On April 4, 2018, the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, I was honored to be asked to speak at Riverside Church in Harlem, the church where 51 years ago to the day MLK Jr. spoke out about the injustice of the Vietnam War. From that same pulpit, I gave a talk about the role of our food system and the food industry in deliberately subverting public health and targeting the poor and minorities. The day was focused on MLK Jr’s fight for civil rights and social justice for the minorities and poor. The harm of the food system, however, affects all of us. This is the transcript of the speech I gave on that auspicious night.
As a doctor, I took an oath to do no harm. Today, I stand here because there is harm being done to millions and I must speak out. We know all too well the visible forms of racism in our society. We know the inequities in income and opportunity. We know the brutal violence and discrimination of the police. We know the shooting of black children. We know the name of Tamir Rice. We know the name of unarmed black men shot in the back. We know the name of Stephon Clark.
But we don’t know the names of millions of African Americans killed every year by an invisible form of racism, a silent and insidious injustice.
This is an often-internalized force of racism and oppression that disproportionately affects the poor and African American communities.
We do know that 1.3% of all deaths are caused by gun violence. And it is real and tragic and needs to end.
But we may not know that 70% of deaths are caused by chronic disease—mostly the result of our toxic food system.
More African Americans are killed by bad food than anything else.
The science is clear—our processed, sugary, starchy diet is the single biggest cause of disease and death—type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, cancer, and even dementia.
Our food system is the deadliest weapon used against the poor and minorities— keeping them poor, sick and fat, hijacking their brains and biology.
We are told that it is our personal choice, that being fat results from eating too much and not exercising enough. That blames the victim—the subliminal message is that it’s your fault you are fat and sick.
We may think that what we eat is a personal choice that is rooted in our cultural heritage and family customs.
But we know that the food industry designs our food to be addictive, that they hire craving experts who work in taste institutes to design what they call the bliss point of food—all with the purpose of creating heavy users. These are their internal corporate terms.
What if I told you that the food industry specifically targets the poor and minorities?
It is easy to get someone who is already drinking a 20-ounce soda to buy a 2 liter bottle of soda.
Research shows that African American kids drink twice as much soda as white kids.
What if I told you that sugar and processed foods were more addictive than cocaine, that the food industry has hijacked our brain chemistry, our taste buds, our metabolism, our bodies and our minds?
When our foods are biologically addictive the notion of personal choice is a fiction. It blames the victims for their choices.
How can we take care of our communities, when 23 million Americans live in food deserts? Where the only food available is processed junk from convenience stores, fast food outlets, and the closest grocery store is more than a mile away. And where it’s hard to find fresh fruits and vegetables or healthy food.
But the problem isn’t only food deserts.
It is food swamps—communities filled with fast food chains and bodegas plying highly processed addictive foods. They sell gallon cups of soda, and other sugar-loaded beverages, and there are fast-food chains peddling burgers, fries, and fried chicken on almost every street corner.
We know that your zip code is more important than your genetic code in determining your risk of disease and death.
We also know that our food system is the #1 cause of climate change.
And what about our kids?
Forty percent of them are overweight. We now see 3 year olds with type 2 diabetes—which we used to call adult onset diabetes.
We are told that kids’ behavior problems results from bad parenting.
The research shows that African Americans are far less likely to graduate from high school or go to college.
But if our children go to school with a breakfast of Coke or colored sugar water and Doritos or Flaming Hot chips how can we expect them to focus or pay attention?
These are not foods. They are food-like substances with no nutritional benefit.
This diet creates an “achievement gap” because kids are too sick to learn—and affects far more kids of color than any other group. These kids are less likely to go to college, earn good incomes, and more likely to get sick and die young.
One in 10 of our kids are on ADD medication. And the science shows the junk our kids eat is a big part of the cause.
The food industry spends $10 billion on marketing junk food to our kids every year. The average kid sees over 6,000 ads for junk food and soda on TV and even more through social media. And minorities and African American kids are targeted more aggressively. These companies are junk food pushers.
Do you really think it was a coincidence that Paula Abdul and all the judges on American Idol had a 24 -ounce container of Coke in front of them at every show?
Top sports stars receive tens of millions of dollars from soda and fast food giants to promote their products to our children who idolize them.
Yet it doesn’t have to be that way.
Charter schools in the poorest most disadvantaged communities of color who feed the kids two to three healthy meals a day find that the kids are more likely to go to college than go to jail.
And we incarcerate African Americans at five times the rate of white Americans. Much of that is the result of racial targeting by the police and judicial system.
But it could be that much violent crime is also the result of our diet that robs us of our minds, affects our thinking, judgement, and ability to make good choices.
You may think that’s too far-fetched. But studies have shown feeding violent prisoners healthy diets in prisons can reduce crime by 56%. When adding a multivitamin—because they’re all so nutritionally deficient—violent crime goes down by 80%. We know that the task of ending mass incarceration and the New Jim Crow is complex and urgent.
We know that the task of building a just food system is also complex and urgent. We have to build a new food system together. Part of this task is listening to the voices of those directly affected by our toxic food system.
I once received a letter from a prison, from a murderer who changed his diet in prison and realized that his whole life of eating junk had made him violent and eating real food transformed him into a different person.
The food industry employs nefarious tactics to prevent change. They buy friends, silence critics, and sweeten their profits.
I was part of a documentary called Fed Up—a movie about how our food system makes us sick and fat with addictive sugary, starchy products.
I met with Bernice King, Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter, and she explained to me to that non-violence also includes non-violence to ourselves. She was excited about showing Fed Up at the King Center in Atlanta.
But a few days later I got a call that the we couldn’t show the film.
Why I asked? The answer: Coca-Cola funds the King Center.
The Dean of Spelman College in Atlanta told me that 50% of the entering class of African American freshman women had a chronic disease—type 2 diabetes, hypertension, or obesity.
I asked her why there were Coke machines and fountains all over campus. Coca-Cola is one of the biggest donors to the college.
Is it any surprise the NAACP and Hispanic groups oppose a soda tax?
We cannot stand for this.
Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
We can no longer be silent about this.
If you are African American you are 80% more likely to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, over 4 times as likely to have kidney failure, and 3.5 times as likely to suffer amputations as whites.
Yet we remain silent about the role of the food system killing millions of Americans. They tell us it is all personal choice.
Big food corrupts public health and advocacy groups. They fund hunger groups like the Food Research and Action Center and Feeding America.
These hunger groups strongly oppose limiting the use of food stamps or SNAP to buy soda, despite the fact the single biggest item of our food stamp bill (over $7 billion a year) is soda, or 20 billion servings a year to the poor.
Soda and sugar-sweetened beverages are the single biggest cause of obesity and type 2 diabetes.
Our bodies, our health, our children, our communities have been taken from us.
It is time we take them back.
It is time we say no to big food and institutionalized food injustice that is causing this slow-motion genocide.
It is time to free ourselves from corporate interests that privatize the profits and socialize the costs of their products.
Taking back our food and our food system is a revolutionary act.
There are things we can’t change as individuals.
But we all eat. We vote three times a day with our fork.
The single biggest political act and the single biggest act of self-love, of rebuilding our communities, is to choose real food.
So, what is real food? It’s pretty simple.
Next time you pick up something to eat, ask yourself this question: Did God make this or did man make this?
Did God make Doritos or a Coke? No. Did God make an egg or broccoli? Yes.
We can teach our kids and teach ourselves how to choose and eat food that brings life not death.
Big Food would have you believe that it is expensive, that it is difficult, that it takes too much time.
Don’t believe them. It is not true.
We need to educate our kids, ourselves, and our communities. We have to do this together. In fact, we can only do this together.
Black lives matter. Yes. And black health matters, too!
The harm done by the global food industry affects nearly all humans on the planet in some way.
This must stop. We can stop it with our fork, the most powerful weapon we have to change our health, our communities, our economy and the health the of the planet.
Wishing you health and happiness,
Mark Hyman, MD