Paul Magee Berry
The Slave Food Project
On Juneteenth last year (2020), two African American physicians, Columbus Batiste, MD, and Eric Walsh, MD, DPH, launched a groundbreaking new docuseries called The Slave Food Project. The project aims “…to answer the quintessential question: ‘why do Black people in America live sicker and die sooner than everyone else?’”
“African American men are twice as likely to die of heart disease than caucasian men,” says Dr. Batisite who is a board certified Interventional Cardiologist. “[And] African American women are three times as likely to die of heart disease compared to caucasian women.”
African Americans have shorter lifespans than whites as well. “In every state in the US, African Americans are more likely than Whites to die early from treatable diseases,” adds Dr. Walsh.“
Indeed, according to the CDC, the Top 7 Killer Diseases of all Americans are heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, kidney disease, asthma and Alzheimer’s. And as the examples above suggest, death rates among African Americans for all these diseases are magnitudes higher than Whites. Other examples: African American children with asthma die at up to six times the rates as White children. And infant mortality among African Americans occurs at over twice the rate than White Americans… What’s going on?
As the title suggests, the “Slave Food” series focuses on food as a primary catalyst of these disparities, and especially processed meat and dairy foods. As we have previously documented, the consumption of meat and dairy food is the #1 cofactor of all those killer diseases mentioned above. But the Slave Food team introduces a crucial fact: the #1 promoter of these toxic foods is the U.S. fast food industry.
In their inaugural episode last year, the doctors explained how “the $170 Billion fast food industry clusters in..’food deserts’..[which are typically densely populated] low income, underserved communities of color with 30% fewer Supermarkets.” The industry invests $BILLIONS in intense and specialized marketing and “…advertising efforts that disproportionately target Black and Hispanic children.” The doctors cite a recent study that reveals: “Black preschoolers are exposed to 72% more fast-food ads than their white peers, and Black children and teens see 77% moreads for fast food.”
Further, the doctors explain that the processed meat and dairy foods that these mass ad campaigns promote are “…[foods that are] actually designed..and chemically modified to give the greatest bliss point..the maximum amount of stimulation in your brain to get you hooked…” “All of that is by design,” says Dr. Walsh. “The industry goes into areas where people don’t make a lot of money– [where] there’s no real grocery store with clean and fresh produce– and floods our neighborhoods with..nutrient poor, calorie dense, low cost..food that people can’t stop eating. It lead[s] them to needing medications [and] surgeries, and early deaths. My question is where is the ethics in that?” he asks.
“It is a form of slave food,” says Dr. Batiste. “‘Slave Food’ is the manipulation of nutrition for profit and power, aimed at communities at risk. And ‘aimed at communities at risk’ is the key…These [processed meat and dairy] foods are the most addictive foods that essentially make us enslaved to it. We end up becoming enslaved [in] our communities where we may have restricted choices. [And] we become enslaved to the government subsidies which make [these] food products cheap…”
“Tying it all together,” Dr. Batiste adds: “first the government [subsidizes] small business loans to build up Black communities with these fast food franchises; then [the government] gives subsidies to the corporations that own those franchises to advertise those brands; and then [the government] subsidizes BigMEAT [meat and dairy production]…It’s a vicious cycle that leads to increased disease in many communities of color…to needing medications, surgeries and ultimately, premature death.”
Indeed, with each generation the cycle is worsening and quickening: as fast food advertising aimed at children increased exponentially over the past half century, the prevalence of obesity more than doubled among children and adolescents and tripled among teens. Obesity in childhood significantly increases risk for associated poor health such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and some forms of cancer. African American children have the highest prevalence of these risk factors, and over the past half century, the percentage of African American children with chronic disease has quadrupled…
“How do we stop this?” Dr. Walsh says, “First, we must educate ourselves…”
Juneteenth this year (2021) marked the first anniversary of the Slave Food online series.. The project actually began back in 2016 as a grassroots lecture series. The doctors traveled to various cities, including NYC and Atlanta, presenting their findings in-person to churches and nonprofits. When COVID hit in 2020 and the lockdowns began, the doctors decided to launch an online interview series, the Slave Food Project to keep the momentum building.
Over the past year, the doctors have interviewed various scholars, healthcare professionals, and culinary experts to examine the causes and consequences of urban communities being disproportionately targeted with fast food; how fast food derives from soul food; how soul food derived from slave food; and how prior to colonization and the slave trade, the true “legacy” diet of West Africans was actually a healthy, healing diet of primarily plant-based foods.
To commemorate the one-year anniversary of their Slave Fooddocuseries, Drs. Batiste and Walsh produced an anniversary special this past Juneteenth, 2021. Their special guests were “two superstars” in the fields of medicine and public health, and experts on the preventive and healing properties of a plant-based diet, Milton Mills, MD, and Tracye McQuirter, MPH:
Tracye Mcquirter is a best-selling author, award-winning public health nutritionist, and a trailblazing food justice activist. As a college student in the 80s, she co-founded a project to feed unhoused residents in downtown Washington, DC. Years later, she was a strategist for a successful lawsuit against the USDA that proved racial and food industry bias in the formation of the U.S. Dietary Guidelines. In 2010, Tracye published her first best-selling book, By Any Greens Necessary, which the New York Times cited as “…a key reason for the popular rise of veganism among African Americans during the last decade.” And just last year, Tracye launched a highly successful campaign called 10,000 Black Vegan Women. As the title suggests, the goal of the campaign was to try and recruit 10,000 Black women to do a 21-day vegan food challenge– and she achieved that goal one week before the program’s official launch.
Joining Tracye on the guest panel was Milton Mills, MD. Dr. Mills earned his medical degree at Stanford University School of Medicine and completed his residency at Georgetown University Hospital. He practices Critical Care and Internal medicine in the Washington DC area, and frequently donates his time at free medical clinics. Dr. Mills has published several research journal articles dealing with racial bias in federal nutrition policy. He’s been a featured physician in multiple documentaries, and he travels widely, speaking at conferences, medical schools, hospitals, churches and civic organizations throughout the country, North America and Europe about his pioneering research.
Program moderator Danette Batiste introduced the Slave Food team and their guests, and set the framing for the Juneteenth special: “…freedom from the bonds of chronic disease as well as liberation from African-american slavery– and how they coincide with one another.“
[For those who may not know, Juneteenth marks the day, June 19, 1865, when slaves in Texas learned they’d been freed two years earlier with Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, but were never told by their slave masters until federal troops arrived two years later. In 2021, Juneteenth became a federal holiday.]
“When I look at the significance of Juneteenth, of people living in bondage when they can be free– living in bondage but surrounded by constraints– my mind immediately goes to health,” says Dr. Batiste.
Dr. Mills agrees: “My motto and my mantra is that Black lives can’t matter until Black health matters,” he says. “The fact is: if we are not healthy our lives don’t have much meaning or much potential. We have got to look at the things that impact our health..People don’t seem to realize that the prevalence of endemic chronic disease within the African-American community has been part of the plan from the very beginning, because sick people are easier to manage [and] manipulate..So before we [can] embrace and receive our true freedom.. we have got to take control of our health.”
“We’re out in the streets as we should be,” adds Tracye McQuirter, “because [African Americans are killed by police at over twice the rate of White Americans]; at least 241 African Americans were shot and killed by police last year. But 300,000 African Americans die every year due to diet-related [preventable] chronic diseases; 50,000 black women a year die of heart disease which is preventable. And that’s just the people that the food kills, not the people that are disabled and have diminished quality of life until they die. [But] we’re not in the streets about that [because] we don’t know about it. It’s not a comparison game– both of these [issues] are systemic– But this is a crisis: it is affecting more people [and] we’re not in the streets about it because we don’t know about it.
“What you eat is the biggest determinant of how healthy you will be,” Tracye explains. “You can’t out-exercise an unhealthy diet. Many people don’t know that, but nutrition is key. [The top three killer diseases] of African Americans are: heart disease, certain cancers, and diabetes. All those diseases start with high cholesterol, high blood pressure, unhealthy weight– and all that is is driven primarily by eating meat and dairy-based foods. For African Americans, it starts with us younger and can be more aggressive in certain cases.
“But even as we get older, we can age healthfully. I think that’s what people really don’t understand. They expect that their health is going to decline as they get older and that they are just going to be taking medication. But it doesn’t have to be that way and you can start at any age really. My mother is now 85 and went vegan 35 years ago in her 50s because she wanted to be able to live the life that she wanted, and do whatever she wanted to do when she got older. That’s freedom,” she says. “[A plant-based diet is..] our best chance of being able to have that kind of freedom of movement, freedom of purpose, freedom to continue to live the life that we want as we age.”
“When I was doing my residency at Loma Linda University,” says Dr. Walsh, “I met a chaplain from Maranatha Prison in Victorville, CA. He described their prison program which gave inmates a choice of two menu plans: one was actually a whole food plant-based menu and the other was the standard California Corrections [prison food] menu. What’s fascinating is the state of California thought nobody would want the healthier plant-based foods, yet the majority of the prisoners actually chose the plant-based food plan. And what they found was that eventually the race-based gangs disappeared; everyone just worked out and played ball together in the yard. They found that there was less violence. And what was most incredible is that they found that the people who ate a whole food plant-based diet as part of their rehabilitation, their recidivism rate went from about 90 percent down to [just] two percent. Interestingly– ultimately the state shut this prison down, and I would argue that’s maybe because this prison was on to something…”
Dr. Mills adds: “Henry Kissinger said if you control the oil, you will control the economy, but if you control the food, you control the people.” And when you look historically at how the US government has dealt with people it has chosen to subjugate, it first started by controlling their food sources. So when the [european colonizers] started their process of genocide against the Native Americans..it first started by burning their crops and destroying their ability to feed themselves. That reduced them to a position of dependency..on government handouts [including..] food that would make them sick, keep them sick, keep them dependent, keep them docile, and have them die early.
“They did the same thing with Africans that they captured and enslaved in the slave labor camps…As Tracye and Columbus have said, the people stolen from West Africa ate mainly a healthy, whole food plant-based diet. And after they were dragged over [to America] and enslaved in these slave labor camps, they were force-fed garbage that was designed to keep them [just healthy enough to work but too weak to fight for their freedom].”
And today, adds Dr. Batitse, “we’re still enslaved in many other ways in terms of health disparities, incarceration rates, wealth disparities. There are still huge differences in equality. And to me, Juneteenth now symbolizes us moving forward and how we actually correct [these inequalities]. It’s one of the reasons we chose this day to start the Slave Food series.
“One of the most inspiring messages that Juneteenth gives us,” says Dr. Mills, “is that justice delayed is not ultimately justice denied. And that is also true for our health: while we may suffer from the ill effects of poor dietary choices, if we change those choices and embrace the healthier plant-based diet [of our African heritage], our bodies have an incredible ability to heal themselves. We can reclaim our health just like we can reclaim our freedom and go on to live free, healthy, whole lives. That’s the message I would like for us to take from Juneteenth this year…”
The Juneteenth special of the Slave Food Project is only about an hour long but chock full of fascinating information and insights, much more than we could adequately capture in this introductory article. We strongly encourage readers to watch the full episode, share the video in your social networks, “Like” and subscribe to their youtube channel, and watch previous episodes as time permits. Every episode we viewed offers breakthrough information on how we can and must revolutionize our food choices.
Further, it should be noted that The Slave Food Project and docuseries is part of a broader social justice project called the Healthy Heart Nation. Its mission is “…to utilize Black professionals to educate the African American community through publications, campaigns, documentaries, lectures, social media, workshops, and community outreach.” If you’re an African American professional, motivated to help educate and inspire, you can fill out their contact form to learn more. And/or if you’d like to support their efforts financially, Healthy Heart Nation is a nonprofit effort and you can click hereto make a donation.