Pastor Bans Fried Chicken, Promotes Health

In Miss., church attendees share meals that include lots of mac and cheese, pork chops and fried food. But Miss. has the highest obesity rate in the U.S. Local Rev. Michael Minor is spreading the gospel of healthy eating, and The National Baptist Convention has asked him to create health and wellness plans to influence other churches. He speaks with host Michel Martin.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, the new season of "Dancing with the Stars" premieres later this month with Chaz Bono as a contestant. Chaz began life as the daughter of Cher and Sonny Bono, and now he will be the first openly transgender person to compete on that top-rated show. We'll talk about what that means in just a minute.

But first, it's time for Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. Today, we want to talk about health and spirituality.

Yesterday, we talked about how some women's attachment to their hairstyles may be keeping them out of the gym and how that might be contributing to the country's obesity crisis. Today in Faith Matters, we want to talk about how the traditional foods often served at church functions may also be aiding that crisis.

In Mississippi, as in many parts of the country for that matter, attending church also means sharing food. And that can mean a lot of fried chicken, mac and cheese, pork chops, luscious pies, cobblers, you get the idea. Now, that may sound like heaven, but the problem is that Mississippi leads the nation in obesity rates. It's close to that ranking in diabetes and heart disease.

For the last decade, Reverend Michael Minor has been trying to spread the gospel of healthy eating to his Mississippi congregation and others in the region. Initially, he ruffled feathers in his congregation by banning fried chicken from church events, but he's won converts among leaders of the National Baptist Convention. That group has invited him to develop health and wellness plans for its 10,000-member churches.

And Reverend Minor joins us now to tell us how he did it. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

The Reverend MICHAEL MINOR: Top of the day, Michel.

MARTIN: So what inspired you to do this?

MINOR: My members. When I first came to (unintelligible) DeSoto County, Oak Hill, I saw members that were of special size. And I said this special size is not going to work.

MARTIN: Do you have a background in nutrition or something like that?

MINOR: Oh, no, I'm just an old country boy from Coldwater, Mississippi, that just love people. Nutrition was never top of my list. I used to be one of the worst people at eating. So, no, definitely don't have a background in that.

MARTIN: Did you have some sort of a health crisis or epiphany for yourself that caused you to change your own lifestyle?

MINOR: Well, it was two things. I believe you've got to be an example for your people. And then a few years ago, I had some health issues not concerning necessarily being overweight, but it forced me to do better and also made me go in overdrive because not only did I want my people, I have a desire for them to look better, I know how important it is to maintain your health. Look, Michel, once you lose your health, it's hard to get it back.

MARTIN: One of the things, of course, that you are battling is that it's not just part of the, you know, regional heritage, it's also part of a cultural heritage of many people in the congregation and, you know, and around the country that there's certain foods that people kind of associate as their comfort foods, their traditional foods, and it's part of the heritage.

And these recipes are handed down across generations. And people think it's not Sunday dinner without fried chicken. You know, you've talked about this in one of your sermons. I just want to play a short clip. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SERMON)

MINOR: You said mama and grandmamma did it, amen, but they went in the fields, too, wasn't it? And we eat up and go home and lay down, amen. You look down like this, and it used to be you could see your feet. And now, you see your belly button. Come on, hallelujah.

MARTIN: Do you find that humor is one way that you can help people accept the message?

MINOR: It's the only way. Look, I tried all the right ways of saying things is healthy, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Look, I start telling pastors, if your congregation is not healthy, they can't tithe. They can't pay on your Love Day. And so I started sharing things like that, and I know it sounded crazy, but that's what actually started to work.

MARTIN: You're breaking it down to a very basic level.

MINOR: Oh, that's pretty much what people are.

MARTIN: What was the reaction initially, because it's also very traditional that people will accord their pastors a lot of deference, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're going to listen to what you say. What was the reaction when you first started bringing this up? Did people just say: Pastor, you're crazy, or did they just not do it?

MINOR: Yeah, basically: Pastor, you're crazy. Ban fried chicken? There's something wrong with you. So no, I had a lot of resistance. But the way that I was able to get it done, I showed them that you can actually save money by not eating fried chicken, because there's something mysterious about fried chicken.

When you look at it, you want to get all the pieces off the platter. And you just pick over it and you only eat part of it. But now if you get grilled chicken or baked chicken, you'll just eat what you want. And overall then, you'll actually end up less chicken instead of more. But always remember, fried chicken has a mystique about it. It hypnotizes people, especially African-Americans.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Well, I didn't know that, but thank you for, you know, unlocking that mystery for me. So we mentioned that your gospel of healthy eating, that it is gaining traction, that you're getting other people to kind of see the wisdom of this. And our first lady certain has been trying to sound the word on this, and Oprah Winfrey, of course, the great media star is starting to sound the word on this.

What do you think it is that's kind of getting people's attention?

MINOR: Right, well, (unintelligible) denomination it is part of our efforts to reach people where they are. Some of our national leaders came in and saw what we're doing there. And, look, if you can start talking healthy in Mississippi, come on now. This is something that should be able to resonate across the country.

Plus, you've got to realize we've got to work more on quality of life in America. We're living longer, but we're not enjoying our lives as we have in the past.

MARTIN: Well, what about this whole question, speaking of quality of life, one of the arguments that many people make about why it is that people, particularly of limited means, are suffering the most from obesity is that they don't have access to the best quality and the healthiest foods, that the less healthy foods are the ones that are subsidized and that, you know, things like going to the gym and things like that are expensive.

What do you say to people about that, who say: Look, pastor, I can't afford to get one of these fancy gym memberships. I can't afford a treadmill, and these fresh fruits and vegetables are just more expensive than ramen noodles and things like that that I use to make it through the month?

MINOR: Two things. In the South, we talk about food deserts, but we have I-can't-cook deserts because even some of the people, if you put fresh fruits and vegetables, this newer generation just doesn't know how to or have the time, and we've got to spend some time working with them preparing foods.

And the second thing, it starts young with the attitude of not exercising. We spoil our kids. We want them to do nothing. When I grew up, I did so much work before 8 o'clock and 9 o'clock. If it were today, they probably would have arrested my grandfather for child abuse. We don't work our children. They don't get enough exercise. So think of those two things, those are more of a big issue than anything else.

MARTIN: And finally before we let you go, do you think this whole question of sounding, you know, the gospel of better health, nutrition and fitness, do you think that's becoming mainstream? Or do you feel you have a way to go in getting people to accept that this is something that ministers should be talking about?

MINOR: It's becoming mainstream. I mean, today I'm in Springfield, Missouri, here working with some United Methodists, of all things, to try to get some things done. I've gotten calls from across the country. People want to see this done, and we're getting back to the church as relevant and being relevant and engaging people where they are. You'll be hearing more about this.

MARTIN: Reverend Michael Minor leads Oak Hill Missionary Baptist Church. That's in Hernando, Mississippi. But we caught up with him, as you just heard, in Jefferson City, Missouri, where he is traveling, and he joined us by phone from there. Reverend Minor, thank you so much for speaking with us.

MINOR: It's been my pleasure, Michel.

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