In her late 20s, LaDonna Redmond, who’s now 45, had bariatric surgery that dropped her weight from 340 pounds to 210 pounds.
When she and her husband had their son 11 years ago, she gained about 30 pounds, which she didn’t lose. Eighteen months later, the family added a daughter and Redmond gained more weight, which she didn’t lose.
“I think people looked at me and said, ‘She’s a big girl,” said Redmond, who is 5 foot 10 and, at her heaviest, was 350 pounds. “As you get older, your back and knees start to hurt. I started to not feel as vibrant. I didn’t have the energy.”
Over the last decade, Redmond has made a name for herself converting vacant lots in West Side food desert communities into urban farm sites that offer fresh fruits and vegetables. As a Kellogg Foundation Fellow, she has been a staunch advocate of food justice and has lectured about equal access to sustainable foods around the country and in Europe.
Redmond started along this path after her son was diagnosed with severe food allergies and she had to learn how to feed him. But somewhere along the way, she acknowledged that her own eating habits and health had fallen into disarray.
“I was known as the big black woman from the West Side of Chicago with the African clothes,” she said laughing. The clothing “was a way to stand out in the crowd and hide the weight. It’s acceptable to be a large black woman in our community.”
In 2006, Redmond was invited to participate in the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago’s Children, at Children’s Memorial Hospital. The consortium brings together organizations and individuals to confront obesity.
“I never liked the word obesity,” said Redmond. “But I kept reading reports about obesity and the high risks of heart disease and diabetes in children, and it started me thinking about my own weight. How could I be an advocate for healthy food access and food justice if I’m overweight?”
She said she wasn’t aspiring to an unrealistic image of thinness. She simply wanted to be an authentic messenger and become healthy.
Through the consortium, she was discussing studies with researchers trying to figure out the degree to which a child’s weight was determined by heredity, environment and culture.
“I knew I didn’t want my children to be obese,” she said. “One study said my daughter would have a 90 percent chance of being obese as an adult if my husband and I were obese.” At the time, her 6-foot-2 husband was about 420 pounds.
Despite the uncertainty of the research, she had a case study in her own home. Her son, who was much thinner than the rest of the family, was allergic to shellfish, peanuts and dairy products, so his diet was significantly different from his parents’ and sister’s.
“For him, I had to pay attention to processed meats and whether foods were prepared on the same machinery as peanuts,” she said. “He ate more fresh fruits and vegetables. But the rest of us could eat as much meat, cheese and processed foods as we wanted.”
She had worked hard to protect her son from potentially dangerous foods, and she decided to do the same for the rest of the family.
“In 2007, we started shifting our priorities,” she said. “We went to Weight Watchers. We went to the YMCA. I hired a personal trainer. He made me write down what I was eating and prepare healthy meals for the entire family.”
Just over a month into her new regimen, Redmond lost 15 pounds, and that inspired her to keep going. The family moved from the West Side to a place that promoted a more active lifestyle. She purchased exercise equipment for her home.
Ironically, at the same time that she started to lose weight, some of her food justice supporters began to question whether she still could be a credible advocate.
“I didn’t live in the community anymore,” said Redmond, who now lives in the South Side’s Woodlawn neighborhood. “I didn’t wear African clothes. That was my credibility? Not what I was talking about, but how I looked?”
Redmond is now down to 215 pounds; her husband weighs about 300. Her personal goal is 170.
Redmond’s work these days includes finding ways to convey the message of a healthy diet and lifestyle to the younger, hip-hop generation.
“African-Americans have a food culture,” she said. “We’ve heard that the soul food diet is bad for you. But we have to find the redeeming qualities in it and build on that so that our food and culture more than sustain us, but keep us healthy.
Dawn Turner Trice