April 7 is “World Health Day,” and this year the focus is on ending diabetes. African Americans are disproportionately affected by diabetes, which is one of the most serious health problems our country faces today. But there’s a home-grown movement spreading across America which may change that…and it’s being shepherded by African American men.
Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food – Genesis 1:29 (NIV)
A few months ago, I received a call, informing me that my close friend Allison had suffered a stroke – a diagnosis which seems to be much too common these days. She’s actually one of three women I know who’ve suffered from this condition in recent years, and they all have very noticeable things in common. They are:
- African American
- Working in high-stress, often hostile environments
- Self-described as overweight
- In their early to mid-50’s
African Americans and Native Americans are affected disproportionately by diabetes more than any other ethnic groups in America, with Latino Americans factoring in third. African American adults are 80 percent more likely than white adults to have been diagnosed with diabetes by a physician, and are twice as likely as Whites to die from the disease .
The proper diet can make all the difference in controlling diabetes. However, when we’re stressed, our comfort foods are one of the few “comforts” we believe we have – and that was certainly the case with my friend Allison. The difference in her story? Her husband George.
George immediately took over the leadership of his family’s nutrition, planting a garden in their back yard with methods he’d learned as a boy from his father, and cooking healthy fare which helped bring his wife back to optimum health. And Allison? She’s now back at work, healthy, and more than 60 pounds lighter.
Allison’s husband is part of a growing worldwide trend which reveals that men of African descent are taking the health and nutritional well-being of their families and their communities into their own hands. Around the globe, black men seem to be remembering the ancestral wisdom of God which reminds us to go back to the earth for nourishment; men like Jimmy Williams, author of “From Seed To Skillet,” who learned all about vegetable gardening from his grandmother, a South Carolina native from a traditional Gullah community whose members were descendants of Caribbean slaves. Or Purcell Keeling, who has owned Simply Wholesome, a health food restaurant and market in Los Angeles, for almost 30 years. Or Bryce Fluellen, a Chef Instructor with the American Heart Association, who’s changing the eating habits of our children one classroom at a time.
On this World Health Day, we’re profiling three African American men who are game changers in the healthy-eating movement:
RON FINLEY – “I planted my Eden in my front yard,” said South Central Los Angeles artist and designer Ron Finley, affectionately known as “The Gangsta Gardener.” Finley’s vision for a healthy, accessible “food forest” started with the curbside vegetable garden he planted in the strip of dirt in front of his own house. When the city tried to shut it down, Finley’s fight gave voice to a larger movement that provides nourishment, empowerment, education, and healthy, hopeful futures – one urban garden at a time.
“I planted my Eden in my front yard” – Ron Finley
He calls South Central Los Angeles the “home of the drive-thru and the drive-by,” and it’s the drive-thru fast-food stands that contribute more to the area’s poor health and high mortality rate, with one in two kids contracting a curable disease like Type 2 diabetes. In the two years since his appearance at TED, a global set of conferences which uses its video-recorded lectures as a medium for spreading new ideas, Finley’s work has quickly become celebrated worldwide, making him a bit of a phenomenon. He’s now featured in a film which raises awareness about urban gardening called “Can You Dig This,” directed by Delila Vallot and executive produced by John Legend.
BRYANT TERRY is reconnecting us with our healthy, vegetable-based African food traditions. He is a 2015 James Beard Foundation Leadership Award-winning chef, educator, and author renowned for his activism to create a healthy, just, and sustainable food system. His started with his own family by transforming traditional soul food staples into mouth-watering, healthy fare. “More than anyone else,” said Terry in his book Afro-Vegan: Farm-Fresh African, Caribbean, & Southern Flavors Remixed, “people of African descent should honor, cultivate, and consume food from the African diaspora…[those traditions] connect us to our ancestors and bring the past into the present day.”
He’s also known as a DJ, creatively paring his recipes with musical suggestions and spinning music wherever his food is served. He is currently the inaugural Chef in Residence at the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) in San Francisco where he creates programming that celebrates the intersection of food, farming, health, activism, art, culture, and the African Diaspora.
“Food from the African diaspora connects us to our ancestors” – Bryant Terry
Bryant is the author of four books: critically acclaimed Vegan Soul Kitchen: Fresh, Healthy, and Creative African-American Cuisine; The Inspired Vegan; Grub; and his latest title, Afro Vegan, Farm-fresh African, Caribbean & Southern Flavors Remixed (Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, CA, 2014). In 2002, Bryant founded b-healthy (Build Healthy Eating and Lifestyles to Help Youth), a multi-year initiative in New York City designed to empower youth to be more active in fighting for a more sustainable food system. He continues to collaborate with schools and community organizations around the country to inspire, educate, and empower young people to be active in the food justice movement.
THE REVEREND RICHARD JOYNER – Over the last 10 years or so, Conetoe, NC has become the center of a movement for healthy living, driven by the Reverend Richard Joyner, pastor of Conetoe Chapel Missionary Baptist Church. A predominantly African-American community, Conetoe, which is just outside of Raleigh-Durham, is surrounded by farmland, but the nearest grocery store is 10 miles away. This makes Conetoe one of the country’s many “food deserts,” where fresh, nutritious food is not readily available.
Rev. Joyner was inspired to make a change in his town after watching many of his parishioners die from preventable diseases.”Diabetes, high blood pressure…we counted 30 funerals in one year,” Rev. Joyner said. “I couldn’t ignore it because I was spending more time in funerals than anything else.”
As a result, he started a community garden, enlisting the help of the children in his congregation. Today, his nonprofit, the Conetoe Family Life Center, manages more than 20 plots of land, including one 25-acre site. More than 80 young people help Joyner plan, plant and harvest nearly 50,000 pounds of fresh food a year. Much of this produce is given away to local residents, but the students also sell the food – including their own brand of honey – to businesses and restaurants, raising money for school supplies and scholarships.
“By nourishing plants, you’re nourishing community. It’s one and the same” – Reverend Richard Joyner
The youth also learn healthy cooking techniques, which they in turn share with their families. As a result, the community is healthier and doctor visits are down. These efforts, Rev. Joyner says, are having other amazing benefits as well. “One of the biggest things the youth are learning here are social skills – how to relate to each other and have healthy relationships. They also get to practice skills like science and math; they learn about pricing, marketing,” says Joyner.
“Growing food calls us to work together,” he said. “By nourishing plants, you’re nourishing community. It’s one and the same. If we just let them explore and create a safe space for them, most of the time they’ll come up with an answer for themselves. And when youth become creative, wow – they think outside of the box.”
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Bryant Terry’s books are available HERE, on http://www.bryant-terry.com/.
 American Diabetes Association http://www.diabetes.org/diabetes-basics/statistics/. Accessed 4/05/2016.
 US Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Minority Health http://minorityhealth.hhs.gov/omh/browse.aspx?lvl=4&lvlID=18. Accessed 4/05/2016.
 Many thanks to CNN.com, and CNN Heroes.