Juneteenth Reflection – Soul Food’s Role in Black Consumer Health
Associate, Communities & Panels
In honor of Juneteenth, Black Americans use this holiday to reflect on what the day means to them and to think about their ancestry within the United States. They reflect and celebrate in various ways, including education, attending festivals, and preparing and consuming soul food which has been a staple for Black/African Americans for generations. This year, during Black History Month (BHM), we hosted a Consumer Connection Series Panel (CCP) with Black/African American consumers. The panelists discussed their identities as Black Americans and their relationship with Black culture. One notable topic was the role of soul food in Black life and health, and we want to expand on their thoughts for this June holiday.
Soul food has been a central part of Black culture since the arrival of Africans to America during slavery. Slaves took the recipes and cooking methods from their African origins and combined them with the European methods they picked up while cooking for their enslavers. After cooking meals for the household, they used the scraps and other limited ingredients they were allowed to have for themselves to create versions of the soul food dishes that we have become familiar with today, like chitlins, cornbread, and greens. During the CCP, one consumer mentioned the following:
This reflects how some traditional soul food options originated in the kitchens of slaves or with influence from slavery, but have become regional favorites without acknowledging their origins.
Due to the working conditions during this time, slaves’ high-calorie diets that consisted of meats, fats, and lard were beneficial as it ensured that they would not faint while working the field. However, when slavery ended, home chefs continued to make the meals they were familiar with, despite the lack of physical labor. This resulted in diets too high in calories for the amount of activity and, over generations, has resulted in diet-related health issues, including high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and hypertension. As these numbers climb within the Black community, many are trying to change their diets, seeking healthier alternatives and incorporating more fresh fruits and vegetables. One of the CCP consumers noted these diet changes, stating:
In addition to incorporating more high-nutrient foods into their diets, some are eliminating meat, opting for vegetarian and vegan diets. Black Americans are one of the country’s fastest-growing groups of vegans. This change continues to progress as more Black celebrities promote the lifestyle and show others how to become vegan through brand partnerships and restaurant promotions. While many Black Americans are willing to take the necessary steps to eat more healthy, most are not willing to sacrifice the flavors that they grew up with. Home cooks and professional chefs alike have, therefore, found ways to create their own spin on vegan dishes and keep their culture alive. One CCP consumer mentioned a vegan restaurant they are interested in coming to their hometown, stating:
In addition to this restaurant, there are new vegan restaurants popping up nationwide, some of which specialize in making the soul food the Black community knows and loves. Some fully established restaurants have even started expanding their menus by adding vegan options or, at the very least, labeling dishes as vegan to ensure confidence as their consumers are ordering.
And, in an effort to distance themselves from the mass-produced food industry, some Black/African American consumers are becoming farmers. Since 2002, the number of Black farmers has increased and is projected to continue to climb. By farming their own food, they can monitor what goes into their crops and maintain a consistent and healthy food source, with the added benefit of building generational wealth. One participant in the panel reflects on his relative that became a farmer to protect herself from food insecurity observed during the pandemic, along with additional steps taken to improve overall health:
The purpose of this blog is not to make the argument that soul food is bad and must be avoided at all costs, but that moderation is key to a healthy lifestyle. Moderation may be approached in multiple ways:
- Eat smaller portions of soul food while incorporating fresh fruits and vegetables
- Reduce cooking time of high-nutrient ingredients such as sweet potatoes and collards to ensure maximum health benefits
- Replace fattening ingredients and meats with low-fat alternatives
- Maintain consistent physical activity and regularly visit health professionals
What this means for you: Soul food is a large part of Black culture in America, but consumption habits have created health concerns within the community. In celebration of Juneteenth, consider ways to have a beneficial role in consumers’ lives, whether acting directly or amplifying the voices of individuals and companies that have already made this part of their mission. If you are in the food sector, consider partnering with Black chefs and creatives to introduce alternative ingredients and recipes. Establish recognition of food origins and find ways to give back to the community, but also remain aware that the Black community, much like any community, cannot be boxed in, as their culture and tastes in traditional dishes are continuously evolving. If in other sectors, consider spreading awareness and education around this matter, while promoting moderation and other methods to improve overall health. Lastly, some communities make low-nutrient foods a central part of their diet due to living in food deserts. By helping to find ways to increase access to affordable, high-nutrient ingredients, these communities can find ways to improve their health.