food and health. What happened recently is that my husband Chris and I watched this movie “Veducation”. A friend of his who’s vegan recommended it, and we watched it and…oh my god.

I always felt like I was moving toward…I knew that eventually… It’s in my journal: “In five years, I will be a full vegetarian”. As I’m getting older, it’s really starting to bother me, the smell, the taste. I think that I’m like eating flesh. I’ve always really liked eggs a lot, but I think that was starting to change too. I had already seen “Food, Inc.” and all that, but watching this one…This woman puts a Craigslist ad out, and tries to get people to volunteer to try veganism for 1-2 months or something. She gets these three people, really different people, and it’s almost like she’s a teacher. She does field trips with them, shows them movies, and they cook, and they go to restaurants, and all that stuff. And her thing wasn’t really about health, because she was having them eat oreos that were vegan. But she shows clips of factory farms, and there was one scene where she has this woman call an organic egg company, and puts them on speakerphone and asks them this list of questions. I don’t remember exactly which questions were most disturbing, but she asked about what happens to the something…

The male chicks?

Something, but it showed the way they rip off beaks…Then there was a section about pigs, and she asked about how the pigs were killed, and the man on the phone used some term, he said it was steel, and the lady said, “A bullet?”… I was just crying. I couldn’t look anymore. I stopped watching, so I was just hearing it. Chris, he can watch violent movies, you know, and I was watching Chris’ face and he was just totally disturbed, and I was literally just sobbing. I couldn’t even watch it, it was so disturbing…And I was like, “We are done. We’re done.” He said, “Ok.”

I just couldn’t touch an egg after that. I love eggs. I was having eggs really often…I couldn’t even crack an egg. My son, who loves meat…I don’t remember what he was eating at the table that night, but I had to turn my head. It was sooo…bothering me. Chris, he wants to eat fish. He couldn’t give that up. And I feel like I need that, in some ways…But there’s this lady, she works here, and she’s vegan, and she said, “Why does something have to suffer for me to eat?” That always stuck with me.

Then of course my son tells me, “Well, if you really, really think about it, plants are alive too.”
I tell him that you can survive on a plant diet; you can’t survive on an only meat diet. But he’s super anti. He’s a super meat eater. But I know he’ll come around. He’s a lot like me. But it’s been about five weeks now, and I’m starting to feel like I’m missing nutrition, maybe.

Have you ever thought about having your own chickens?

Chris’ sister has chickens, and she’s given us eggs. They think it’s better. But something about that is even more disturbing to me than eggs I buy at the store because it is distanced there…it’s more disturbing to me because it’s so direct. Just thinking about anything coming from an animal, it’s really grossing me out. I don’t know, maybe I’ll get over it…and I’ve heard about stories about people who are vegetarian for so many years and then they go back to eating meat. Which I can’t imagine; how can you go back once you’re already off meat? But who knows? But right now I don’t see that.

But I definitely need to up the protein. I need to figure out other ways. I’m eating a lot of quinoa, but then I get bored. Like with beans, I used to love black beans, but now I’m starting to get bored with them. I can do lentils, but it’s a lot of work. One of the things I’m realizing is that you’re hungry all the time, and it’s a lot of work. You have to be shopping regularly, and washing and chopping…it’s a lot of work. But for me right now, I think the part that’s the most challenging is getting enough recipes. There are things I know and like, but I can’t make them all the time because I want variety. I need to find recipes that are interesting, but not outrageous or made of things that are hard to find. If I could do that, I think I would be ok. I have a lot of friends who are couples where one is a vegetarian and the other is not, which is so weird to me. The other challenge is that when being vegetarian you can still eat ice cream, you can still eat cookies…and that’s junk food! And you’re hungry all the time, so you tell yourself, “Oh, I’ll just have this.”

Plus when you’re not eating as much protein you tend to crave sugar more.

Yeah, so this is the one bad area that’s a struggle for Chris and I. He likes his treats. He’ll say, “Let me get something from the candy store for you. You want something from the candy store? I’ll go.” And he comes back with my bag and his bag. So, that’s a little bit challenging. I told him the other day, “I think you have less willpower than me in this area,” so that means I need to be stronger at it.
Someone told me that Martha Stewart’s daughter has a website that has a lot of really good vegetarian recipes. I went to it, but I haven’t really looked through it. And I just need to be aware. I need to put a note on my refrigerator that says “protein!” It helps a lot that Chris and I are good cooks. We did an all-vegetarian Thanksgiving last year, and it was really good, Chris loved it. My mom’s husband is from England and he’s all about meat and potatoes, and he loved it. We cooked some of those recipes again later on. It was delicious food. To me, that’s the most important thing. It tasted good, it looked beautiful…

The joy of it!

Yeah, I feel like it’s totally about…when you’re living it daily, it’s about finding the joy. It’s not about what I can’t have. I don’t even want that other stuff anymore! The other day I was buying a student some food at Jack in the Box, and I was looking at the menu trying to figure out what I as going to get, and I realized that I didn’t want anything; I ended up not eating anything from there. But the end of each day, from 3:00-6:00, that’s my weakest time. I am ravenous. And you know, working at an elementary school, there’s cupcakes. Everyone gets those cheap crappy cupcakes and I hate them! But I’ll eat them because they’re in my face. Now I’m trying to have better options after school, like the leftovers from the food Chris and I cook, or just some cut up watermelon. Those things are so good and they make me feel full.

How would you describe the eating habits of your students?

It’s really sad. (Pause) It’s a huge problem. It’s the worst American diet. We have the school lunches, but a lot of the kids don’t eat because they just don’t like it. They literally don’t eat. Sometimes when I go down there in the cafeteria I realize there are several of them that just don’t eat food. I’ll tell them, “Get a thing of milk, get an apple.” They just don’t like the food and they don’t eat. How can they go all day without eating? No wonder you have a headache, no wonder you’re falling out of your chair, or falling asleep, or whatever.

I got really into the food issues at one point. I knew Peralta, the school up the street, did composting, and the guy I was dating who was a foodie was involved in an OUSD committee to try and change the food in the district. I went to a couple of meetings…there was all this red-tape B.S… Nothing was gonna happen. I think it’s a huge system with all these rules, like you have to have this and that, no food can be brought in or out, like sometimes parents will bring cupcakes for a birthday and the cafeteria will tell them that they can’t bring it in there. It’s just total garbage. It’s not even food! It fills their stomachs, that’s all it does. It’s sugar-laden, carbs…

Fortunately we did get a salad bar recently, the last couple years. But it’s really hard to manage. It takes someone to staff it and there’s not always someone available. It has to be volunteers, parents or whoever. The kids like it, but they also have a lot of ranch dressing, so I don’t know how healthy it is…

But the kids are eating salad?

Yeah, yeah.

So is it not open everyday because of a lack of volunteers?

It mostly is open. Yeah, most days it is open. Sometimes they’ll eat that. I started trying to supply healthy food in my classroom, but it was really hard to maintain. It’s hard enough just getting through the normal day teaching. But it’s unethical. It should be illegal what they’re serving kids. But now I just try to lead by example. Like I don’t really drink soda, but the other day I had a Hansen’s, and I had four kids with me during lunch. When I popped open the soda, they were surprised. They said, “Ms. Guerra, you drink soda!?” They know, they know teachers don’t do these things. They’re always looking at my food. I brought my container of food from home and they ask me about it.
I would love to do cooking with kids, small groups of kids. I know there’s research showing that kids who grow their own food are more likely to eat the vegetables they grow. Something about watching it grow from seed to plant…like my grandson, he loves kale, because they grow it at school. He’ll just pick it off the plant and eat it, (in grandson’s voice) “Kale!” It would be great if we could have a garden, but it’s just like work and money.

We do now have a farmer’s market thing on Thursdays, that’s actually a really good thing. They have a sale right on the front steps and they advertise around the neighborhood. People come and they buy organic stuff there. Occasionally they will do demonstrations and have little cups of samples. My beet salad recipe I got from there, and some other broccoli recipes.

And it’s right in front of the school?

Yeah, and the kids eat it! They really eat it. If it’s there, and they’re exposed, they’ll totally eat it. What they started doing recently at the farmer’s market is, for the kids who have very little money, they’ll have little bags of pistachios, or little bags of strawberries, for $1 each so the kids can come out and get that for a snack. So that’s good. But it’s crazy how so many things are so expensive. I mean, I’m a teacher, and I don’t make a lot of money but I’m highest on the pay scale for my district, and I can barely afford to live here and eat healthy! The grocery stores are outrageous…the amount of money it costs to get healthy food! So I know why families can’t do it. Recently I took a student out to eat and she just ordered fries and a drink, and I asked her, “Don’t you want a burger or something, a meal?”, and she said “I thought it would be too much money.”

So if the kids aren’t eating the lunch at school, what are they eating?

There are about 20% who bring their own lunch from home, and about 15% seem to not eat at all during the day, but the rest are usually eating the school lunch. They eat a snack after school, the after school program provides snacks that are sometimes OK, they’ll have raisins or trail mix or something…I used to take my class on a field trip to the farmers market every year and it was great. But I’d usually follow up the visit with a demonstration of organic strawberries versus non-organic, because you can really taste the pesticides in the strawberries. And then the problem with that is that their parents can’t afford the organic, so then they’re all worried they’re getting poisoned!

Yeah, I think that’s something that is really important that you’ve touched on. I think there’s sort of two aspects to helping people change their eating, there’s like the big life-changing emotional moments like from a great documentary or something, but then there’s like the little practical, logistical details, right? I feel like there are a lot of great documentaries and great people that are sort of inspiring people to eat better, but then how do you actually live better, day-to-day?

And my students, they act almost desperate when there is free food around, like when someone brings those cupcakes for a birthday. Then it’s this whole other issue, you know. They feel deprived!

Sounds like food insecurity is what you’re describing.

Yeah. I see a lot of that.

Food insecurity is such a fascinating thing to me, because I think generally the way the media present our problem with obesity is that it’s because we’re in the land of plenty, and we all have so much so we’re all over-eating. But obesity is really high in food-insecure groups, in people who don’t actually have a lot of food in the house, so it’s interesting…why would that be?

Because they’re eating whatever they can get their hands on. They’re hungry. But you don’t see that obesity in other countries. And they DON’T have food! I went to El Salvador with a teaching group, and we each stayed with a family. I stayed with a family who grew their own corn, and they literally woke up in the morning, picked the corn, and then every morning they would head up to the one grinder or mill where the women would line up to grind their corn for the day. They would make masa, and have their tortillas, and coffee, maybe rice, and if they got lucky, beans. Every. Single. Day. I tell my kids these stories, because a lot of our kids, they have this mentality of what they don’t have. But they actually really do have. You have clothes on your body, shoes on your feet, you’re going to school…so that’s why I tell these stories to the kids. But I don’t know how you address that problem. I think you can really only lead by example. But a lot of these kids don’t even have access in their neighborhoods, it’s like “Where am I gonna get this food, anyway? First it’s expensive, and I don’t have access to it. Why would I bother? You know, I’m used to this, so why not?”

Do you feel like, though, do you have a sense that it feels like kind of a hopeless situation, or do you feel like maybe the tide is kind of turning and that more people are becoming aware of it? I mean, you live in a very progressive area, and a very food-focused area…do you feel like there’s a critical mass that can be reached and then things are going to be different…?

I mean, with the world just in general, you can look at it one way or the other, you know what I mean? Being involved and politically active and aware, you can’t help but get depressed sometimes about all the challenges. But at the same time, there’s all these amazing things happening all the time. I don’t think it will ever be just this one giant change, but there are so many things happening, like kicking Monsanto out of all these countries…it’s huge! Bolivia, kicking McDonald’s out, that’s huge. Sometimes I think maybe that’s where I need to go! (Laughter) As a teacher, I’m really lucky that I have access to 25 kids a year that I can have a huge influence on, and just expose them to these ideas. And as far as myself, I feel better, and I feel more positive because I’m eating well, so that makes me feel hopeful. And Chris and I have gatherings where everyone is just cooking amazing food, and people are loving the food and trading recipes…

It’s a joyful experience.

Yeah, just cooking really well and sharing that…you’re just spreading it!

Any final thoughts?

Just that it’s a process…It’s a process. And I’m still really involved in it. I’m still evolving and changing.

Thank you.

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