Last Tuesday, the crunching sound of nachos and vegetables filled a seminar room in the Perkins LINK. Toward the side of the room was a table full of food, including goat cheese, grapes and fresh vegetables from the Duke Campus Farm. The commotion was a result of Food For Thought’s screening of “Soul Food Junkies.” Following the screening, four people from different backgrounds discussed the film with students who attended the event.

In the film, Byron Hurt, the narrator, travels throughout the country to discover the history of soul food and its ties to African-American culture. He also sheds light on the negative health effects of what was traditionally considered to be soul food and the changing definition of the cuisine. He goes on to discuss America’s race-based food system that limits the access to healthy and fresh food for certain racial groups, and different communities’ efforts to make soul food healthier. 

Food for Thought is a student group that focuses on increasing awareness about food-related social issues — such as food deserts and access to fresh food — as well as the importance of healthy eating habits. Many of the group’s members volunteer at the Duke Campus Farm to learn about the food system and experience growing their own food. Junior Pauline Grieb, one of the organizers of the event, said the vegetables prepared for the event were grown and harvested by students at the farm.

The members of group chose the movie for its discussions of soul food as an important part of black identity and on alternative food movements based on what defines healthy food.

“I think it’s a really great movie to provoke a lot of thoughts about the structure, individual choice, and identity,” said Sara Snyder, a senior and an organizer of the event.

The screening was a part of the Race and Food Film Series that Food For Thought organizes. The series assesses the identities of minority groups in the U.S. and their relationships to food and agriculture. Featuring Latin American immigrant farmers in North Carolina, one of the films looks at their often undocumented status and harsh working conditions, which have not changed for decades. A series of short films about Native American farmers show how they use food to reclaim their identity.

“There are so many racial ties to agriculture that we tend to glance over,” said Kendall Jefferys, a freshman and a member of Food for Thought. “We thought the series would put light on things that are not normally thought about.”

To promote further discussion about the relationship between race and food, the club organized a conversation with four panel members after the screening.

“It was a little bit serendipitous and a little bit intentional,” Snyder said, recalling how she and other members of the group organized the discussion panel.

The members of the panel were from a diverse range of professions and racial backgrounds. A counselor from the Duke Diet and Fitness Center and a Duke professor at Sanford School of Public Policy, who is a part of the School’s project on food policy, were among them. The panel also had members who were not from traditional health professions. A middle school teacher and farmer — who Snyder met at the Duke farmers’ market — and the owner of a two-acre farm in Durham that educates students on healthy eating and cooking habits were also at the discussion. The panel discussed ways to involve different community members into local farms and overcome food deserts, where the residents cannot easily access healthy and fresh food.

The organizers of the club said they hoped to help students reflect on the association between food and social issues through the series.

“I think what I would like to see is a greater awareness about sustainability in our food system and that is not only about thinking ‘Okay. I will become a vegetarian and I will take these things out of my diet,’” Grieb said. “[The food system] is not only about what ends on your plate and what it looks like, but also [about] all of the people that factor into that process.”

“We want this to be a springboard for a larger discussion,” Snyder added. “I think food is often a very useful way to think about larger systems in which we are living and working.”