A new PBS documentary highlights the stark health costs of traditional African-American cuisine.
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.”