Date of Award

Summer 2019

Document Type

Open Access Dissertation


Health Promotion, Education and Behavior

First Advisor

Brie Turner-McGrievy


Background: Obesity remains a prevalent public health epidemic and African American (AA) adults are disproportionately affected by obesity more than any other ethnic group. There are also disparities in obesity by location, with the South having the highest rates compared to other geographic regions in the United States. Addressing poor dietary habits is important for improving obesity rates among AAs, but there has been limited research that has focused on specifically developing culturally-tailored interventions. With a recent number of soul food restaurants serving exclusively vegan meals opening up across the country to appeal to AAs and others interested in eating healthier soul foods, there is a unique opportunity to explore how these restaurants might impact AA dietary habits. The purpose of this study was to examine how the location of vegan soul food restaurants in the South influence AA communities’ exposure to vegan meals and how owners of local vegan soul food restaurants view their roles in promoting the health of their communities.

Methods: Vegan soul food restaurants were identified using a standardized search criteria for menu items in the 16 states and the District of Columbia that are categorized as being in the South from the Census Bureau (Specific Aim 1). Mean percentage of AAs, poverty rates, and obesity rates by county where restaurants were located were collected via census data. Restaurants were classified as being in or out of a food desert zone using the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) food atlas map (0.5- and 1.0-mile radius). Once the restaurants were identified, in-depth interviews were conducted with a sample of owners (N=12, 100% AA) from the vegan soul food restaurants located in states in the Black Belt region (Specific Aim 2). The interviews assessed how they view their role as promoters of health in their community and identify strategies they use to make plant-based foods more culturally appealing to AA adults.

Results: A total of 45 restaurants were identified. Counties where the restaurants were located in had a mean AA population of 36.5±18.5%, mean poverty rate of 15.5±3.85%, and mean obesity rate of 26.8±4.8%. More than one third (n=18, 40.0%) of the restaurants were considered to be in a food desert zone. For the interviews, six themes emerged related to (1) the restaurants providing access to vegan meals, (2) the owners educating their customers about vegan diets and healthy eating, (3) the need to make AAs more culturally familiar with vegan foods (4) using fresh ingredients to make vegan soul foods taste good, (5) addressing limited cooking skills among AAs, and (6) the owners discuss non-health reasons to their patrons for following a vegan lifestyle to encourage them to become vegan.

Conclusion: Many of the restaurants were classified in food desert zones, implying their potential to provide access to healthier, plant-based meals among residents in the surrounding neighborhoods. All of the owners that were interviewed indicated they had engaged with many of their patrons to discuss the health benefits of plant-based diets. Some owners also provided cooking classes or educational resources focused on healthier eating. The themes that emerged from the interviews indicate that there may be future opportunities for health educators to partner with some of these restaurant owners to provide culturally-relevant healthy eating options to members of their community.


© 2019, Anthony Crimarco