MLK Speaker: Poor diet is threat to young Americans

The United States is often ranked as one of the unhealthiest countries in the world simply because of the kinds of food its citizens consume.

"Obesity is a huge issue, preventable diet-related illnesses are a huge issue in the United States. Serious diseases related to what we eat kill three out of four Americans each year," said Bryant Terry, a chef and food justice activist who served as the University of South Dakota's Martin Luther King, Jr., Day speaker Tuesday night.

"We're looking at one of the first moments in history where this generation risks having a shorter lifespan than the older generation," he said.

Since 2001, Terry has stressed the importance of making sure all people have access to better, healthier foods.

Many of the health problems from which people suffer could be ameliorated through a change of diet, he said.

"It's not my goal to convert people into veganism. … I don't think it's my place to tell anyone what their diet should be. I think it's a personal decision," Terry said. "I do understand that plants in our diets are increasingly being suggested to help combat a lot of illnesses that are brought on by what we eat."

The communities most affected by these health problems are low-income communities of color, he said.

Nationally speaking, 38.2 percent of African Americans and 35.9 percent of Latino youths aged 2-19 are obese or overweight, compared to 29.3 percent of whites, Terry said.

While people are responsible for what they eat, the nutrition choices a person makes are often influenced by what is available.

"When all they have access to is corner stores with cigarettes and alcohol, with processed, packaged foods, then we're dealing with the issue of availability and how that limits the way the people are able to take care of themselves," Terry said.

A resident of Oakland, CA, Terry said the neighborhood in which he lived in 2007 had a "plethora of healthy food stores," all within walking distance.

If you were to go 10 minutes in the opposite direction, you would be in West Oakland, which did not have one supermarket at that time, he said.

"They did not have one single supermarket, but they had 53 liquor stores and corner stores," Terry said. "Not only do these stores carry the worst processed foods … but oftentimes, the prices are 49 percent higher than you'd find in a full-service supermarket."

Additionally, many residents had no means of transportation to get to the better stores.

"Imagine having to carry a week's worth of groceries on a bus or a subway," Terry said. "Or better yet, if … you're a young mom and you have to do this with kids. So it's a pretty tough thing that people have to deal with."

This is what food justice activists are trying to combat, he said.

"Everyone has a right to healthful, affordable, sustainable, culturally-appropriate, good food," he said.

However, Terry said food justice activists are not trying to affect change through the old "do what we say model."

"We're really letting the people in the communities drive and own the projects that are being implemented to create change in the communities," he said.

In helping these most-impacted communities, ideas can be found that will be beneficial to everyone, he said.

This is some of what Terry said he tries to stress through his work, which is based on three pillars: Preserving ancestral traditions, the use of mass media and pop culture to move people and the use of cooking as an organizing and base-building tool.

These and other areas will be explored through his new Web-based series, "Urban Organic," which premiered Tuesday.

Terry said he was proud to take part in USD's Martin Luther King, Jr., Day events.

Although he grew up in Memphis – where King was assassinated – he had not thought about King's legacy for many years. Then in 2010, Terry began to think of King in terms of his humanity.

"So often we read biographies and we see these biopics on TV, these hagiographies that kind of paint Dr. King and all these historical figures as larger than life," Terry said. "He was just a human being."

And as a human being, King had flaws.

"For me, the significance of that helped me understand that he's no different than you, he's no different than all of us, and given that, we all have an opportunity to do great things. You don't have to be a super-person, you don't have to be some brilliant person, you don't have to have advantages. You can simply step into your greatness," Terry said.

For more information about Terry and "Urban Organic," visit http://pic.tv/urban-organic/.

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