Feeding healthy souls more important than eating soul food


Gloria Davis watched Soul Food Junkie on Tuesday and saw a little of her own family in the film.

She joined fellow Bowers-Whitley Career Center students at the University Area Community Center for a special screening of the documentary that chronicles the unhealthy obsession many African-Americans have with soul food staples such as fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, bacon, ham hocks and collard greens, and it all proved a little too familiar.

The 17-year-old senior said after the film she would talk to her family members, many of whom battle hypertension and diabetes, about making healthier dietary choices even though such dining choices are a Sunday and holiday tradition.

"We have to look at what we're eating so we can live to love each other a little longer," said Gloria, an aspiring dental hygienist who plans to attend Hillsborough Community College next fall.

Organizers had hoped the students would take away that kind of inspiration when they arranged the screening. H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center's Healthy KIDZ program partnered with WEDU, the University Area Community Development Corp. and the Davin Joseph Foundation to deliver a message about food choices.

"One of the primary reasons we serve the youth in our community is simply, they deserve our best," said Moffitt Healthy KIDZ's Nikki Ross-Inda. "Healthy Lifestyles is a choice. We want them to have the knowledge to make the best informed decisions."

Joseph, a former Buccaneer and an ardent promoter of nutrition, started the day with a message of encouragement.

But the documentary proved to be the best vehicle to awaken the kids. Originally broadcast as part of PBS' Independent Lens series, filmmaker Byron Hurt explores the historic and cultural significance of soul food, tracing its roots back to slavery.

Hurt set out to determine why his father was so reluctant to give up fried pork chops; buttered biscuits; and big breakfast spreads with eggs, bacon and cheesy grits even though he grew obese, eventually contracted pancreatic cancer and died in 2007.

The journey reveals much about how these "comfort foods" developed into a staple during slavery, maintained a presence in the South because of Jim Crow and didn't get challenged to late 1960s and '70s.

The initial outcry came from interesting sources: the Black Panthers, the Nation of Islam and health advocates like comedian and activist Dick Gregory, who argued that instead of soul food, it should be called death food. African-Americans may not have agreed with the political or religious views of those groups, but some did heed their advice about healthy eating.

In today's world, fast food may be as big a challenge as soul food. Within walking distance of Bowers-Whitley you can find almost every popular eatery in the market on Fletcher Avenue. Combine that with food deserts — the dearth of high quality grocery stores selling healthy vegetables in urban neighborhoods — and it's easy to understand why health is a modern day challenge for so many African-Americans.

After the film, Moffitt gauged the reaction of the students with an interactive polling system. While 56 percent said they wouldn't change their eating habits, 18 percent said they would and 16 percent responded with "maybe." Ross-Inda called the numbers pleasing.

"I am thrilled with these responses," she said. "It indicates we made a significant impact. We got the conversation started, which is step No. 1. The old saying, 'if you can change one person's life, it is worth it.' "

So as someone who recently wrote an ode to "bacon jam" and waxed eloquently about being a judge at the Mac & Cheese Throwdown, you may be wondering if it changed me. Well, it provided food for thought — not only about what I eat but what my kids eat.

I'm more interested in creating new habits in them than ridding my own bad habits, but I know if I strive to make better choices, it'll feed all our souls.

That's all I'm saying.