On the day of a protest, nurture yourself and your cause with filling, comforting foods

By Tori Truscheit
Updated February 13, 2018
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This week, thousands of Americans will board buses, make poster boards, and brave the cold to protest the presidential inauguration. Organizers of the Women’s March on Washington anticipate a crowd of 200,000, with additional satellite marches in every state. Some will be veteran protesters and others will be at their first march ever. What should they eat for breakfast before a long day in the streets? With all the logistics the day entails, breakfast might seem like a low priority. Aileen Suzara, who has worked in environmental justice and incubates a Filipino American food business at La Cocina in San Francisco, knows the feeling. “We come from a place of urgency which can feel very real and immediate, and sometimes things like sleep, eating a meal, or drinking water can sink to the bottom of the priority list,” she said.

When Bettina Aptheker blocked a police car for 36 hours at the University of California at Berkeley in 1964, setting off the national free speech movement, she wasn’t planning her meals. “We didn’t even think about what we were eating,” she said. “We ate terrible food! Coffee, hamburgers, whatever.”

Organizing for decades against apartheid, in Queer Nation, for immigrant rights, and with Occupy Oakland, Decolonize Your Diet authors Catriona Rueda Esquibel and Luz Calvoremembered long hours without eating. “We’d say, let’s have a potluck so we’re not starving to death, but people would just bring a bag of chips. We didn’t know how to nurture each other,” Rueda Esquibel said. Hence her inclusion of “Chicana Power Chili Beans,” a crockpot recipe for pinto, red, and black beans which the authors recommend for groups of “hungry organizers.”

Food can be a source of both sustenance and inspiration, and kitchens have long been hotbeds of organizing. “Black-owned restaurants in the South shielded activists during direct actions and provided a safe place for people to get together,” said Shakirah Simley, the Community Coordinator for Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco. “When someone is well fed, their capacity is so much higher,” said Simley. “That’s basically what the Black Panthers did through their school breakfast program. Kids who are malnourished can’t concentrate, and it’s the same for adults.”

A new generation of activists is paying extra attention to what they eat to avoid physical burnout. Felicia Ruiz, who teaches indigenous cooking classes in Phoenix, sees good food as an integral part of resistance. “If it’s true that you are what you eat, I want to be out there on the front lines with a clear mind and my body feeling good,” she said.

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To keep herself going at a march, Ruiz would bring almond butter-and-honey “truffles,” similar to what her ancestors might have eaten on 50-mile runs as trade route messengers in pre-colonial New Mexico. “If I’m out there protesting, I’m representing my cause better knowing I fueled my body with ancestral food,” she said.

For breakfast, both veteran protesters and food justice advocates recommended hearty, high-nutrition foods to provide energy throughout the day. Aptheker would start with a bowl of oatmeal. “I happen to like it,” she said. Debbie Gavito, who ran a vegetarian restaurant in the East Village after years organizing with the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), would make her oatmeal savory, adding tamari, scallions, and sesame or flaxseeds to her oats along with whatever vegetables were in the fridge.

Rueda Esquibel would eat egg and nopales tacos with salsa for a balance of protein and carbohydrates. She might also bring a bean or potato burrito wrapped in foil. “It can travel so well, it doesn’t need refrigeration, and is really tasty when you need a pick-me-up,” she said.

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Suzara would cook herself a full meal. “I’d make garlic fried rice with a little crispy egg” or tortang talong, a Filipino eggplant omelet, and “garlicky greens with ginger.”

Hydration is important during a long day, as well. “I’d certainly pack water for myself, and maybe add some chia seeds to that to sustain me over the day,” Calvo said. Suzara suggested a mug of salabat, Filipino ginger tea with honey that her mother used to brew in Hawaii in winter. “You’ve got to keep your throat healthy so you can chant,” she said.

But Jim Hubbard, a veteran gay rights activist and founder of the ACT UP Oral History Project, warned against too much liquid. “Be careful how much coffee you drink, because you don’t know if you’ll find a bathroom on the way,” he said.

Margot Nack marched against both Gulf Wars—“I went to UC Boulder, and we protested everything”—and the WTO in Seattle in 1999. At this year’s Women’s March on Washington, she’ll carry a water bottle, nuts, and pieces of fruit. And she’ll take Hubbard’s warning a step further. “Bring your own toilet paper,” she said. “You don’t know how long you’ll be out there.”

Beyond breakfast, Gavito offered a lesson from her years in ACT UP. “It’s going to be a really challenging four years, and finding a community of activists will help sustain you. That’s food in and of itself,” she said.