Voices for our Future: Laroy Smith

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!

(I interviewed Laroy at his home in Sacramento, where he works as a meditation and Qigong instructor. Laroy was raised in an abusive environment and experienced gang involvement, violence, and death at a young age. But he has a unique mind and has always thirsted for knowledge, consuming books voraciously, including his grandfather’s collection of books on yoga and Western philosophy. I first met Laroy over a decade ago when we were both in college, and we worked together on a competitive speech and debate team. During our interview he showed me his amazing backyard which he hopes to turn into a small farm. He has been struggling with his physical health and hopes to change his eating and fitness habits for the better while growing food for his household. He asked that his portrait not be shared, so I included one of his future urban farm instead.)

What was your relationship with food like when you were a child?

The first thing that came to mind from my childhood in regards to food was one word: spaghetti. That’s the first thing that popped into my mind. I have this love-hate relationship with spaghetti. As a kid, it was one of the cheapest things my mother could make. For like five dollars she could buy a mountain of pasta and cook it up, and add just a little bit of sauce, just enough to turn everything pink. So it looked like school cafeteria spaghetti. And we would eat that two or three times a week. If it wasn’t spaghetti it was rice. Anything that could be made in bulk that was cheap.

How many people was she cooking for?

Between three and seven, depending on the day, because one of her best friends was homeless all the time, and she and her kids would come live with us. It was almost like a foster situation, where they’d be here for three months, four months, and then be gone for one or two months and then be right back. It was one of those situations. So she always tried to buy big. Anything she could make in bulk. And I still kind of have that habit that I carry with me. I just do it with quinoa. (Laughter) She would always buy big blocks of cheese…anything that makes you feel full is what we ate. Nutrition was never on the radar, ever. I’ve eaten more Top Ramen than I can imagine. For most people that’s their college story, but that’s my life story. It took me having dinner at one of my white friend’s houses to have real spaghetti, with the sauce on the side, with sausage and seasonings and whatnot…I didn’t know it could be like that!

I didn’t eat it like that. We had pink spaghetti. (Laughter)

Fast food was considered a luxury. Those were those cool days that we actually got to “eat out”, that was eating out for us. We ate a lot of KFC, it was called Kentucky Fried Chicken back then, but those were special occasions, so there was no thought that it was unhealthy…I had no concept of healthy eating. And my mother would make it a point, she’d let us know that it was a sacrifice on her part, to spend that much money when she could have bought groceries. She was doing it as a treat for us. My first job was at KFC. They hired me at fourteen; they weren’t even supposed to. But I was so proud of being able to bring home buckets of chicken and that kind of thing. My second job was Taco Bell. Same kind of deal. And that is what I was associating with coming into adulthood, “now I’m providing for the family”, that kind of thing. It was a long time before I started thinking about my relationship to food, and even today, I’m almost 38, and it’s a struggle to just fight the habits and natural tendencies of a lifetime. There are times I want to eat better in theory, but it doesn’t feel like I’m eating FOOD. I’ve found myself laughing, because I don’t even consider some healthy meals food! I’ll look at it and it’s like, “We’ll, I’ve got some grapes, I’ve got bananas, but I want some FOOD!” I was actually saying that in my head! I had to take a moment and examine that. This is the fundamental problem. If it doesn’t have that heavy, filling, satieting quality that I used to get in childhood, which came from starch and cheese, then it just doesn’t seem real.

When did you start to think about your relationship with food?

Probably around 2005 or 2006. I started taking my spiritual practice more seriously, and Qigong became a serious thing for me. Part of learning about energy and opening up the body…I had to learn about food. That food in itself was energy, and some food was alive, and if you’re eating dead food it’s going to have an impact on your body. Some foods deplete more than they contribute, and I kind of knew this, but it became real to me then. I had a teacher who warned me against canned vegetables because they’re dead. I started looking that up, and I learned that green vegetables have electromagnetic properties, and the fresher they are, the more alive they are, and that replenishes the body’s energy. That became real to me probably in 2006. But changing my habits…that was more of struggle. I was eating less, and trying to eat sort-of right, but I just didn’t know a lot about food, and I was really reluctant…I’m STILL reluctant, to follow recipes. I’ve come to some place where I can use them as general guidelines now, but I just don’t like being told what to do! You know, it says “two tablespoons” of this, and I’m like, “YOU use two tablespoons!” (Laughter)

I’ll use a teaspoon if I want to!

Yeah, so it was just frustrating. I have this authority issue, and when I look at directions that are so specific, I just turn off. So the little things that I did know how to do was to buy whole wheat bread and make really healthy sandwiches, no more lettuce, I’m gonna use spinach, lots of cucumber and avocado and tomatoes…I didn’t even like tomatoes until 2006.

I used to hate tomatoes, but I think I had never had a tomato grown in the normal way, you know, I think I always had industrial tomatoes…but recently my mom started container-gardening in her backyard and she convinced me to eat one of her cherry tomatoes, and I had never tasted that flavor before in my life! And I had tried to eat tomatoes before, many times, but it was a completely different experience when I tasted one that actually grew and ripened on the plant, instead of being sprayed with a chemical to make it ripen on the truck…

It makes a world of difference. When I was living in Davis in 2006, we lived like a half mile from the Nugget grocery store, so that just became part of my exercise routine. I would walk to Nugget and either get two gallons of water that I could carry back, or two bags of food that I could carry back, just as a work-out. And I just told myself that whatever I’m going to buy, I’m going to buy organic, whatever the price difference; since I’m eating less I can afford it. I started eating Roma tomatoes, those where the first type that I started eating, and yeah, they were meaty! They added substance. I find myself rather fond of tomatoes now. But I had such a rudimentary knowledge of healthy eating. Healthy eating meant that I was eating healthy sandwiches every day. So I’d eat two to three sandwiches everyday, plus apples and bananas in between…that was all I knew! I was politically vegetarian for years, not for health reasons. I would eat things like Top Ramen, without the packet because the packet had beef broth, and a bag of frozen veggies with cheese. That was my vegetarian meal. I actually gained more weight as a vegetarian that at any other point in my life, because I was eating horribly.

So from 2006, where it became more serious for you to think about food, to now, do you feel like it’s been a continual thing you’ve been working on, or have there been times where you’ve stepped back and didn’t want to pursue that?

Yeah, it’s been a mess, to be completely honest. It’s been a very chaotic and punctuated evolutionary process. At that time it was about the discipline of it. It still wasnt about understanding healthy eating. I just knew I could make some bok choy and broccoli and some brown rice or quinoa and some lean chicken, and I’m good. I could eat that everyday. It was always about the staple, something that I could eat lots of everyday. That was the habit, and I still didnt have any real working knowledge. And the problem with that, the biggest problem with that, was anytime I wasn’t in control, at my home, it was a mess. If I was out with my friends, and we were going out, I would have no idea what to eat, and I would eat garbage. I attempted to eat a Caesar salad once: a) they’re the most unhealthy salads that you can possibly eat, and b) I didn’t like them. So I just kind of gave up. I would tell myself, “I’m gonna eat whatever I’m gonna eat and then tomorrow I’ll make up for it.” And that became the thing. But I started running, I started working-out hard and running, really getting deeper into my physical body with Qigong and Tai Chi. I lost a lot of weight. I was doing really well, but I still didn’t know how to eat. But I was associating my thinness with being super healthy. I ended up really struggling when the bills went up and I didn’t have the money to eat how I wanted to eat, so I went back to bulk this, bulk that, and in absence of buying quinoa I started going back to rice, rice became my staple food. I used to buy some fajita mix, chicken and peppers, and I’d eat that, and add cheese…Once I hurt my back, I was on my back for like two months, and my eating habits had already started going to hell, I wasn’t working out…

And then you couldn’t really cook?

Yeah, so I got really really discouraged when I saw the weight starting to come back on. And I just wanted to avoid looking at myself, wanted to avoid even thinking about it. I just kind of went off into this world. I’ve never really been into soda, that was never really my thing, but BEER. Beer is one of those things that’s always been a big deal. It’s been my medicine for a good chunk of my life. You know, when I was young, the stress of being in the streets and with my gang affiliation and whatnot…there were so many nights that I wouldn’t have been able to function if it wasn’t for beer relaxing me out. So it was my go-to thing when I got frustrated or depressed, to just drink beer. My back is still a mess, and so it’s hard for me to exercise. Fortunatly Tai Chi is very gentle, Qigong is really gentle. But I have a cane sitting there because some days I actually need it.

How often are you able to practice the Tai Chi and Qigong?

At least four days a week.

Does it bother your back at all; do you have to limit it?

It’s hard to say…in general it makes me feel better. But it’s so hard to get out there. It’s SO hard. There’s days when I can barely make it to the bathroom, even with the cane, I’m literally holding on like I need a walker. So on a day when I’m experiencing that kind of pain, to stand out there for 30 minutes…it’s grueling.

So there was an injury that led to all this?

Yeah, when I was fifteen, me and my buddies flipped a car. We flipped like six times, running from the police, because we were bad. (Laughter) I couldn’t walk for a couple of weeks. But it was no big deal, I just got over it, everything was fine, it never became an issue. Then when I was living in West Sac it got aggravated again. I was working in the backyard and I was overextending myself and not bending correctly, and I knew the spot that was pulled, because the last time I had felt it was when I was sixteen, and I was wrecked. And it’s been super sensitive ever since. I try and maintain it as best I can. Once I’m dialed in, it’s usually not much of a problem, but it’s one of those things that you have to stay consistent with. And I haven’t been consistent in the last year or two. But one of the biggest benefits of me teaching is that it gets me more active. It’s a lot easier for me to rise to the occasion for a student than it is for me to rise to the occasion for myself.

But you said that once you do get up, then you usually feel better?

Yeah…it hurts, I mean sometimes I have to sit down. I might have to do just half of a set and then rest, and then when I’m ready I’ll get back up and we’ll do another half. But it’s good for me, there’s no question it’s good for me, but it’s painful. And I’ll avoid it if it’s too painful.

That’s natural.

I work with people with problems all the time…I’m so good at working with other people, but not always myself.

You’ve mentioned before that you’re the only person in this household right now that seems to care about healthy food…why do you think that is? Most of us know that there is a problem right now in this country with food, and nutrition, and health, so why do you think that so few people around us are thinking about it?

I think it’s just a priority issue. One guy, he’s young, he plays video games all the time, he works at Subway and only eats the most unhealthy sandwiches that Subway has to offer, and he feels like he’s achieved a great deal because since meeting me he’s stopped drinking soda. He used to drink soda everyday.

I think that’s pretty wonderful, actually.

But yeah, that’s as healthy as he ever wants to get.

Well the soda thing is pretty huge. Maybe in another year he’ll be ready for another change. (Laughter)

The guy next door, he’s just limited in a lot of ways. He has a comfort zone that’s really small, and he doesn’t like trying new things. Everything he eats is in a box, everything goes in the microwave, or he eats out. There was a time recently when he was spending probably $1,500 a month on fast food. He was eating every meal out.

Wow, that’s double our food budget for a family of 4-6 depending on when the grandparents are with us…

And trying to get him to understand how absurd that kind of waste is, it’s just…

Well, it’s been normalized. There are countless people who live exactly like that. They never cook. There was a time when people literally HAD to know how to cook, it was not an optional thing. If you didn’t know how to cook or someone in your family didn’t know how to cook, you wouldn’t eat. But it’s an option now; there are millions of people who really do not know how to cook and they’re ok with that, they can get by.

I’m trying to get him to make little changes. Right now just the act of him going to the grocery store once a week and getting frozen stuff that he can put in the microwave is better than eating out everyday. I’m trying to get him excited about the backyard and starting to grow our own food there…it’s hard being alone and trying to figure it out for myself. I’m not always the strongest person when I’m surrounded by certain things. But being a student of Qigong and meditation, what I know about human potential, what we could achieve, what we could do, not just about our health but about our humanity, the way that we could connect with one another, so many different dynamics of beauty and greatness that every human being is capable of, that seems to me to be deliberately thwarted by our current system. Everything seems poisoned. I think there’s a bigger picture. But the problem with bureaucracy is that it creates plausible deniability. You can never point the finger and say “they know about this.”

Like the anonymous author of the Monsanto Protection Act?

Yeah, so it becomes incumbent upon the people to be conscious, and to care to be conscious. But most people don’t want to. If it wasn’t for Qigong, if it wasn’t for meditation, if it wasn’t for my understanding of the body electric, and how to access THAT nourishment, I don’t know how much worse my health would be. But I’m really grateful for that. I first came across a book on breathing techniques in high school and it was fascinating to me, this yogic breathing, and I started adopting it. And they said the goal was to get it unconscious, just to naturally breath in this manner. That really was the beginning. I just didn’t get sick. Only maybe every two or three years would I catch a cold. And even now as an adult I would have to binge drink and then be around sick people to get sick. That kind of stuff I know how to do, but actually feeding my body, still I don’t know what to do.

So what is your perfect ideal situation as far as your relationship with food, and your community that you have going on here?

Ideally I just want to be able to walk in the produce aisles and know what to do with everything in there. To know that, “I want to take a little bit of that, a little bit of this, and do that…” I wander aimlessly. I see something and think, “Well, I heard jicama is good. Let’s see if I can figure that out.” (Laughter) I still don’t look at it as food. I want to be able to see a meal in the making, to be able to look at it and know…I just don’t have that. And it causes a lot of stress. I just don’t know what I’m doing. And then I start feeling really self-conscious when I’m standing there for like 30 minutes trying to figure out what I’m gonna put together, and I’m the least-healthy person in that aisle, and everyone else is just rushing by, knowing exactly what to do, and I’m just there, awkward…(Laughter)

Yeah, I get that. There are so many basic skills to learn and it’s taken me a long time to figure all that out, even like knife skills and whatnot, since I didn’t grow up around people cooking.

Let me show you something. I was pretty proud of this. This came from some wandering. I got some red cabbage, some pea shoots, jicama, raisins, walnuts, sunflower seeds with spirulina. That became my salad. It was really good.

That’s really good; that’s better than me! Getting so many super foods in one bowl. (Laughter)

I saw something similar from a friend when I was at Pitzer college. She made a salad like this that was awesome.

Any last thoughts that you’d like to share?

I don’t know, I feel unworthy of this interview. (Laughter) I’m very much a work-in-progress. I’m still very fledgling in my development here. The ideas, the reasons, the critique, I’m dialed in. But the day-to-day habits is where I’m lacking. It’s something that I definitely want help with. I think it’s the hardest thing. It’s the hardest thing…I have such a rich life of the mind. Every moment of every day my mind is constantly constructing a unified field theory of everything I’ve ever learned. Everything, and how it fits into this grand puzzle. But I’m so busy doing that, that some of the day-to-day details have such little importance in my life. So actively engaging with eating and what I put into my body…it’s a process. Disengaging from that abstract world and coming back here. Meditation has really helped. Mediation is this anchor, where I make fewer distinctions between that mind and the material world. It’s kind of pulling it all together, and it makes it a little easier for me to engage. But it’s taking more effort than I thought it would, to just change my regular mechanical habits. It’s really easy for me to just grab whatever is in there and then go back to where I’m most comfortable…so, it’s a process. But it’s a process that I’m committed to following through on. And it’s not just that I understand its benefits for me, but I’m excited about it. I’m excited about this new world that I’m moving in to. I aim to be a healer on all dimensions, and in the truest sense, and to truly embody and live what I know, and this is such a fundamental part of it. So that’s the goal.

Thank you so much

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