Earth Day 2017: What’s for Dinner?

71. So, last month (April 22), we celebrated another Earth Day. What did we learn?

In our last post, we looked at some possibilities for the future of soul food. One of the perennial objections is that soul food is unhealthy, especially for African Americans, who are more likely to be overweight, diabetic, hypertensive, and so on. We’ve noted these health concerns before in the entry “Killer Soul.”

About a year ago, our “soul food scholar,” Adrian Miller, raised the question for a panel of experts in the field. Imar Hutchins, a vegan, and owner of Washington, D.C.’s famous Florida Avenue Grill, said, “If you ask the average black kid when is the last time he or she had soul food, the answer will probably be a year ago at a family reunion, cookout, or funeral.” He said, “I think the truth is that junk food is killing black people.”

The items that most folks would put on a soul food menu would qualify as “celebration food.” Dishes like candied yams were never meant to be eaten every day. If you eat the equivalent of Thanksgiving dinner every day, then yes, you will get fat and perhaps be more likely to develop some sort of disease or debilitating condition. But to paraphrase Hutchins, nobody eats Thanksgiving dinner every day. It’s the junk food that’s killing us, no matter what our complexion or ancestry may be.

That’s especially true when we add in the rest of the response: Nobody said that it’s only “soul food” if you pour in a box of salt, triple the bacon fat and sugar, and eat every hog in Iowa. There are a lot of ways to cook chicken besides frying it. There are a lot of ways to cook pork chops that don’t involve smothering them  (and yourself) in gravy. After all, traditional African food was vegetable-centered rather than meat-centered, and there are lots of reasonably healthy ways to make collard greens, for instance.

We think of ourselves as people of science, people who depend on advanced technology. My youngest grandson, Reggie, isn’t even two yet, but knows how to work the DVR on our cable box.

reggie 4 8 17

(Reggie also loves Grandpa’s ribs)

Yet when it comes to food, we are remarkably superstitious. We have an ever-changing list of food do’s and dont’s. Is coffee good for you? Depends what week it is.

Earth Day is a good time to remember that health is complex, and that it’s determined by far more than food scruples.

Environmental pollution has a greater proportional impact on African Americans and other minority groups than on the majority white community. Robert D. Bullard, the “father of environmental justice,” has devoted his career* to demonstrating how racism creates environmental injustices that have a significant impact on the poor in general and African Americans in particular.  (*Local interest note: Bullard received his Ph.D. from Iowa State.).

Many were shocked when the Flint Water Crisis came to national attention in 2016, but those familiar with how environmental racism and injustice work wouldn’t have been surprised. We are also not surprised that three years after state officials made the initial decisions about water treatment that triggered the lead poisoning, the situation remains unresolved.


If you’ve got lead in your drinking water, you may not worry about the extra pat of butter on your sweet potatoes

In his classic work, Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality, Bullard mentions how air and water pollution are associated with “diseases of adaptation,” diseases and chronic conditions triggered by toxic pollutants and the overall stress caused by the environment. These include conditions such as asthma, emphysema, and chronic bronchitis.


From a food justice perspective, it’s easy to see how environmental racism impacts food choices and availability. People who have the means to escape heavily polluted neighborhoods will do so, leaving behind an even poorer community, and shrinking the tax base. Business costs increase, driving away new businesses and shutting down existing ones.

Soon, entire neighborhoods are left with fast food places and with convenience stores that offer few options, and at higher prices. Many use the problematic term “food deserts” to describe the situation.

The most recent edition of Dumping in Dixie came out in 2000, but there’s little indication that things have gotten any better. The current Administration seems to be working to make things worse. Air and water quality regulations are being vacated almost daily, and it appears that even the EPA’s days are numbered. The President’s misplaced zest for coal and tolerance for pollution seems to point us back to the 1950s, and these will have a disproportionate impact on the poor in general and minority groups in particular.


On Feb. 28, 2017, the President ordered the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers to “review and reconsider” clean water regulations enacted by the Obama Administration. Earlier that month, the “Stream Protection Rule” that created a 100-foot buffer between coal mines and streams was revoked as well.

Nutrition issues are also part of the current debate on possible health insurance reforms. Alabama Congressman Mo Brooks, for instance, told CNN’s Jake Tapper that “People who lead good lives” don’t acquire pre-existing health conditions, and should be able to pay less for health insurance.


From the conservative side, Brooks’ words reflect the GOP’s dominant Social Darwinist theology. But if we went ahead and specified that “People who lead good lives” practice good eating habits, quite a few liberal elitists would agree. Even in 2017, we have not quite escaped the superstitions of our pagan ancestors. We may cloak it in different language, but many still tend to believe that if you’re sick or unhealthy, it’s because you have done something to offend the gods.

An event like Earth Day helps remind us that healthy nutrition is more involved than reducing our intake of soul food from twice a year to never. It involves food policy, housing policy, employment opportunities, and a concern for the environment: the soil in which we grow our crops, the water we use to prepare our food, and the air we’re breathing as we eat.