Health as Wealth

On July 19, Breeze Harper, founder of the Sistah Vegan Project, spoke at the University of Pittsburgh on connecting our diet to social justice in a talk titled, "Race, Class, Food and You!" [based on her book chapter "Decolonizing the Diet: A bell hooks approach to Nutritional Liberation for 'At Risk' Youths".]

The challenge, Harper noted, is that "America's concept of wealth and success is monetary and material based, and not rooted in the wealth of a healthy mind, body and soul." And while many people are concerned with healthy eating, Harper explained that the consequences of unhealthy eating habits for middle- and upper-income white youth "are far less life threatening than that of low-income Black and Latino boys who collectively practice junk food consumption and are already 'at risk' in achieving a healthier life."

"Health disparities between Black and white Americans," said Harper, "are the worst legacy of slavery and colonialism." Harper explained, "As health inequities continue to drastically and negatively affect the emotional, physical and mental health of communities of color particularly 'at risk' youths of color decolonization of the diet can no longer be ignored as an integral piece in understanding how to achieve bodily freedom from legacies of colonialism." Decolonization of the diet refers to the process of resisting oppression by rejecting the junk-food diet promoted by profit-minded corporations and replacing it with healthy traditional foods.

Harper demonstrated the effects of such a switch by discussing a pilot study conducted in 2001 by Dr. Antonia Demas, head of the Food Studies Institute in New York. In the study, Dr. Demas worked with nineteen Black and Latino teenagers at the Bay Point Residential School for Boys in Miami, Florida a school in which adjudicated boys are sent by the court system for rehabilitation.

Dr. Demas asked the volunteer students to go on a plant-based whole food vegan diet for three weeks. They learned how to prepare their own food and kept a journal to record how they were feeling.

The whole food vegan diet had a dramatically healthful affect on the minds, bodies and spirits of the Bay Point participants. Although initially skeptical, the boys became enthusiastic proponents of their new diet because of how much better they felt. Harper noted, "Dr. Demas' pilot study is an act of decolonization because the boys are taught how to heal their bodies and minds from the violence and aggression of colonialism that they were consuming in their foods and soft drinks foods that literally affected their mental and emotional states and made them more susceptible to behavioral patterns constructed as 'criminal' by the court systems of America," said Harper.

With a new model of freedom based on health as wealth, the boys were able to reclaim their mental and physical health from a dependency on consumer goods and unhealthy eating habits. Three weeks on a low-cost, whole food vegan diet and eight glasses of water a day had a truly rehabilitative affect on the boys. Harper noted that such rehabilitation is beyond the capability of the Prison Industrial Complex, which doesn't attempt to restore people to health, but instead relies on their continued and repeated incarceration as a source of profit.

Harper sees implications beyond "at-risk" youth. "Because our collective failing health and lack of access to and knowledge about whole foods diets is a byproduct of colonialism and slavery, and because health is our greatest wealth," said Harper, "the decolonization of the diet and our current misunderstanding of 'healthy well-being' must be of the utmost priority among ourselves, people dedicated to social justice for people of color and low-income peoples, and anyone looking to understand how deeply connected our food and health systems are to our social justice system and creating effective decolonization strategies."

Harper encouraged communities of color to challenge health standards. "We must no longer accept the lack of healthy food resources, community gardens and nutritional information in our neighborhoods. People of color have organized at the grassroots level to bring necessary social justice changes to our communities that many found inconceivable." Harper added, "It is now our turn to mobilize, get involved with community activism, boycott the 'death food' industry, and bring life giving foods to our communities. We must start at why we were colonized and actively fight against the enslavement of our people; people who have been enslaved as harvesters [are] now consumers of products and the mentality of our colonizer."

"Race, Class, Food & You!" was sponsored by AnimalFreedom and Voices for Animals of Western Pennsylvania. Breeze Harper is editor of the forthcoming anthology, "Sistah Vegan! Food, Health, Identity, and Society: Female Vegans of the African Diaspora," which includes an essay by a local Sistah Vegan. You can contact Harper and the Sistah Vegan Project at breezeharper[at]gmail.com or visit the Web site at www.sistahveganproject.com.

(First published in The NewPeople on Sept. 7, 2007.)