Film Explores African-Americans’ Unhealthy “Soul Food” Habit

Harriet McLeod, Reuters, December 27, 2012

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 January 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.

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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.

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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 explained.

Southern food began to be called soul food during the civil rights and black power movements of the 1960s, according to Hurt.

“There’s an emotional connection and cultural pride in what they see as the food their population survived on in difficult times,” he said.

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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 Prevention.

Besides tradition and habit, poverty and neighborhoods without good supermarkets also contribute to an unhealthy diet, Hurt said.

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In her book, “High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America,” Harris said the prevalence of over processed foods, low-quality meats, and second- or third-rate produce in minority neighborhoods amounts to “culinary apartheid.”

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