If you are an African-American of a certain age, you know what “soul food” has meant to our culture and history. Each of us has a story to tell about a favorite (or least favorite) dish that our mother or grandmother made back in the day. But as our rates of obesity and chronic illness rise — in 2010, for example, African-American women were 40 percent more likely to be obese than white women, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — increased attention is being paid to our traditional diet’s role in the crisis.
Now filmmaker and activist Byron Hurt, 42, has taken a deeper look at the connection between our food and our health in the Independent Lens documentary, “Soul Food Junkies,” airing on PBS stations around the country on Jan. 14.
“I grew up on soul food,” says Hurt, whose parents are from Milledgeville, Ga., “and my mother is a good cook. It was always there on a consistent basis. We ate it for holidays and after church on Sundays.”
Hurt’s decision to examine the health-related impact of soul food came after pancreatic cancer was diagnosed in his father, Jackie, in 2004; he later died from the disease. According to the American Cancer Society, pancreatic cancer and some other types of cancer are linked to a high-fat diet, as are heart disease, diabetes and stroke. And African-Americans are nearly twice as likely to contract diabetes and heart disease as whites, according to the CDC. “I’m not condemning the black culinary tradition, because it has served us well over the years, throughout slavery,” Hurt says. “It helped us survive. But I think we’ve come to a point where we have to realize that we have to make a lot of changes in order to lead healthier, longer lives and have a quality of life.”
Hurt insists he isn’t trying to get people to abandon soul food but instead to suggest that they think more critically about their relationship to food. He hopes the film, which he started working on in 2006, will spark discussions about eating healthier and exercising more.
He also hopes viewers will begin challenging the types of food made available for sale in communities of color. “If we expect our people to be able to eat healthier,” he says, “we need to push to have more healthy food available in our neighborhoods.”
In many urban areas, finding fresh, affordable and healthy food can be a challenge, but Hurt says many positive trends are emerging. “There are people out there who are growing food,” he says, “and there are farmers’ markets and grocery stores working to make it easier to get fresh, healthy food.”
New Orleans resident Jenga Mwendo, who has worked to rebuild her Lower Ninth Ward community after Hurricane Katrina, has tried to get residents, especially seniors, to re-engage with gardening through her Backyard Gardeners Network. Her effort to encourage grocery stores in the Lower Ninth to embrace the movement is featured in Soul Food Junkies. “Growing food and engaging around food is more than about what we eat,” she says. “It is about how we build community.”
Chef Bryant Terry, author of Vegan Soul Kitchen and The Inspired Vegan, cookbooks filled with recipes that make traditional soul food dishes more healthy, says many people forget that soul food is really plant-based food. “I grew up eating from the garden — greens, sweet potatoes and other vegetables,” he says. The cuisine’s risks come from what we add to the dishes and how we prepare them. Like Hurt, Terry doesn’t expect people to give up soul food cold turkey, but he hopes viewers can be convinced “just to be mindful — to be on the journey and try to improve every day.”
Even though Soul Food Junkies challenges the cultural position of soul food, Hurt says, the film has resonated with early audiences. “In some of the showings,” he says, “you see people talking back to the screen and interacting later with some really deep discussions about their relationships to food and the impact on their health.”
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Even his mother has made some changes in the way she cooks. “She’s using a lot more turkey and fish,” Hurt says, “and the more she learns about healthy cooking and eating, the more she changes.”
10 Steps to Healthier Soul Food
- Return to your roots. Cook with vegetables as the main course, and meat as just one ingredient. Buy what’s local and in season. Push your grocer to carry more affordable and accessible fresh food options.
- Experiment with healthier ways of cooking your favorite dishes. If it doesn’t taste good, you won’t enjoy it, but little tweaks can reap surprisingly big dietary benefits.
- Use less salt, especially if you have high blood pressure. Explore other spices and herbs to bring out flavor.
- Cut back on frying. Fried chicken, fish and vegetables carry unhealthy added fats and ultimately lead to unwanted pounds. Check out oven fried or baked alternatives.
- Reduce the sugar in your desserts.
- Enjoy your favorites — in moderation. If you have to have a taste of mom’s traditional macaroni and cheese, go for smaller servings or cut back to having it only on a couple of special occasions each year, instead of every Sunday.
- Share new recipes with friends and family and invite them on this journey.
- Set an example. Your children and grandchildren are watching. The CDC estimates that without lifestyle changes, children in this generation will be the first in history to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents, and much of that can be attributed to high-calorie, high-fat foods.
- Get moving. There’s no way around it: Just 30 minutes a day of exercise can make a huge difference in your health.
- Stay on top of your numbers. Monitor your blood pressure and cholesterol and get a diabetes screening — African-Americans are at higher risk for all three.
Andrea King Collier is a multimedia journalist and lead author of The Black Woman’s Guide to Black Men’s Health.