Film explores African-Americans' unhealthy 'soul food' habit

Harriet McLeod
Reuters Middle East

Dec 27 (Reuters) - After interviewing food historians,

scholars, cooks, doctors, activists and consumers for his new

film "Soul Food Junkies," filmmaker Byron Hurt concluded that an

addiction to soul food is killing African-Americans at an

alarming rate.

The movie, which will premiere on Jan. 14 on U.S. public

broadcasting television, examines how black cultural identity is

linked to high-calorie, high-fat food such as fried chicken and

barbecued ribs and how eating habits may be changing.

In the deeply personal film, Hurt details his father's fight

and eventual death from pancreatic cancer. A high-fat diet is a

risk factor for the illness, according to researchers at Duke

University in North Carolina.

"I never questioned what we ate or how much," 42-year-old

New Jersey-based Hurt says in the film that travels from New

Jersey and New York to Virginia, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana

and Chicago.

"My father went from being young and fit to twice his size."

Hurt, who also made "Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes,"

decided to examine the link between calorie-loaded soul food and

illnesses among blacks after his father was diagnosed in 2006.

He delves into his family history, as well as slavery, the

African diaspora and the black power movement in the film and

provides photographs, drawings, historic film footage and maps.

In Jackson, Mississippi, Hurt joined football fans for ribs

and corn cooked with pigs' feet and turkey necks. He also

visited Peaches Restaurant, founded in 1961, where freedom

riders and civil rights activists including Martin Luther King

Jr. ate.

Hurt, whose family came from Milledgeville, Georgia, grew up

on a diet of fried chicken, pork chops, macaroni and cheese,

potatoes and gravy, barbecued ribs, sweet potato pie, collard

greens, ham hocks and black-eyed peas.

"The history of Southern food is complex," he said. "In many

ways, the term soul food is a reduction of our culinary


The origins of the diet lie in the history of American

slavery, according to food historian Jessica B. Harris, who

appears in the film. Slaves ate a high-fat, high-calorie diet

that would allow them to burn 3,000 calories a day working, she


Southern food began to be called soul food during the civil

rights and black power movements of the 1960s, according to


"There's an emotional connection and cultural pride in what

they see as the food their population survived on in difficult

times," he said.

But Hurt said African-Americans are being devastated by

nutrition-related diseases.

Black adults have the highest rates of obesity and a higher

prevalence of diabetes than whites, and are twice as likely to

die of stroke before age 75 than other population groups,

according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and


Besides tradition and habit, poverty and neighborhoods

without good supermarkets also contribute to an unhealthy diet,

Hurt said.

"Low-income communities of color lack access to vegetables

and have an overabundance of fast food and highly processed

foods that are high in calories and fats. I always know when I'm

in a community of color because I see ... very, very few

supermarkets and health food stores," he added.

In her book, "High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from

Africa to America," Harris said the prevalence of overprocessed

foods, low-quality meats, and second- or third-rate produce in

minority neighborhoods amounts to "culinary apartheid."

In the film, Marc Lamont Hill, an associate professor of

English education at Columbia University in New York, described

minority health problems related to poor diet as "21st-century


Hurt says the government can help by increasing urban access

to quality food and requiring calorie counts to be displayed on

restaurant menus.

Nonprofit organizations such as Growing Power Inc., which

runs urban farms in Chicago and Milwaukee, provide fresh

vegetables to minority neighborhoods.

Brian Ellis, 21, said all he ate was fast food when he

started working at one of Growing Power's urban farms in Chicago

when he was 14.

"Then I started eating food I'd never seen before like Swiss

chard," said Ellis, who appears in the film. "I never knew what

beets were. I'd never seen sprouts before. I'm not that big of a

beet fan, but I love sprouts. I could eat sprouts all day."

(Editing by Patricia Reaney and Mohammad Zargham)

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