Addressing food issues in South Memphis
There is a world-class indoor climbing gym in the middle of South Memphis—a food desert—and it’s often filled with people of all ages and races drinking juice and eating healthy food. Aster Demekech, the 27-year-old South Memphian and director of Juice Almighty, the juice bar and café inside of the Memphis Rox climbing facility, is cultivating new relationships between South Memphis residents and healthy food options.
Juice Almighty caters to hungry climbers and many community members on a daily basis. The mission-driven juice bar is 100 percent inclusive and doesn’t turn anyone away, no matter their ability to pay, thus removing the financial barrier impacting a community with low exposure to healthy options. (The suggested price of all menu items is $5, but those who can are encouraged to pay more; those who can’t pay are encouraged to put in volunteer hours at the facility.)
In 2015, Demekech joined an AmeriCorps program called City Year, and that program took her to California, where she ended up training under the executive chef of the University of California, Berkeley. She came back to Memphis because she felt a responsibility to do community work in her hometown.
“I was out there doing community work and all that, and I was like, yo, my hometown is Memphis; I’m out here [in California] doing amazing things, and I could be in my own hometown,” she says.
In her work at Juice Almighty, Demekech is driven to see people be able to afford healthier options—or even just to have them know that healthier options exist and be willing to try them.
Demekech grew up in South Memphis and remembers what it was like to try to eat fresh food there.
“We had to drive all the way downtown to Easy-Way to get fresh fruit and vegetables,” she says. “There was never an option besides things like McDonald’s, Church’s Chicken and all that.”
A young man who is enrolled in a youth climbing program at Memphis Rox interrupts to ask Demekech if she feels like making him a burger. She lovingly laughs, and sends him to someone else in the kitchen, but it is clear she has made a culinary impression on this young man.
Because of the limited exposure some of her customers have had to healthy food options, she sees it as a challenge to convince them that healthy is delicious.
The grocery stores in South Memphis are secondhand or salvage goods stores, meaning they are stocked with items that traditional grocery stores won’t sell, or that are about to expire. Often the customers at Juice Almighty are being exposed to healthy options, like plant-based protein patties, superfoods and no-sugar-added juices, for the very first time. Still, most of the reactions to the healthier food are positive.
“Some of the kids joke that the juices taste better than Kool-Aid,” she says. “That’s something we think about. Let’s create things they know, but that’s better for them.”
She constantly encourages customers, especially the youth, to try the healthier options. “They want to eat the wrap and the chicken, but not eat the lettuce or the vegetables,” she says.
Demekech is inspired to riff off of the foods that she knows her customers are comfortable with, and that also represent the city’s ferocious appetite, by upgrading them to a healthier dish. “Kids bring hot wings in here all the time, so I was like, how can I create something that will be that favorite meal they like, but make it a healthier option? And so I created the Explosive Chicken Wrap, and it’s one of the most popular items on the menu,” she says.
In addition to meatless patty melts, vegetarian gyro riffs and a gingery juice called Al Greens, Juice Almighty also has gorgeous smoothie bowls topped with goji berries and granola, an acai bowl, avocado toast and tofu scrambles.
Demekech told the story behind the name for the Treefity salad, a chicken, avocado and sprouts salad with the seemingly perfect ratio of fiber, greens, fat and protein to fuel someone. The name of the salad is Memphis-inspired, and meant to represent the local accent. “In Memphis we don’t say ‘three,’ we say ‘tree,’” she explains. “We say ‘skreet’ and ‘skraw’ [instead of “street” and “straw”]. So you always hear people say, ‘Mane, it’s treefity.’ It’s the Memphis way to say it.”
The executive director of Memphis Rox, Reggie Davis, says the organization plans to expand the food options, as well as job-training opportunities in the neighborhood. “Memphis Rox has plans for a coffee shop as well as a training restaurant,” he says.
“We are looking to bring these entities to uplift the community while providing jobs. More restaurants provide more reasons for people to visit Soulsville. Also, we want to develop a stronger workforce while creating jobs and job training opportunities.”
Beginning in February, the organization will host a basic nutrition class series. “The way that you eat now sets the tone for your future, and I want people to get that,” Demekech says.
Jayne Ellen White has worked in the Memphis tourism industry for 11 years. She is a Memphis music history enthusiast and an adventurous home cook. She is the Director of Visitor Experience at Stax Museum of American Soul Music.
Chip Chockley, an attorney by day, has been a professional photographer since 2008. Things that make him happy include tacos, mai tais and his wife and kids.
Jayne Ellen White has worked in the Memphis tourism industry for 11 years. She is a Memphis music history enthusiast and an adventurous home cook. She works at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music.