A Taste of History
February 11th, 2012 - By Lari Robling
From the introduction of okra during slavery to the unsung women who fed the Montgomery Bus Boycott protestors, food has played an enduring role in African American history. Today, Philadelphia’s Mother Bethel Church uses this legacy to help provide the congregation and the community with steps to healthy food choices.
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One aspect of the Civil Rights movement that is often overlooked is the role of food. In his blog, Food As A Lens, Frederick Douglas Opie showcases this power. During the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, Georgia Gilmore lost her job as a cook in a white owned lunch counter after testifying for the cause. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave her the money to start her own catering business, when people were laid off because of their stance she would provide at cost meals. In addition, at least once a week there was a big meeting at one of the churches talking about what we were going to do next. She would sell food at the events, she would then donate a large percentage of what she made to the Montgomery Improvement Association. I see the role of women in those movements as integral and many people don’t even know about that history.”
Chef Bryant Terry is the author of Vegan Soul Kitchen. Soul Food, he says, has always evolved, “it’s this amalgamation of staples and cooking techniques from Africa, the Caribbean, Native Americans, Europeans and it’s always been moving and changing from African Americans working on trains going up to the urban north, with chefs on the trains, or Buffalo soldiers going out to the West Coast. We can’t keep it in this place that it was two centuries ago. We have to constantly think about how we can reinvent it to meet the dietary needs, whatever concerns people have in the modern world.”
Here in Philadelphia, Brenda Shelton Dunston is Health Commissioner of the Mother Bethel AME Church where there is a tradition of focusing on care for the community. “It was established in the early 1800’s by Bishop Richard Allen. He also established the legacy of focus on health as a result of his direct involvement to assist individuals who were stricken with yellow fever. That legacy we continue with our focus on health.” Awareness is critical says Shelton Dunston, “be it heart disease, obesity, diabetes, kidney disease, the African American community we are affected by those chronic illnesses 2, 3 and 4 times that of the general population. In years past, we did not have a choice, we have a choice now. We must understand the connectedness of what we eat, and the impact that it may have.”
Church officials recognized that if the congregation wasn’t eating well at church functions, they were part of the problem. Changes had to be made, but how to do it without protest! “It wasn’t that we had donuts and the next Sunday there were no donuts. We initially introduced the fruit and yogurt and nuts and granola as options. The donuts were still there. We slowly reduced the number of donuts and increased healthy options of fruits and the yogurt, etc.”
Making small changes over time worked. And Shelton-Dunston says holding health education and exercise classes at the same time strengthened the message.