By Harriet McLeod
(Reuters) - After interviewing food historians, scholars, cooks, doctors, activists and consumers for his new film "Soul Food Junkies," filmmaker Byron Hurt concluded that an addiction to soul food is killing African-Americans at an alarming rate.
The movie, which will premiere on January 14 on U.S. public broadcasting television, examines how black cultural identity is linked to high-calorie, high-fat food such as fried chicken and barbecued ribs and how eating habits may be changing.
In the deeply personal film, Hurt details his father's fight and eventual death from pancreatic cancer. A high-fat diet is a risk factor for the illness, according to researchers at Duke University in North Carolina.
"I never questioned what we ate or how much," 42-year-old New Jersey-based Hurt says in the film that travels from New Jersey and New York to Virginia, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana and Chicago.
"My father went from being young and fit to twice his size."
Hurt, who also made "Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes," decided to examine the link between calorie-loaded soul food and illnesses among blacks after his father was diagnosed in 2006.
He delves into his family history, as well as slavery, the African diaspora and the black power movement in the film and provides photographs, drawings, historic film footage and maps.
In Jackson, Mississippi, Hurt joined football fans for ribs and corn cooked with pigs' feet and turkey necks. He also visited Peaches Restaurant, founded in 1961, where freedom riders and civil rights activists including Martin Luther King Jr. ate.
Hurt, whose family came from Milledgeville, Georgia, grew up on a diet of fried chicken, pork chops, macaroni and cheese, potatoes and gravy, barbecued ribs, sweet potato pie, collard greens, ham hocks and black-eyed peas.
"The history of Southern food is complex," he said. "In many ways, the term soul food is a reduction of our culinary foodways."
The origins of the diet lie in the history of American slavery, according to food historian Jessica B. Harris, who appears in the film. Slaves ate a high-fat, high-calorie diet that would allow them to burn 3,000 calories a day working, she explained.
Southern food began to be called soul food during the civil rights and black power movements of the 1960s, according to Hurt.
"There's an emotional connection and cultural pride in what they see as the food their population survived on in difficult times," he said.
But Hurt said African-Americans are being devastated by nutrition-related diseases.
Black adults have the highest rates of obesity and a higher prevalence of diabetes than whites, and are twice as likely to die of stroke before age 75 than other population groups, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Besides tradition and habit, poverty and neighborhoods without good supermarkets also contribute to an unhealthy diet, Hurt said.
"Low-income communities of color lack access to vegetables and have an overabundance of fast food and highly processed foods that are high in calories and fats. I always know when I'm in a community of color because I see ... very, very few supermarkets and health food stores," he added.
In her book, "High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America," Harris said the prevalence of over processed foods, low-quality meats, and second- or third-rate produce in minority neighborhoods amounts to "culinary apartheid."
In the film, Marc Lamont Hill, an associate professor of English education at Columbia University in New York, described minority health problems related to poor diet as "21st-century genocide."
Hurt says the government can help by increasing urban access to quality food and requiring calorie counts to be displayed on restaurant menus.
Nonprofit organizations such as Growing Power Inc., which runs urban farms in Chicago and Milwaukee, provide fresh vegetables to minority neighborhoods.
Brian Ellis, 21, said all he ate was fast food when he started working at one of Growing Power's urban farms in Chicago when he was 14.
"Then I started eating food I'd never seen before like Swiss chard," said Ellis, who appears in the film. "I never knew what beets were. I'd never seen sprouts before. I'm not that big of a beet fan, but I love sprouts. I could eat sprouts all day."
(Editing by Patricia Reaney and Mohammad Zargham)