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
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
"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
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
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,
"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
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)