How to Recenter Equity and Decenter Thinness in the Fight for Food Justice

You can’t say no one ever told you how.

Marquisele Mercedes


Credit: veggiedoodlesoup

While working in public health and around other professionals concerned about the existence of food deserts, or food apartheid as coined by activist Karen Washington, I’ve been struck by the ongoing alliance between those who advocate for food equity and those who consider themselves soldiers in the ongoing “war on obesity”. The panic about food inequity is often justified through the relationship between higher weight and “food deserts”. The common line of reasoning is that marginalized people who don’t have access to “healthy” food are more likely to be fat, which causes them to be sicker and die earlier. The motivation of food equity advocates, especially those in public health, then becomes irreparably tied to a desire to make marginalized people thinner instead of holistically addressing their health and nutritional needs. The fight for food access becomes another way to enforce a narrow standard of acceptable body types.

This ongoing disconnect has been primarily enabled by fatphobia, or the hatred and fear of fatness. It is a historically-rooted, racism-driven notion that fat bodies are physiologically and morally deficient; and it is present in almost every inch of public health research, advocacy, and practice. Fatphobia has long allowed for public health to label fat bodies as obstacles to a healthier tomorrow, as being unworthy of respect or safety. As a result, fat people are only deemed worthy of humane treatment when they are actively trying to shrink themselves.

As a doctoral student in public health, I try to explain to food equity advocates that nourishing under-resourced communities cannot be done in the spirit of paternalism or correction. I know this because I have personally witnessed the harm done by outsiders that don’t bother to hide their disdain at fat poor people and what they eat. I grew up in the Bronx and have lived in a fat body for 23 years. I will never forget the irregular farmers’ markets that became popular nutrition and food access interventions during my childhood. A few days a week for a few hours, a bunch of small booths with produce would open for sale to the public. These markets never lasted in one place for long; they were barely…