African Heritage Diet as Medicine: How Black Food Can Heal the Community

We’ve been conditioned to think that traditional Black food is not nutritious, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. History and food are a source of empowerment to change the narrative regarding nutrition and health across the African diaspora.

Building a Legacy of Generational Health in the Heartland

Growing up in Oklahoma, as I snapped fresh green beans with my maternal grandma, I would hear phrases, "Eat like your grandmother to reach a ripe old age," or about "getting good genes in the family." Well, a 2018 study published in Genetics that analyzed family trees of more than 400 million people suggested that genetics are not as influential on life span as I would have thought. The truth is, what you eat, the company you keep and how you live your life are more impactful.

In the tale of my two grandmothers who lived a mile apart in Northeast Oklahoma City, while genetically not related, both had diabetes later in life. And both women dealt with trauma, grief and loss, but how they lived their lives and managed their conditions differed greatly. My paternal grandmother Ruby, a pragmatic woman of faith, just celebrated her 96th birthday. She grew up in Eufaula, Oklahoma, where her grandfather Jiles operated the family farm. She later moved to the city, working as a nurse for 35 years at the University of Oklahoma Medical Center.

Over her lifetime, my grandma Ruby has overcome a stroke and has managed her type 2 diabetes for decades. Whereas my late maternal grandmother Minnie Mae, affectionately known as Nannie, stayed home, smoked cigarettes, ate sweets, had a pacemaker and died from complications of diabetes in her 70s. Fast forward: Nannie's death sparked my pursuit of wellness, which I shared in my TEDx Talk on how women are reclaiming our heritage food as medicine.

a collage of the author and her two grandmothers
Courtesy Photos. Design: Tambra Stevenson.

My grandmothers are not alone in the fight against diabetes. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 37 million Americans live with diabetes, of whom 90% to 95% of them have type 2 diabetes. The CDC has also reported that people with diabetes are twice as likely to have heart disease or a stroke (which was the case for both my grandmothers)—and at a younger age—compared to someone who doesn't have diabetes. The longer someone has diabetes, the chances of heart disease increase. And those stats increase sharply if you're Black, due to systemic racism that affects social and economic conditions. That's why I proclaimed when Nannie died that diabetes would not become a part of my heritage and generational health.

Finding My Black Food Roots in the Motherland

As the only Black undergraduate student in the nutrition program at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater at the time, I was being taught, unconsciously, that my food culture was part of the problem when it came to the health in our communities. This was without any acknowledgment of the inherent healthiness of many traditional Black foods. There was no historical context or willingness to see humanity in the struggle and survival of Black people consuming foods such as chitlins, hot links, stewed beans with neck bones, watermelon, collard greens cooked with smoked meats, and gumbo. Our food, like Black people, has risen like the phoenix, enduring, resisting and recovering from being weaponized to being liberated. From farm to fork, we see this liberation in the work of Leah Penniman's Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm's Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land and Chef Bryant Terry's Black Food. That liberatory journey began for me after I lost my firefighting father, Calvin Coolidge Hill Jr., tragically in 2007. Honoring our shared love of food and family history kick-started my self-discovery journey to live life with no regrets and on my own terms. For me that meant returning to the Motherland.

In search of my Black food roots, I embarked on a trip in 2016 to reclaim my African heritage and health. Thanks to African Ancestry for the DNA clues, I became the first in six generations to return to my ancestral land, home of the Fulani people in northern Nigeria. After a six-hour drive from Abuja, Nigeria, to the ruga ("village" in Hausa) in Kano, I was greeted with fura de nono (fermented milk and millet)—a traditional dish. The women prepared for me kuka and tuwo—which is baobab leaves and rice balls, along with zobo (a hibiscus drink). I walked the streets with Fulani herdsmen and their cattle and petted baby goats in the ruga, reminding me of life in Oklahoma. Once there, the values that spoke to my cultural well-being were clear: faith, family, freedom and, above all, food. I felt belonged, transformed and renewed in my soul.

a photo of the author during a trip in Nigeria eating baobab
Courtesy Photo. Design: Tambra Stevenson.

Remembering Our Food Freedom Fighters and Meal Healers—and Continuing Their Mission

In celebration of Black History Month and beyond, we are resurrecting the soul of Black food and paying homage to the culinary creators and meal healers who have poured their love into continuing the delectable and healing traditions of our families and communities. Black food is a shared story of resistance, resilience, restoration and liberation.

That celebration begins with everyday mamas, aunties, nanas and sisters who toiled and labored in kitchens and on farms to preserve our heritage and wellness through food. That's why, in 2015, I founded WANDA (Women Advancing Nutrition, Dietetics and Agriculture) to reclaim the healing power of heritage foods by unlocking the power of Black women and girls who have been the hidden figures in our food system for too long. Cultivating a sisterhood, we are bringing women together to educate and advocate for generational health and embrace a healing culture through growing and cooking Black food to honor our heritage.

Historically, Black people come from a culture of communalism: "ubuntu," which is a Bantu term translated as "I am because we are," with an understanding that "our liberty is bound together." Furthering the point, the roots of her mantra extend an old African proverb that states, "If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together." If we want to heal our communities, we begin with healing our meals together. So we honor the women who find purpose and joy in cooking for their community, which is also their medicine.

a photo of various African foods
Photo: Getty Images. Design: Tambra Stevenson.

What Is the African Heritage Diet? The African Heritage Diet draws from the rich culinary traditions of Africa and the African Diaspora. Here's what you need to know.

Resisting a Black Food Monolithic Narrative

Black food is constantly evolving. It's not monolithic or stuck in one place. Black food culture is as expansive as continental Africa. So a narrow lens is insufficient in telling the story of Black food.

From the Caribbean, South America and the Southern states of the U.S., the diasporic journey of Black food has a dynamic story to tell. And within the U.S., you can find Black regional cuisines ranging from the Low Country, New England, the Southwest, West Coast and the Black cowboy culture of the Heartland that I call home. Yet, even within Black food culture and books, certain regional cuisines are overrepresented while others are not captured at all.

Traveling across America and the Caribbean has given me the privilege to taste the range and depth of Black food culture that's emerged into contemporary fusion fare with a rich history. While in Jamaica, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, I have enjoyed horchata (originally made from tiger nut) and sorrel (made from hibiscus), beverages that both have West African roots, washing my palate after a curry dish with callaloo, rice and peas and plantains or a plate of mofongo.

In the Cajun country of Louisiana, I have enjoyed the late Leah Chase's Gumbo Z'Herbes, jambalaya and gumbo at Dooky Chase's. I snacked on boiled peanuts while in the Black Belt region of Georgia.

Back home in Oklahoma, a bowl of pinto beans and cornbread with the holy trinity of greens (mustard, collard and turnip) topped with hot sauce and a baked sweet potato on the side brings me happiness. Texas caviar (also referred to as "cowboy caviar") and purple hull pea dishes of the Lone Star State are my other home.

On a drive to the Carolinas' Low Country, Carolina Gold rice, Hoppin' John and stewed okra and tomatoes have brought me fond memories. Prior to that, I made a pit stop in the Appalachians, enjoying pawpaw fruit and sorghum dishes. By living in D.C., I eat my way through Africa, from injera with shiro and gomen, to pepper soup, jollof rice and Moroccan tagines with mint teas. But I can't forget my graduate school days in New England, where I had my share of seafood dishes. Now Black Bostonian-owned The Pearl restaurant is shaping Black food there. Collectively the regional scene is changing the narrative.

2 Stuffed Collard Greens with Mamba 9 Sauce on a plate
Brittany Conerly

Get the recipe: Collard & Rice Dumplings with Mamba 9 Sauce

And we can't forget about soul food. The name "soul food" holds significance to the Black community and to me. Adopted during the Black Power movement, the term "soul food" represented strength, pride, beauty and returning to our African roots. Soul food is more than fried chicken, macaroni and cheese and biscuits, which are descendants of a colonized cuisine. For many of us, the "soul" of Black food is a blessing but also represents power and culture.

Soul food, like my DNA, is not 100% African but mixed with European and American Indigenous roots. Yet we have embraced it as a 100% signifier to Black culture, which has historically been "othered" or viewed as "poverty food" with a colonial gaze. So it's no surprise to see the villainization and omission of soul food's contributions to American cuisine. Yet, recently, it has gained a resurgence as more Black chefs, nutritionists, writers and cooks are embracing the original intent behind the term.

Black food traditions have sustained us, though some have been lost over generations due to migration, modern food systems, suppression, oppression and trauma. Historians and scholars like Jessica B. Harris, Ph.D., Adrian Miller, Toni Tipton-Martin and Michael Twitty have solidly captured this sentiment in their groundbreaking works.

When celebrating the intersectional identities within Black food culture, we ensure we are all seen, heard and valued. Furthermore, by interlocking racialized, gendered, geographical, religious, social and economic identities, we ensure the reemergence of a Black food culture truly heals all on the journey to wellness.

Restoring Our Health One Meal at a Time

"We have been conditioned that Black food is framed only from an unhealthful lens," says Shaun Chavis, founder of Atlanta-based LVNGBook, which develops customized, cultural cookbooks for chronic diseases. That lens is shifting as I type. Just as Black chefs such as Alexander Smalls, Mashama Bailey, Pierre Thiam, Marcus Samuelsson, Kwame Onwuachi and Todd Richards have fought to elevate Black foods to their gourmet status, there is an emerging movement of Black nutrition advocates like Maya Feller, M.S., RD, author of Eating From Our Roots and Kera Nyemb-Diop, Ph.D., working to change the narrative and advocate for Black food as our medicine. They are not alone in this crusade. Black farmers like Bonnetta Adeeb, co-director of Ujamaa Cooperative Farming Alliance in Accokeek, Maryland, have joined the movement of preserving and growing food for the culture one seed at a time.

"We have Black people believing that they can't eat collard greens," says Adeeb. "But the reality is our foods can be healthy, tasty and beautiful." Ujamaa Cooperative serves as the bridge between the past and the future by identifying what's meaningful to maintain for future generations by preserving heritage seeds and telling their stories. Adeeb's group is working through the Heirloom Collard Project with other seed savers, farmers, activists and academics to preserve and reconnect people to rarer collard varieties. "And it's working because research shows that Black Americans eat more greens and legumes than any other group in the United States," says Chavis.

For dietitian Franciel Ikeji, M.S., RD, owner of Better Nutrition, Better You in Maryland, "Wellness is more than nutrients that we're putting into our body, but it's part of our culture and history."

Bammy with Basil-Tamarind Pistou
Brittany Conerly

Get the recipe: Collard & Rice Dumplings with Mamba 9 Sauce

Ikeji's memories were of fresh herbs, like cerasee, picked from her Jamaican grandparents' garden to prepare tea in Texas. They gave her this tea when she wasn't feeling well. "Having the ability to eat your cultural foods and having access to those ingredients and being able to prepare and consume them is all part of that wellness. We should not negate our own and where we come from and the wonderfully healthy ingredients that are a part of our foodways," says Ikeji.

From my discussion with Ikeji, she shared: "Foods are supposed to be making us feel better, helping us to function optimally, healing our bodies essentially." When she had a cold, her father, like mine, would make chicken noodle soup. Except hers added a Jamaican twist with dumplings. Like Ikeji, Chavis shared the healing remedy of potlikker—the remaining broth after boiling the greens, like collards, which contains high amounts of essential vitamins and minerals, including iron, vitamin A and vitamin C—used in their families. Her grandfather made mushroom soup because he felt it improved his blood pressure, which has been proven scientifically, per a 2021 review published in The American Journal of Medicine.

The Role of the African Heritage Diet in Wellness

In 2012, when I founded NATIVSOL Kitchen, I launched the pilot program for Oldways' A Taste of African Heritage and Health in Washington, D.C., at Masjid Muhammad. I led the classes on how we can achieve wellness and freedom through our food by remixing our recipes and reclaiming our heritage to restore their health. In these Pan-African nutrition empowerment classes, we boosted flavors with spices, made vegetables, not meat, the center of our plates, added beans and rice as a staple, finished with fruits as desserts, and drank for our health with the company of family and friends. We made room for celebration foods while still discussing how to move from foods that were "fried, died and laid to the side" to bold, vibrant and strong—like Black people. In doing so, we elevated our consciousness and our relationships with food and one another. We kept the conversation of Black food as medicine as the main dish without the sides of oppression and colonization.

While our ancestors built the U.S. food system, Black people are disproportionately dying from an unjust system due to preventable diet-related diseases. Unfortunately, the current research to better understand the nutritional benefits of African heritage foods to improve Black health is limited compared to the volume of research examining the impact of the Mediterranean diet. A 2015 study published in Nature Communications reported how African Americans who swapped diets for two weeks with rural Africans, ate a low-fat (20% of energy), high-fiber diet and experienced positive changes in their metabolism and gut microbiome and had a lowered risk for colon cancer. In contrast, Africans eating a Standard American diet, low in fiber and high in fat, experienced increased colon cancer polyps and inflammation.

If we need an alternative to the Standard American diet, then reallocating research investments into the African Heritage Diet and diversifying the nutrition field should be on the agenda for the departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services. The African Heritage Diet, as defined by food and nutrition nonprofit Oldways, is a way of eating based on the healthy food traditions of people with African roots. It's powerfully nutritious and delicious and naturally meets the guidelines experts recommend for supporting good health.

While waiting for the funding and system reform, nutritionists like Feller and Ikeji have limited sophisticated technology and tools to guide their patients on their cultural diets, resulting in non-compliance or incremental change. Food is identity, power and medicine. "We are doing a disservice when we don't adequately invest research dollars into foods that a large percentage of the population are eating or are connected to culturally. Policymakers and industry can begin directing their [research and design] budgets towards a growing population and palates that seek and consume African heritage diets. Therefore the U.S. government needs to see the same level of research dollars invested in African heritage foods," says Ikeji. Other food and nutrition activists, like Feller and Adeeb, agree.

Additionally, nutrition researchers like Angela Odoms-Young, Ph.D., an associate professor and director of the Food and Nutrition Education in Communities Program at Cornell University, argue that addressing structural determinants such as the racial wealth gap and mass incarceration is key to reducing nutrition insecurity and providing access to cultural foods like the African Heritage Diet. "Cultural foods can maximize the cultural wealth that can improve structural oppression," says Odoms-Young. The African Heritage Diet is resilient and has contributed to the American diet, but has not been recognized widely in the field of nutrition, compared to the work of Black food historians and chefs in making this acknowledgment.

So, how can we advance Black food as medicine as part of reparations?

Advocating for Black Food as Wellness

Here's what can you do to advocate for Black food as medicine:

  1. Start conversations in safe spaces to mobilize your community. For WANDA, that's hosting WANDA Week, which celebrates the contributions of Black women in food, agriculture and nutrition the week of Juneteenth, and Sisterhood Supper, which gather Black women and their families for a Juneteenth celebration with a communal meal and honoring local food "sheroes."
  2. Support the Food Bill of Rights to reflect our values and guide our food policies.
  3. Ask your local food retail market to stock Black food brands and produce and tell your friends to do the same.
  4. Get involved in your local food policy councils at your city, county or state level.
  5. Diversify procurement systems in hospital food service, corporate food service, school food and health insurance companies with Black farmers, restaurants, food purveyors and nutritionists.
  6. Give yourself the freedom and permission to consume foods from your culture.
  7. Read Black food writers and invite them to your community and organization to challenge your perspective and dismantle the narrative that Black food is unhealthy.
  8. Grow something like Ron Finley, starting with African heritage seeds in pots or plots of land with Ujamaa.
  9. Take the Black Food census survey to share your experience with Black food.

In memory and love of my Nannie and the countless ancestors who healed our meals and fought for our freedom, I am reclaiming our Black food as medicine to create generational health as the new form of wealth. I hope you do too.

In closing, let the resounding words of human rights activist Ella Baker be food for your soul: "We who believe in freedom cannot rest." For me, that means the freedom to heal my meals with Black food, the freedom to eat my foods without a taste of shame, and the freedom to tell my Black food story. Also, it means the freedom to instill pride in the next generation like my children—Elliott and Ruby—about Black food culture and the freedom to earn a good living dishing it. Ultimately, our stories, like our food, are our medicine. Ashe!


Guest Editor: Tambra Raye Stevenson, M.P.H., M.A.Credits

Coordinating Staff Editors: Maria Laura Haddad-Garcia and Carolyn Malcoun

Contributors: Adante Hart, Ashley Carter, Cordialis Msora-Kasago, Ederique Goudia, Franciel Ikeji, Jessica B. Harris, Matthew Raiford, Maya Feller, Pierre Thiam, Suzanne Barr and Zoe Adjonoh.

Visuals & Design: Tambra Stevenson, Brittany Conerly, Maria Emmighausen and Cassie Basford

Special Thanks: Dr. Mackenzie Price, Rebecca Newman, Sarah Anderson, Penelope Wall, Victoria Seaver, Sophie Johnson, Alysia Bebel, Addie Knight, Allison Little, Riley Steffen, Anne Treadwell, Jessica Ball, Alex Loh, Hilary Meyer, Dani DeAngelis, Eleanor Chalstrom, Nadine Bradley, Wendy Ruopp and the entire staff of EatingWell.

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