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Backstory: Southern discomfort food

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From the fried chitterlings at The Varsity in Atlanta to the fried chicken with gravy at Mama Dip's in Chapel Hill, N.C., it's popular fare - and increasingly controversial in a health-conscious age.

Alabama's Black Belt Action Commission, a group formed to improve living conditions in the state's poorest counties, is among those trying to change dietary habits. It is pushing to replicate Wilson's efforts at Selma High across the state. Last year, the school started doing health screenings on students and brought in older blacks to talk about how their "harmful" food choices impacted their health in later years. That led to a revamp of the cafeteria menu to favor baked foods over fried, as well as the removal of soda and snack machines from the halls.

For Wilson, it's a broader philosophical battle, one backed by top doctors in the state. As a health major in college, Wilson says the causes of problems in his city - recently deemed the "fattest in the state" - are obvious: an older generation cooking rich foods that contribute to obesity and health woes.

He's quick to note that lard-soaked Southern foods are adversely affecting black people more than whites: Statistics show African-Americans gaining weight faster. BlackHealthCare.com, a website devoted to African-American health issues, recently wrote that increased health risks among blacks in the Carolinas and Georgia is rooted partly in "a regional preference for salty, high-fat foods."

In a city that once awakened the country to civil rights issues, it seems everyone from Mayor James Perkins to School Board member John Terry is reevaluating their daily vittles. "We have the obligation to alert students that a lot of your good stuff has got plenty of fats in it," says Mr. Terry, who has had to temper his own consumption of favorite foods: fried chicken, fried catfish, barbecue, and ice cream.

Terry acknowledges that food is hardly the only cause of the city's health issues. "Some of it is also hereditary, and part of it would be laziness, a failure to exercise," he says.

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