Annette John-Hall: A recipe for soul food sanity

Filmmaker Byron Hurt (left)with his father, Jackie, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2007 at age 63.

"Good Lord, good meat, c'mon, let's eat!"

That abbreviated grace uttered over a plate of soul food is one of the few laugh lines from New York filmmaker Byron Hurt's new documentary, Soul Food Junkies. Scheduled to screen Sunday at the BlackStar Film Festival in Philadelphia, Soul Food Junkies is a thoughtful, historical, and personal examination of the unhealthy effects of African American eating habits.

Which is anything but funny. Too much fat and sugar? Yep. Obesity-causing and disease-inflicting? Sadly, yes. And, as research shows, increasingly deadly.

Nationally, nearly half of all African Americans suffer from high blood pressure. In Philadelphia, 20 percent suffer from Type 2 diabetes. Black children are 15 percent more likely to be obese than white children.

And soul food - along with cheap, processed fast food, and enough sodas to fill the Schuylkill - is a supersize reason why.

Mayor Nutter, in his ongoing crusade to make Philadelphia a safer, greener, more active, and healthier place to live, twice proposed a two-cent-an-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages - only to get gulped down by Big Soda.

A bulldog

Still, if there's a Round Three on soda tax, I wouldn't bet against the mayor. He's a bulldog about this kind of stuff. Remember, Nutter fought for six years to make Philadelphia smoke-free, and though it took a while, he got rid of sodas in schools, too.

Hurt agrees with the mayor's stance, especially after doing eye-opening research for his film and seeing the death of good-quality food in low-income neighborhoods. ("I see vegetables that look like they're having a nervous breakdown!" poet Sonia Sanchez, a Germantown resident, declares in Soul Food Junkies.)

Hurt told me in a phone conversation this week that he's in favor of "whatever has to be done to drink less sugar-sweetened beverages. I see it as an intervention effort to get people more conscious of the choices they're making."

His reasons are as much personal as they are promotional.


Personal motivation

Like most African Americans of a certain generation, Hurt's father, Jackie, loved fried chicken, collard greens, black-eyed peas, macaroni and cheese, and fried okra. But he paid dearly for it.

"I watched my pops grow to twice his size," Hurt, 42, says in the film. Ultimately soul food, or death food, as comedian/food activist Dick Gregory calls it, made Jackie Hurt fatally ill. In 2007, the husband and father of two died from pancreatic cancer at 63. Byron Hurt believes that his dad's high-salt, high-fat, high-sugar diet may have contributed to his disease.

Though Jackie Hurt knew the food he loved wasn't good for him, he couldn't, or wouldn't, stop eating it.

"Pops," Hurt says in the film, "was addicted to food that made him feel good."

Which gave Hurt the thesis for his documentary: Have we become a culture of soul-food junkies?

For poorer communities, part of the answer lies in having better access to make more nutritious choices.

Philly has taken the lead with innovative programs like the Healthy Corner Store Initiative, which increases the availability of healthier options in the corner stores that so many families depend on. So far, more than 600 operators have signed up.

"We're off to a great start," says John Weidman of the Food Trust, which has partnered with the Philadelphia Department of Public Health to implement the program. Orange juice, apple juice, low-fat milk, and bottled water, along with fruit and produce, have popped up in new refrigerated cases that some stores received from program mini-grants.

"Corner-store operators have a tiny profit margin, so they don't want to take any chances," Weidman says. "But sometimes the profit margin can be better for produce than it is for soda."

Now a husband and father of a 3-year-old daughter, Hurt still loves soul food, especially sweet potato pie. But his family's choices are more vegetable-based: lentils and black-eyed peas; yams without the butter and sugar; greens sautéed in olive oil with garlic and peppers instead of boiled with ham hocks.

"I sensed people were concerned that I was going to denigrate soul food as a culinary tradition," Hurt told me. "We have a rich culture and soul food is part of it . . . but we can modify it to make it healthy without losing the taste."

Food that's good for the heart - and soul.


"Soul Food Junkies" premieres Sunday at 7:30 p.m. at Philadelphia's International House, 3701 Chestnut St., preceded by a Q&A session with Hurt. Tickets:

Contact Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986,, or on Twitter @Annettejh.