Soul Food, fast food or no food: How lack of access shapes health outcomes for communities of color

February 25, 2020  //  FOUND IN: Updates & Resources,

When thinking of comfort food, what often comes to mind is a generous serving of your favorite cuisine — and that’s something that can look different for everyone.

What isn’t as comforting, however, are the origins of some of these dishes — and the health implications that have sprung up as a result.

In honor of Black History Month, here’s a closer look at Soul Food and how it impacts health in communities of color.  

Rooted in history

The Southern food — or Soul Food as it is more commonly referred to by the African-American community — that is enjoyed today was established during one of the most difficult periods of American history, slavery. Soul food fuses together the unique traditions of West Africa, Western Europe and the Americas.  

Enslaved Africans had minimal food options available, and prepared their own meals from their plantation owner’s leftovers. This included undesirable cuts of beef, pork or chicken (chitterlings, hog maw, giblits) — much of which is still used today either as staple meats or in food preparation.

As farmers and fishermen, enslaved Africans would also eat vegetables (collard greens, black eyed peas) they grew in gardens and fish they caught, in conjunction with the meat, cornmeal or sweet potatoes supplied to them by plantation owners. Okra is also a popular vegetable that is native to West Africa.

The combination of all these dishes would evolve into the cuisine that is still cooked in many homes in black and brown communities, as well as served in Soul Food restaurants across the nation.

There is ongoing debate on whether Soul Food and Southern food are synonymous, and while the difference in ingredients and taste are often undetectable, “Soul Food” is recognizably African-American by name. During the 1960s, African Americans were equating “black” and “soul,” and using the term “soul” as a labelling mechanism, i.e. soul music, soul food and soul brother.

Health consequences

While the cuisine lives on, so do the health implications.

Soul Food often involves large amounts of meat, fat and sugar that have resulted in climbing numbers of high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, stroke and other health concerns among African Americans and those who consume Soul Food meals regularly.

A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that the chance of developing diabetes was significantly higher for black adults than for white adults (about 66 more cases of diabetes per 1,000 people). The greatest difference was between black women and white women.

Over the past few years awareness around the health-related effects of Soul Food has shaken up many eating habits and paved the opportunity for healthier recipes for the classic dishes — including substituting leaner meats and vegan options.

But, according to Michigan Medicine experts, there is still much work to be done.

“Today, despite increased awareness, education and alternative options, health concerns among black, brown and underrepresented communities is still a significant issue,” said Othelia Pryor, Ph.D., senior project manager in the Office for Health Equity and Inclusion.

Limited options

According to Pryor, at the root of the food issue is not only Soul Food or education around healthier choices, but access to nutritious options. Most highly-urbanized communities or inner cities suffer from food deserts, defined as areas where accessibility to nutritious food options is limited or non-existent.

“Inner cities tend to have an abundance of fast food and convenience stores, which offer fast, cheap, unhealthy food,” Pryor said. “Residents of these communities often have few fresh fruit and vegetable markets and even fewer grocery stores.”

Lack of access to fully stocked fresh grocery stores adds on to the generational eating habits many are trying hard to break. Such an impact can be measured in cities like Detroit, Flint and Ypsilanti.

“Individuals living in these lower-resourced communities are often advised by health care professionals to ‘make better food choices’ as a means of improving their health,” Pryor said. “However, one must acknowledge that community members are often selecting the best available option in response to their neighborhood food sources.”

At Michigan Medicine, the Ypsilanti Health Center opened Maggie’s Marketplace in 2017, creating a first-of-its-kind food pantry within the organization. The facility offers fresh fruit and vegetables, along with basic staples such as potatoes, milk, cheese and eggs. All the food is purchased from Food Gatherers and given for free to patients or community members.

Maggie’s Marketplace and annual food drives — along with other methods of support, education and access to adequate food options — can result in greater health outcomes for underrepresented and communities of color, and that’s a comfort everyone can enjoy.

If you’d like to support Maggie’s Marketplace, contact Ladele Cochran at 734-544-3202 or ladele@med.umich.edu. Food donations should be made directly to Food Gatherers.

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