This urban farmer and author says that growing your own food is neither "slave work" nor a passing trend.
Obesity is more common in African Americans than in other ethnic groups. But when it comes to black people and weight, that's where the agreement seems to end. Is food the culprit? Is exercise the solution? Is there even a real problem to begin with, or should we be focusing on health -- or even self-acceptance -- rather than the number on the scale?
Against the backdrop of the first lady's mission to slim down the nation's kids, black celebs getting endorsements after shedding inches and a booming weight-loss industry, The Root will publish a series of interviews with medical professionals, activists and fitness enthusiasts that reveal the complexity of this issue and the range of approaches to it.
For the fourth in the series, The Root talked to Will Allen, author of the Good Food Revolution: Growing Healthy Food, People and Communities. A former professional basketball player and executive at KFC and Procter & Gamble, he now runs Growing Power, a nonprofit organization that has several urban farm sites in Wisconsin and Illinois, including one farm half a mile away from Milwaukee's largest public housing project. He has made it his mission to spread the word about the health and community benefits of local food systems.
The Root: According to the latest statistics, African Americans are 1.5 times as likely to be obese as whites. What's going on, from your perspective, with black people, obesity and overall health?
Will Allen: I have the opportunity to travel around the country to major cities, smaller towns, places in the South, small towns where agriculture once ruled. Most people who lived there, back in the day, were involved in agriculture. We've unfortunately kind of lost agriculture as an occupation. And now, in states like Mississippi, for example, 50 percent of citizens are obese.
But today I've seen more African Americans wanting to go back into production for a lot of different reasons, and one of the main reasons is health. They want to survive, to have their children live healthy lives, to have to grow food, from a legacy standpoint. Especially with the first lady kicking in and putting in a small garden at the White House -- after that, over 10 million people started gardening for the first time.
It's not going to happen overnight, but I'm starting to see many folks who are starting to garden again. People used to come up to me and say, "Why are you doing slave work?" I don't hear that anymore. And that's good, because it's not -- it's smart. This isn't a fad, it isn't a trendy thing. It's a thing around our survival.
TR: When it comes to African Americans and obesity, what is the biggest myth or misunderstanding?
WA: I think the bigger misunderstanding is that it's just African-American folks that are obese, when in fact, we all are, regardless of ethnic makeup, nationality, whatever. We're all in trouble, and it's not all about obesity. It's about what's in our food. The good news, though, is that everyone wants to do something about it these days.
TR: If you could make just one suggestion for people to implement in their daily lives with respect to weight and health, what would it be?
WA: Start growing food. Even if you live in an apartment -- if you've got a balcony, grow a pot of salad mix. If you've got a backyard, grow something. A 10-by-10 garden with proper soil -- grow a percentage of your food, start with that.
Or go to a farmers market and engage with the local farmers. They are suffering, they need help and they're the ones who are going to bring in the healthy food for you. Shop on the exterior of the grocery store, and look for the local sections.
TR: What cultural and historical or psychological issues make up the black community's relationship with weight and health?
WA: A lot of it has to do with lack of access. If you can only access fast food, if you can only access high-sugar, high-salt content foods, we're going to have an unhealthy population. And the biggest problem that everyone overlooks is that some of our schools serve some of the worst food in the world.
Next: Danielle Moodie Mills, the National Wildlife Foundation's senior manager of environmental education.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root's staff writer.