For years the battle between African-Americans and a healthy diet has been acknowledged yet it still remains one of the largest issues in the African-American community. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP), nearly 44% of African-American men and 48% of African-American women suffer from some form of cardiovascular disease, that includes heart diseases such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and strokes.
While the issue is acknowledged amongst the community, it’s hard for them to put a fork in it. Cutting to the core of the issue, the reasoning behind this epidemic includes the poor habitual of glorifying bigger bodies, lack of resources and lack of food knowledge.
“Well, there are many reasons why some ethnic groups suffer from cardiovascular diseases or more susceptible to getting diabetes,” says Charmaine Jones, a licensed nutritionist. “According to research, some groups are more exposed to these diseases because of limitation of access to proper health and wellness information or having a lack of knowledge in reliable nutrition and health information, residing in low-socioeconomic communities labeled as food deserts. These communities tend to have a limited number of groceries stores accessible to residents and cultural influences on cooking, meal preparation, and body images.”
“I’m Not Fat, I’m Big Boned”
The percentage while alarmingly high is not surprising. While there have often been many factors debating what may be the cause of this, a large factor stems from cultural stigmas, one of the most incited ones being the apotheosizing of ‘big women’ in the African-American community.
“When someone comes to me with an issue, it comes from years and years of food problems,” Maya Feller, a registered Brooklyn based dietitian, explained in a Facebook live interview. “It’s habitual.”
The fetishizing of bigger black women has always remained a persistent issue within the African-American community. The constant glorification of a bigger body, that a man ‘wants a woman with meat on her bones,’ from Hollywood sexualizing and fetishizing bigger bodies (i.e. the 2006 Phat Girlz movie, where men in African culture worship and praise plus-sized women.) has impacted the perception of an ‘ideal’ body for the community.
A Twitter poll shows the high percentages of black women who are often idolized for being ‘thick’ or ‘big-boned’, causing societal pressures to gain weight. It is also typical that an African-American who is considered ‘skinny’ would be recommended to eat some ‘soul food’ or stock up on their ‘cornbread and collard greens,’ all references to food that is believed to help women gain weight, become thicker, and achieve a bigger butt, with popular artists suggesting and fetishizing the trend.
“One of the unhealthy trends I see in the African-American communities are are special comfort foods, which I like to call Big Mamma’s meals,” Jones explained. “Prepared in a delicious way, but are usually high in fat, sugar and loaded with salt. These special meals are sometimes challenging to encourage people to either change up the recipe or limit.”
While big boned is a term, it is not the reason that someone is overweight, according to Claudette Lajam M.D., spokesperson for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.
“Telling someone to lose weight doesn’t do anything for the person,” Feller explained. “”It’s way beyond the scale, it’s about what’s happening on the inside.”
“I’ve Got Options” But, Do You?
There is a constant accusation that even if you were to place healthier foods in predominantly black, low-income neighborhoods, the residents still would not purchase it. However, a lot of these neighborhoods lack the basic luxury of having an actual grocery store located within the community, whereas access to bodegas and corner stores allow easy access for cheap and filling junk food.
“The Bed Stuy Campaign Against Hunger feeds 30,000 meals a month,” Feller pointed out. 60% of Bed-Stuy residents are African-American and face food insecurities. “That means people are living below federal poverty guidelines. That means people are hungry; If your primary needs aren’t met, then nutrition may not be at the top of the list of your priorities.”
Unhealthy food and fast food options are constantly marketed to the black community. The strip of Pitkin Avenue in Brownsville appears to be flattering with colorful Christmas lights and decorations, but it is also decorated with a fast food chain on every other corner, providing stereotypical and unflattering marketing of unhealthy foods to one of the lowest income neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Access to a grocery store requires a walk down a few blocks as opposed to running across the street to a corner store.
“I feel like my local stores are missing healthier alternatives,” says Steven Brown, Brownsville resident. “I don’t feel like I have a variety of options. Due to the demographics of the neighborhood, most people aren’t looking to eat healthier.”
A visit to a local C-Town grocery store reveals the bereaved reality that members of the community have to face when it comes to food options. Upon entrance to the store, you are greeted by a limited selection of vegetables that are struggling to look alive under the dimmed LED lights. A turn into a narrow aisle puts you face to face with a corner full of cake, cookies, and every sugary pastry imaginable, all boasting a bright yellow ‘Sale!’ sign.
The difference in products offered depending on neighborhood demographics and income becomes extremely transparent upon a visit to a Whole Foods Market located in downtown Brooklyn, one of the more wealthier income neighborhoods in the borough. Greeted by fresh, eye-catching produce, free wi-fi, and associates who check freezer temperatures to ensure that the food doesn’t spoil.
“The difference between Whole Foods and stores in our areas are what they sell,” says Adele Underwood, a Latin X Whole Foods employee. “In this store, we have items that have antibiotics, we have protein to help immune systems, the meat is farm fed and it’s better for you. We don’t have this in our neighborhoods.”
Underwood lives on Eastern Parkway and suffers from diabetes herself.
“I started working here a year ago and all of this stuff has really helped me,” she explained. “I have lesser heart problems, I have a lower grease intake, there are more opportunities.”
Despite that the general neighborhood income is high, shoppers still prefer stores such as Whole Foods and Trader Joes over stores like C-Town, even if that means they have to travel a bit further.
“I shop at Whole Foods because they have a wider variety,” says Kelly L., Whole Foods customer. “They have a more selection of vegetables and a higher selection of organic options. I don’t shop at C-Town, because, unless they have changed, it’s not really known for having quality stuff because it’s in a more economically oppressed area where they don’t value serving the population with quality foods.”
Food For Thought
While social and economic strifes contribute to the issue of unhealthy diets, the lack of knowledge and understanding buries the mystery even further. One of the larger issues with the lack of education in the African-American community is that it is shrugged off as being ‘weird’ or a joke or ‘white people food’.
The term ‘white people food’ comes from the belief that certain foods are marketed directly to and for white people. Often, these are basic healthy foods such as salads with a mixture of feta cheese and walnuts. There is also the attribution that within society, white is right. Whatever white people are doing, is the ideal model to follow. So if white people are eating fruit and açaí bowls, then they become the poster board for what is considered healthy.
“I opened The Juicy Box because I wanted options,” says Jacques Sylvestre, co-owner of the organic and plant-based restaurant. “I saw that there was a need in the community for a healthy eating alternative. The community needed an option and education on plant-based food.”
Centered at the heart of Midwood, The Juicy Box offers a variety of plant-based and organic food options, targeting the surrounding audience of Brooklyn College students, where 44% of the students are Black or Hispanic, and 47% of the residents are black or hispanic.
“My ethnicity, we’re not really taught about what’s right to eat and I wanted to be an ambassador of this area,” the Haitian-American explained.
When it comes to the stigmas of soul food and what is considered ‘good food’, they all have one thing in common: flavor. In another Twitter poll, 86% of users confessed that seasoning and flavor of food outweighed the value of nutrition.
“If you have a piece of meat, and you take away all of the black pepper, the seasoning the flavor; it’s just a bland piece of meat. It’s the same way for non-meat eaters. You can have a bland piece of tofu but with the right flavors and spices, you can make it taste amazing too. That’s the problem, it’s just the education is not there. We’re being mass educated to eat fast food and that’s the problem.”
Scoop Your Way Into Success
While the fight for a healthy diet still remains difficult, it is not impossible to fix.
“As a nutrition and health advocate, health professionals and experts need to continue to find ways to break down those barriers that continue to create food injustice in disadvantaged communities; and to educate, educate, and educate our communities on the importance of good nutrition to heal and save them from dying from chronic diseases,” Jones concluded.
Slowly but surely there have been subtle changes made to gently introduce low-income communities such as Brownsville to healthier food and a healthier lifestyle.
“We need to start trying things instead of saying ‘ew’ to them,” Underwood preached. “We need to speak up more. We need more promotion. A lot of us can be saved.”