Malnutrition and
dirt eating

Book pages 93-96


Over and over again in poor shacks I ate cornbread, grits, and baked beans with a few lumps of fat. In better off homes I had more traditional soul food: ham knuckles, hog maw, chitterlings, pigs' ears, feet, and tails, and similar fat crumbs from the white man's table.

But hundreds of thousands today get even less than the 3 pounds of pork and bacon a field hand received weekly under chattel slavery.

Such a diet makes people lethargic and leaves them open to all kinds of diseases, which is one reason why life expectancy for blacks is seven years shorter than for whites.

Senate hearings on malnutrition in the early 70's stated repeatedly that "this tragedy cannot be permitted to continue."

Hunger 1975

However, that was in the good years: soon afterward, Americans voted for Reaganomics to expand the silent army of 10 million hungry Americans.

Hunger 1974

The problem is that most Americans are unable to see the hunger. During the years I traveled I found them increasingly blaming the victims for their lethargic behavior, rather than Federal lethargy.

Hunger 1994

The worst hunger is still found on remote back roads and among urban old people.

A hungry dog is a good sign that there are hungry people nearby. The worst time is winter, when in the South you can see blacks digging up roots in white-owned fields. Starvation also drives many to eat dirt.

Throughout Alabama, Mississippi, and North Carolina many black women – often close to 50% – eat clay. This woman, listless and exhausted from anemia, led me to the slope where she usually dug for the "food" which she shared with her son.


- Do you ever eat dirt?
- Sometimes...
- Does it taste good?
- Yes. (With surprise) Have you never eaten it?
- No, but I would like to try. What do you call it?
- We call it sweet dirt...


- I thought it was called Mississippi mud. That's what they call it up north. Do you ever eat laundry starch? 
- Sometimes.
- Who else eats dirt around here?
- My mother and my aunt up in the white house. Everybody, I think.

Story in New York Times 1996


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