Hamhocks and greens, fatbacks and sweet potatoes purring under heaping spoonfuls of sugar, cornbread, potatoes, white rice, bacon slabs, and the pig. “California mix” veggies maimed via water abuse (if they’re even on the plate), until the broccoli’s green is pukish, the cauliflower gray, and the carrots the color of a sun on its last leg. Starchy good times. In the black community, for so long (practices rooted in slavery), we’ve made meals that would stick to our bones, with carbs that would go the long haul—and it’s killing us.
Unhealthy eating, certainly. The practices of not including enough fresh (not overcooked) vegetables and fruit in our diets, loading the included veggies with sugar and butter—all contribute to obesity and increased rates of heart disease and diabetes in brown communities. We gotta remix what “flavor” and “tradition” mean to us.
Part of the challenge is access to fresh foods—an economic/geographical problem that manifests as a racial disparity. In my neighborhood, if I walk north (where I work) there is a Whole Foods and a farmers market or two. Popeye’s is the only fast-food restaurant in the entire area, situated among a bevy of pubs and restaurants. If I go south (which I hardly do, because there’s nothing there) I come across a McDonald’s, then a Wendy’s, another Popeye’s, Papa John’s, and more fast-food restaurants, along with the “Super” Wal-Mart, which doesn’t sell fresh produce in these parts, only canned goods. Goes without saying which neighborhood is more affluent and, coincidentally, white.
Once you get access (some might say in order to get access), you have to demand the products—through dollars. Wal-Mart is not stocking big portions of boxed Chimichangas because of a conspiracy to kill us but because it flies off the rack. And Wal-Mart orders what sells. Instead of buying Doritos or Nabisco’s never-ending menu of 100 Calorie options, the collective has to opt for oranges, pears, and—yes—watermelon.
That requires a change in thinking, for our hard-hit communities and the entire country. The task before us is to exercise power over our choices and not accept what is “given” to us regarding those choices. Not a small job. Studies have shown that processed foods trigger dopamine in the brain, giving you a high that makes you want more of the same. Couple that with the realization that many preservatives and ingredients in processed foods are distilled in much the same way as cocaine, and we’ve got some bad habits to shake.
Cliché as it may be, “all politics are local,” evidenced by actions in DC (moratorium on establishing new fast-food operations) and Chicago (initiative bridging disconnect between Muslim neighborhood store owners and African American patrons—with healthier fresh food options) of folks taking the reins to make neighborhood changes. It is critical to address the obesity epidemic from both sides: access as well as mindset/knowledge. One might say these initiatives take away individuals’ freedom to choose. Another might argue that these people and organizations are working in the public interest. We must wean our stomachs and our minds from selecting these foods, almost as if on autopilot. But whose responsibility is that?