I was born in Chicago Heights, a Chicago suburb. When I was 6 years old, my family moved to Middleton because my dad had a new job.
This was a huge culture shock and a tough experience for me. In Chicago Heights, I was around a lot of diversity and never felt like the odd one out. In our neighborhood, we were the only Black family on our street, and I was one of only two students of color at my elementary school until my brother joined me. The only place I ever got to be around other Black people was at church.
When I was a kid, I was obsessed with the show A Baby Story on TLC, a cable television channel. It follows a couple through their final weeks of pregnancy, into the delivery room, and then through the baby’s first weeks of life. I watched it all the time, and I thought that childbirth and the process of pregnancy were so beautiful.
As I got older, I learned that a lot of the women who die from pregnancy and childbirth are women who look like me. They are Black, and that really did something to me. I wanted to play my part in helping with this problem, so I looked into becoming a midwife. But then I found out about doulas and how they focus more on the emotional, mental and physical support during birth, and this fit what I wanted to do more than midwifery.
So, I trained to be a doula — the ones who nourish, advocate and comfort the mother, and help with things like pain management. We provide more emotional support and help the mother feel safe enough so that she can birth her child freely.
I think of my doula work as a ministry because it directly flows from my purpose. I want to be there for the moms who are marginalized, who don’t get the care that they deserve because of their race or because they’re battling with addiction, poverty, mental health issues, or are imprisoned. Everyone deserves to have a beautiful birth regardless of who you are or where you are in life.
For me, part of nurturing people is making sure they have good food. I love food and fully believe that everyone should have access to fresh and healthy food. Cooking links me to so many family memories that I have and to different cultures, especially my Gullah Geechee culture on my grandfather’s side. Gullah Geechee are people who are very knowledgeable about the land and how to make their own medicines, grow their own food, and provide for themselves.
When a mother is going through pregnancy and postpartum, cooking food can be an afterthought because she is so exhausted. But, the meals that are the quickest and most accessible are not necessarily what will help the body do what it needs to do during pregnancy or in recovery. I was talking to my doula mentor about how important I feel food is to pregnancy, birth and postpartum, and she said I should call myself the food doula. I thought, “You know what? She’s right.”
I believe that food is medicine. Many cultures have meals specifically for birth, labor, and the healing that your body goes through during postpartum. I want to bring this to my clients. I want to make them a delicious, warm bowl of greens or food that not only reminds them of home and gives them beautiful memories, but also strengthens their bodies.
Many of the recipes that I come up with for my clients are based on things that I learned from [my mom]. She never wrote anything down for me to follow, but I learned from cooking with her or watching her prepare meals. She has a greens recipe that she is known for. It’s the same one she used to nurse me back to health when I was sick. It is full of secret ingredients and practices that make it just right. No one can make them like her unless you watch her cook.
After high school, I ended up in Minneapolis where I discovered my love for food. More specifically, I fell in love with food justice and food security work. It was also at this time that I found out more about my deceased grandfather’s Gullah Geechee background.
The Gullah Geechee people inhabited the sea islands of North and South Carolina. They were originally brought here from West Africa during the transatlantic slave trade, but what set them apart from other people who were taken is that they were often left alone on these isolated islands. This allowed them to create a very specific culture that was a blend of all the different countries they were from and the culture of the native people who inhabited the land.
My people — Geechee folks and just African Americans in general — have a rich relationship with the land that goes past the traumatic history of slavery. I wondered if this history tied into my newfound love for food and providing for people, and I was eager to explore it.
The Gullah Geechee knowledge of the land allowed them to provide for themselves by making their own medicines and growing their own food. Learning this history became the catalyst for my journey. I wanted to learn more about how to grow my own food, so I started to delve more into herbalism and foraging. I also wanted to learn how to teach other people to do this too.
A few years later I found Troy Farm, a community farming program, where I was able to put what I was learning into practice and gain more practical knowledge around growing food.
Last year I was attending an event at Troy Farm as a farm trainee. I met Emily Julke, a producer from PBS Wisconsin who was filming an episode of Let’s Grow Stuff, a show for beginning gardeners. One day I received an email from Emily asking if I would be interested in co-hosting Let’s Grow Stuff with Benjamin Futa and Sigrid Peterson. She said she loved my personality and my knowledge on how to grow food. I thought, “Oh my goodness,” because to be in front of a camera was a lifelong dream.
I went to school for broadcast journalism until I had to drop out. So when Emily approached me, I thought about how this would be a great way to take what I learned in school and share what I had been learning about growing food. It felt like a full-circle moment for me.
This will be my third-year gardening on that land at Troy. This summer my garden is going to get a lot of attention because of my role as co-host on Let’s Grow Stuff. I am focusing on things that I eat a lot: red onions, sweet yellow onions, carrots, collard greens and tomatoes.
I feel like the opportunity to teach other people how to grow food is just part of being me. It seems like the perfect way to continue my journey — just being Qwantese, a food doula who grows stuff. n
This is an edited version of Qwantese Winters’ story, which was produced by Hedi Lamarr Rudd for Wisconsin Humanities’ storytelling project, Love Wisconsin. You can read the full version and other stories at lovewi.com/stories.