Azalea's Journey Back to Real Food

This post was written by Local Foods Intern and ASU student, Azalea Thomson. Honoring the bread mural in San Francisco.

My childhood was filled with the sounds of a bread maker whirring, waking up to the smell of freshly baked coffee cake or muffins, and the taste of fresh cherry tomatoes from the garden. Saturday night was homemade pizza night, and while the neighbor kids complained, for me eating vegetables was routine as brushing my teeth. I grew up knowing food, loving food, and always trying to nab a little extra whip cream on top of my banana pudding (mashed up banana sprinkled with cinnamon).


Had it not been for my 10 years of intense ballet training, I most likely would have been a chubby child, but thanks to an hour and a half of dancing six days a week, and a mother who was a great cook, I never had to worry much about what or how I ate. I was always conscious that the better I ate, the better I felt and performed, but I hardly cooked, and the most time I spent in the kitchen was doing the dishes after dinner. As a freshman in college, even this minimal kitchen time disappeared as I ate most of my meals in the dining hall. Alongside my peers, I scraped my leftovers into the trash, and dumped my plate on the rotating dish rack, not giving a second thought to the wasted food surrounding me.


Our family Thanksgivings are famous for the 1:1 pie to person ratio.

My food journey started to take off when I joined a student organization at Arizona State University called Real Food. As the name implies, the club is centered on healthy, whole foods; we hold potlucks, bread baking lessons, and smoothie fests, and at every meeting there is always some new food to try. At one particular meeting I reached into an offered bag and popped the food into my mouth without asking what it was. Three seconds, a weird crunch, and a large gulp later, I learned I had just eaten a cricket.


Through Real Food and my own curiosity, I began to grow more conscious of the issues surrounding our food systems, why people followed vegetarian and vegan diets, and why it was important to shop locally. The more I learned, the more I realized that I have been infinitely lucky to eat the way that I do. Not only have I always had access to fresh, health foods, but the fact that I could simply eat whatever I wanted --without thinking about the impacts I was making on the world around me-- was something I took for granted. I became increasingly aware of the amount of food I wasted and felt guilty any time I dumped my leftovers or spoiled food into the trash. Over the course of only a few weeks, I realized that I wanted to go vegan. Though the idea seemed a bit daunting at first, I knew it was a challenge I could overcome.


Vegetable cannelloni, green salad, and brown bread drizzled with olive oil—delicious.

The best part of going vegan was realizing that I had the ability to make a change in my life that was contributing to a more ethical lifestyle, a more sustainable planet, and a healthier mental state. My appreciation for food has grown immensely: I have discovered the power of a green smoothie in the morning, the perfect combination of medjool dates and peanut butter, and the amazing versatility of bananas. I have started to cook and create my own recipes, and I have begun to gain a pleasure from food that I never had before.


Some vegans talk about how when they made the diet switch they went from being sluggish to exploding with energy. This happened for me in a different kind of way: I became engaged with the world around me and became curious and passionate for creating a new standard of living. I started to wonder how I could get involved and get outside of myself more. I joined a plethora of clubs and began to think about changing my major to a sustainability focus. In many ways, my real food journey has started a new chapter of my real life journey. Veganism became a catalyst for the realization that I had the power to direct my energy in any way that I chose.


Munching on a baked plantain on the road and a typical dinner served by my host parents.

As my food journey continues, I am learning about more aspects of the inequality and injustices of food on a global scale. Last summer, I was extremely fortunate to be able to travel to Uganda to help jumpstart a project in a rural town in nutrition and food security. The culture among the community members of these small towns was undeniable, and I experienced flavors, sounds, and smells completely foreign to me. I discovered and delighted in Ugandan street food such as chapatti and baked plantains and I came to fully realize the meaning of food and its undeniable ability to bring people together. However, as a global health major, I noticed in my travels how nutrition is widely ignored; foods are simply harvested, obtained from the local market, and placed on the table. In the less fortunate households, one nutritious meal a day is considered a blessing.


When I happened across an opening for an intern position at Local First Arizona, I immediately knew that this was an opportunity to grow more engaged with food and culture, and to discover how I can use my skills to make a difference. What I have realized in only a few short weeks is that people operate under the assumption that communities lack the ability to thrive if their environment prevents it. But this assumption—like many assumptions—is simply not true. Food grows in the desert (just look at those giant watermelons, squash, green beans, basil…), there are well over 200 food banks in the state of Arizona, and community kitchens (where multiple small businesses can share a space to create their own delicious goods) are becoming more widespread. Here in Phoenix, Local First Arizona is working to change that stagnant mindset, and promote action on the individual scale to foster an environment of which Arizona residents strive to be a part.


I know that my real food journey is simply beginning, but I also know that others’ journeys have not yet begun. If this is you, I challenge you to take action-- start by eating a meal of fresh, homemade, real food. You will soon discover that your food journey will fuel you for other journeys. What better place to start than the sunny farmers market on Saturday morning?