Soul Food Junkies

November 04, 2013

Written By: Ann Steeves

On Monday, October 21, 2013, Race and Ethnic Studies, The Black Student Union, and The Sustainability Institute's Task Force for Culture and Sustainability hosted the film Soul Food Junkies. This film was part of the 3rd Annual UNH Month of Food Citizenship, a collaborative community-wide effort on focusing on the myriad of topics related to the food system.

The film focuses on soul food’s connection to African American culture. Byron Hunt, a man raised by two parents from Georgia, directs and narrates the independent film. Byron grew up surrounded by soul food.

The film started out showing various clips of mouth-watering soul food: fried chicken, mashed potatoes, barbeque ribs, cornbread, cheese-smothered eggs, and more. Some people in the audience couldn’t help but express their excitement and bellowed deep “mmm’s”.

The film quickly turned away from the glamour and started connecting the African American dishes back to slavery. The point was raised that slaves were often given sup-par food like leftover pieces of meat and assorted grain. Nevertheless, they made something with what they had. The narrator states, “We turned survival food into a delicacy”. The film shows a white woman with a thick southern accent giving credit to African Americans for creating southern cooking. She makes the point that slaves raised white children and fed them soul food, in turn teaching them how to cook. And so a culture around soul food was born.

Like many cultures, food is an event in African American communities. It’s a time for celebration. The narrator recalls being taught from a young age to never deny food from others. Accepting food was accepting hospitality.

The narrator moves from different places of food celebration. Among them a tailgating party, a community cook-off, and a small diner, Peaches restaurant in Jackson, Mississippi. The film introduces us to the owner, Ms. Peaches, an 86-year-old woman with a strong heart. She opened the restaurant in 1961, when she used to deliver sandwiches to protesters at civil rights rallies. Ms. Peaches states, “Having the ability to cook gave me power”. In a time of civil turmoil, Ms. Peaches was able to serve and support her community through providing them food.

The film moves into a more serious state and introduces us to Elijah Muhammad, the former leader of the Nation of Islam. He condemned traditional soul foods like pork and cornbread as a “slave diet”. He saw their consumption as reinforcing the south’s history of slavery. What started out as innovation among slaves in preparing their foods turned into the culture of southern cooking. Muhammad refused to accept the food as part of his African-American culture.

Food is deeply personal to people. Nation of Islam followers changed their diets to comply with Muhammad’s opinions. Some individuals in African American communities recognized the health implications of their diets and started cutting back. Awareness of diet-related diseases is spreading, but perhaps not fast enough. What happens when communities don’t have access to healthy food? The film explores the concept of a food desert. A food desert is an area where it is hard to access affordable, healthy food. Food deserts exist all over our country, often in areas of low socioeconomic status. The film explores African American communities who lack such basic resources. Food activist Sonia Sanchez is featured in the film, calling this disparity “a class-based apartheid in the food system”. This bold statement may lead to further inquiry. Oppressed communities, often of racial minorities, lack the right to affordable, fresh food. This injustice is overlooked in our society because the affected communities too often have no voice. These populations are marginalized and ignored as fast food marts swap out grocery stores in their communities. This reality is disgraceful and must be combated. Big changes start with small actions, and inspiring work is being done to change such environments into healthier communities.

The film takes us to St. Phillip’s Academy in Newark, New Jersey where young students, primarily African Americans, are learning about fresh foods in their school garden. The audience is then introduced to Will Allen, a former professional basketball player-turned urban gardener. He operates a farm and community center, Growing Power, in the inner city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin (http://www.growingpower.org). Such initiative show hope in combating food injustice.

The narrator and his family want to make the point that the African American community does not have to give up soul food. Soul food can be prepared differently, with fresh foods and healthier cooking methods. Hunt wants to change African American culture’s concept of soul food. It doesn’t necessarily need to be unhealthy. Soul food is more than a meal; it nourishes the body and mind. As long as it’s prepared with love, it’s from the soul. This film champions that idea and is critical to begin to understand and address the strong-rooted history which soul food holds.

Keep the conversation going and learn more here: http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/soul-food-junkies/.

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