This Vegan Restaurant Is Feeding a Low-Income Food Desert

Babette Davis is the chef and co-owner of Stuff I Eat, a vegan restaurant in Inglewood. She’s 65 and has the body of a 40-year-old Pilates instructor, and she interrupts our interview at several points to demonstrate pushups and sing the “Star Spangled...

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Jan 28 2016, 7:03pm

Photo via Flickr user mrzeta

Perhaps the highest praise you can give a vegan dish is that it doesn't taste like vegan food.

Thankfully, a lot of dishes at Stuff I Eat pass that test. If you were to somehow miss the menu descriptions, you might not realize your orders of mac and "cheese," enchilada pie, and nachos don't contain any meat or dairy. (Full disclosure, though: I'm mostly vegan, so my taste buds might be biased.)

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Babette Davis prepping tomatoes at Stuff I Eat. Photos by the author.

Los Angeles is hardly hurting for vegan options. But the city of Inglewood, located ten miles south of downtown LA, is an unlikely setting for an all-vegan, mostly organic restaurant. According to data from the US Department of Agriculture, many of the city's residents live in food deserts—low-income areas where they're forced to rely heavily on convenience stores and fast food, as supermarkets aren't readily accessible or affordable. Given locals' limited access to healthy food, it seems like a noble (if lofty) plan to sell them nut-based burgers at reasonable prices.

Is it working, though?

I pose this question to Babette Davis, chef and co-owner of Stuff I Eat. She's 65 and has the body of a 40-year-old Pilates instructor. She interrupts our interview at several points to demonstrate pushups in the middle of the restaurant (not the cheating kind, either); to stand on a chair and sing the "Star Spangled Banner"; to shred cabbage for coleslaw; and to pose for selfies with patrons.

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When I have her attention, I prod: "So, are locals actually getting into vegan food?"

The answer: Kind of.

Babette estimates that just over a quarter of her customers live in the surrounding neighborhood. That's better than when she opened the doors in 2008, though.

"It was kind of slow getting people coming in here, in this particular community," she confesses. "Especially when you see the word 'vegan.'" People will often walk in, look at the menu, don't see any meat on it, and walk out.

When this happens, Babette makes it a point to run after them and bribe them with a free wild rice taco. "[After trying it], nine times out of ten, they sit down and they have a meal," she says.

Still, some people won't try the food, even when it's free. "It gets challenging for [this community] sometimes. Because they're just very stubborn about it: 'I have to have my meat, sorry.' They're carnivores—we get it. We try not to get our feelings hurt, because most people get into it. "

So, why vegan? And why here?

In response to the second question, Babette doesn't bullshit: The rent was cheap. As in $1,700-per-month cheap.

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Before she found the place with her husband, co-owner Ron Davis, they had been selling vegan tacos from a food cart part-time. Before that, Babette was using a rented U-Haul, and before that, the back of her Honda Accord.

When they came across this deal, it felt meant to be. And there was a sense of purpose to it, Babette concedes. "We needed to be here to bring this to a community that has so many health issues. Because we lived [here], we knew that there was nothing healthy around to eat. And whenever we wanted to purchase good food or go out to eat, we had to travel across town—[for] vegan food, in particular."

Babette has been vegan for the past 25 years, and these days, most of what she eats is raw. "I like eating live food. I just like eating more life than I do death." She claims she has way more energy this way, although she still eats cooked food from time to time.

Despite maintaining a diet that most people would deem extreme, Babette admits she was on the opposite end of the spectrum a few decades ago. "I thought vegans were Hare Krishnas," she laughs. "Don't give me no herbs! I'm good."

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But years of feeling bloated after meals and suffering from chronic indigestion convinced her to make a lifestyle change. Her husband cooked her first vegan meal in 1990, and she hasn't looked back since.

These days, she's one of those people she lampooned all those years ago; her use of Vegenaise and nutritional yeast is now almost comical in its juxtaposition to her past life.

And while she doesn't push her diet on anyone, she speaks candidly about her beliefs when asked about them. "The way that I look and feel is exactly the way that humans are supposed to look and feel," she asserts. "But we do a lot of damage to ourselves because we don't nourish ourselves properly."

Babette isn't shy about the fact that her vegan diet is responsible for her physique. And if that's true—hell, pass the tofu.