Consider it good timing that Byron Hurt’s documentary “Soul Food Junkies” airs after the holidays, when many people pledge to get healthier in the new year.
In his new project, Hurt hurls stones at a few of the sacred cows of soul food – fried chicken, rich macaroni and cheese, and collard greens with a dollop of grease or a slice (or two) of fatback for seasoning.
While tasty, they’re not exactly at the top of the list of heart-healthy foods. At least, not the way they’ve traditionally been prepared in many African-American kitchens.
“I’m not throwing soul food under the bus,” Hurt said. “I love my culture and I understand that culturally our history is rich. This film talks about the unhealthier aspects of soul food.” He wanted to start a discussion about health and diet with the PBS film, which will be shown at 11 p.m. Sunday, part of “Independent Lens” on WNED-TV Channel 17.
Hurt, a former college quarterback, got the idea for the film shortly after his father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
His dad, Jackie Hurt, battled weight issues for many years, fueled by eating way too much fast-food, processed foods and meals containing lots of saturated fats. While researching pancreatic cancer, Byron Hurt discovered that African-Americans are more likely to be diagnosed with this type of cancer than whites; overweight people and those who don’t get much exercise are at greater risk.
“I started to wonder if his illness had anything to do with his diet,” said Hurt, who lives in New Jersey and now eats a mostly vegetable-based diet. “He talked about changing his eating habits and diet, but it was difficult for him to do.”
In the documentary, which took three years and roughly $500,000 to make, Hurt examines African-Americans and the role eating habits play in their health. In Jackson, Miss., he attended a tailgate party where revelers gathered around a huge pot filled with corn, pigs’ ears and feet, and turkey neck, fare that would make any doctor cringe.
But it also tackles other issues such as fast foods, processed foods and food deserts, neighborhoods where residents have few, if any, options for healthy fare such as fresh fruit and vegetables.
Studies have shown that obesity is a major risk factor for high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and some cancers.
“It’s not just what we eat, but how much we eat, how we prepare it and the lack of exercise,” said Dr. Harry Strothers, chairman of family medicine at the Morehouse School of Medicine. “That combination is what’s deadly.” “I wanted to make this film to honor my father (who died in 2007), and I wanted his life and his memory to potentially have an impact on millions of people,” Hurt said. “I hope people are inspired by his story and consider having conversations with family members who need that extra push to change their diet, to exercise on a regular basis.”