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South Carolina Honors College

Savoring Heritage, Saving Health

by Kensley Green

“We’ve been waiting for y’all since noon,” my grandmother would exclaim as she retrieved a fresh pan of cornbread from the oven. As I entered my grandparents’ house, the aroma of salted ham and hot collard greens greeted me. Dishes lined the stove and granite-topped counters of the kitchen, steam wafting through the air. My grandmother then listed the dishes she and my grandfather had spent the day carefully crafting – each chicken breaded with tender care, a pot of mashed potatoes kneaded with love. That’s the key word – love. You see, most South Carolinians would agree that cooking is a love language; with each meal a silent “I love you” is conveyed without uttering a word. However, anything can be detrimental in excess. In this case, the gluttonous joy we experience in these moments sets the scene for a widespread disaster.

The entire nation faces an obesity epidemic, with South Carolina in particular facing obesity rates upwards of 32 percent, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. The roots of the state’s obesity epidemic can be traced to the ingenuity of resilient, enslaved African Americans. Staple southern menu items – macaroni and cheese, fried chicken, collard greens, and buttered biscuits – stem from the cooking techniques formulated by combining local ingredients with traditional African customs. Those recipes often incorporated high amounts of fat, sugar, and salt. Frequent consumption of these dishes set the stage for serious health problems, as reflected in the health statistics of South Carolinians today.

These consequences of traditional, cultural diets are widespread and evident. In 2019, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control reported 33 percent, 13 percent, and 35 percent of the state’s citizens suffer from hypertension, diabetes, and hyperglycemia (high blood sugar) respectively. However, South Carolinians continue to grapple with these issues as traditional values, cultural attachments, and the addictive properties of sugar and salt bind them to their dietary habits. For this reason, addressing the obesity crisis, at least within the state, will require a solution that recognizes the historic value of southern cuisine and preserves its nostalgic significance while stripping it of its unhealthy additives. Moreover, fast food chains dominating local centers and exploiting the same addictive properties, in addition to the food deserts found across South Carolina, should also be considered in a solution to this issue.

A suggested recipe for change involves making culturally competent dietary suggestions. Simply put, South Carolinians may savor the taste of their favorite meals while making health-conscious choices. This plan puts emphasis on consuming locally grown fruits and vegetables prepared with significantly less salt, saturated fats, and added sugars. This program requires three essential tasks: the persuasion of the elders, the creation of fresh markets and restaurants (even within rural areas), and the influence of the youth.

As the main chefs of the household, parents and grandparents have a responsibility to source nutritious foods for their families, meaning they must make intentional choices when shopping. It is imperative that this occurs not only on an individual basis, but on a community level. However, purchasing healthier food is but a dream for many people as the nearest grocery store is far from home and prices skyrocket. Communities must come together accordingly, generating the support of lawmakers and business owners for the creation of farmers markets and grocery stores in underserved areas of the state. Finally, children must continue these healthier traditions onward to the next generation. Again, the community will play a part in the continuation of nutritious habits through education and awareness campaigns throughout the state. By combatting the convenience and allure of fast-food chains as well, many of which mimic unhealthy southern cuisine, this comprehensive approach from the public, lawmakers, and business owners takes a step in a more tasteful direction.

The solution to South Carolina’s obesity epidemic isn’t a rejection of tradition, but a celebration of evolution within heritage. The love we share around meals must be preserved through awareness and community efforts to savor the long-term benefits of nutritious foods. As a state, ending the obesity crisis and its concurring issues will be a leap forward in improving the overall health of our nation. We can become a model for the future of culturally competent nutrition in America and beyond. We, as South Carolinians, can proudly embrace our culinary excellence as a place where traditional flavors line the counters, a place where our rich cultural heritage is served with a sweet taste of victory over the obesity epidemic.

Kensley Green

About Kensley Green

Kensley Green of Blythewood is a junior at Fairfield Central High School in Winnsboro. The daughter of Kenya and Derek Green, she is considering studies in biomedical engineering and optometry in college.

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