Public Health’s Power-Neutral, Fatphobic Obsession with “Food Deserts”
A few months ago, in the face of undismissable protests against state-sponsored Black genocide, (white) academia remembered that racism is a thing. Following the lead of its students, my own university had a number of responses about its awakening to anti-Blackness, police brutality, and the nature of structural racism. One of the School of Public Health’s responses was to hold a town hall to discuss the implementation of antiracism principles into the School’s operation.
I did not go to this town hall for a variety of reasons. I was tired. I was exhausted. I was worn out. I was also just about done with fighting for a seat at a table that wasn’t even that great to begin with. The conversation was stale and the price of admission was too high and, really, the table was never that great.
So I did not go. But many did, including other students of color who I trust implicitly. Imagine the way I buried my head in my hands when a friend recounted the too-large portion of time attendees spent talking about food deserts. Secondhand embarrassment washed over me.
Food deserts? When there’s finally enough momentum to talk about the regular endorsement of genocide of Black and brown people in all domains — including our field — they talked about food deserts?
Are you fucking kidding me?
The field of public health loves talking about “food deserts”. The scientific literature indicates this phrase was officially coined by the Scottish Nutrition Task Force in 1995 to describe communities that did not have reasonable access to fresh, “healthy” food. Today, the issue of food deserts is a mainstay in discussions about population health, mainly for how it has been linked to the “obesity epidemic” and a contributor to higher rates of “obesity” in marginalized communities who often live in neighborhoods with sparse food and grocery options. The first time I ever heard the phrase “food deserts” was in a class in high school, during which my teacher pointed out that, in comparison to a smaller classmate, I was “not a size 8” partly because of my residence in a “food desert”.
With its obvious connection to the inequitable distribution of food and resources, “food deserts” (and “food insecurity”) are a certainty in public health discussions about systemic racism and structural oppression. However, related concepts, like food sovereignty, food justice, and food apartheid, are rarely mentioned, if at all. This is not a coincidence, but by design.
Public health — as an academic field, profession, and an apparatus of the state — is not interested in the political nature of food sovereignty, food justice, and food apartheid. It is not interested in oppression and anti-Blackness as realities that involve a process through which some humans, backed by the concentrated power of corporations and institutions, deprive and violate other humans. A term like “food apartheid”, coined by activist Karen Washington, pushes this process to the forefront of the discussion. But to acknowledge how the inequitable distribution of food is something that is done and doesn’t just exist would demand a reconsideration of public health’s entire approach to health.
It is easier to say some people have access to “healthy” food and others do not and leave it at that. It is less controversial to gesture towards injustice than to eviscerate it. The term “food desert” does a vague wave towards injustice, as well as naturalizes it by equating a community with inequitable access to diverse food to the natural environment of the desert.
The other major reason why the public health field loves talking about “food deserts” (generally and instead of other terms like food apartheid) is its general disdain for fat people. As I mentioned, “food deserts” have been connected to rates of “obesity”, a long time fixation of public health. For those who are invested in “obesity prevention”, the issue of “food deserts” is another way to link fatness to badness and moralized food. “Food deserts”, with their typical overrepresentation of “ultra-processed” foods and underrepresentation of fresh “healthy” foods, are bad because they have too much bad food and not enough good food. In turn, people in “food deserts” are fat and, as most in public health would say, fat is bad. Therefore, “food deserts” are bad because they make people fat.
Through normative public health paradigms, racial disparities in weight are partially explained by the existence of “food deserts” and the simplified notion that weight is determined by what we eat and the exercise we do. This is why public health discussions about racism and anti-Blackness always, somehow, get to the topic of food access.
Relatedly, there is the unignorable issue of blame. As I described before, the term “food deserts” allows us to ignore that food inequity is something that is done to people by other people. As such, it makes it easier for us to blame fat Black and brown people for not making better choices with what they have. How dare they buy canned foods and pasta when they can have that soft, tasteless tomato wrapped in plastic from the bodega? As a general rule, public health is obsessed with the idea that fat people make bad choices with regards to their health. That’s why you can pretty much go to any major health organization’s website, like the CDC’s, and see how most of their “obesity prevention” strategies are all about educating fat people about the wonders of “healthy eating and active living”. These education guidelines are all about teaching fat people how to make “good choices” and lose weight — some of public health’s favorite pasttimes.
In order to keep blaming fat people for their weight (which, remember, is “bad”), public health cannot fully confront the role that power and privilege play in food access or eating; doing so would take blame away from fat people. They also cannot demoralize food or body size and it would be totally unwise to acknowledge fatness as a part of human body diversity. Doing any or all of these things would, quite frankly, negate a lot of the work of health professionals and institutions that rely heavily on the demonization of fatness. It would also take away an easy, uncontroversial means of talking about/around racism for many public health professionals.
Fatphobia, and a refusal to acknowledge the issue of power, is why public health discussions about racism and anti-Blackness almost always miss the point.
The battle for equitable access to all foods is often centered around the existence and activities of predatory food and grocery companies — the ones that either station themselves in low-income, predominantly Black neighborhoods and are the only (often processed or poorly stocked) options as well as the ones that avoid these communities entirely unless property values skyrocket and gentrification looms.
Those concerned with food access often fall into the trap of a false choice built around these companies and what we believe they’re responsible for.
If one thinks “food deserts” are bad and condemns these companies, then it often happens on the basis that the widely available food in “food deserts” are “bad” foods that make people fat and “unhealthy”. As such, being against the existence of “food deserts” becomes equivalent to upholding ideas that comes straight from diet culture and normative weight paradigms in public health.
If one tries to push back against the moralization of food or demonization of fat in this line of thought, then it is likely to be received as advocating for or minimizing the actions of predatory companies that use marginalized neighborhoods as pawns in a game of profits.
It doesn’t have to be that way. And it shouldn’t, since upholding fatphobic or moralized notions of food helps literally no one except those who stand to gain from oppression.
It is entirely possible to talk about the equitable distribution of food and the predatory food industry without demonizing fatness or moralizing what we eat as good or bad.
Not long ago, representatives for a well known food company approached me asking for 90 minutes of my time in exchange for compensation. They wanted to discuss the nature of snacking in low-income communities, healthism, and the nature of “food deserts”. I accepted after consulting a friend, who told me to take the money and speak honestly.
These representatives eventually asked us — the food justice activist that was also invited and I — what duty their company has to address inequity in food access.
We both answered that this company has a duty to not exist.
I did not say this because I believe that this company is at the forefront of an “obesity epidemic”.
I did not say this because I believe that everyone should eat a “healthy diet” and this company is getting in the way of that.
I did not even say this because I think their snack products are bad (although they do use a ridiculous amount of plastic).
I said that this company has a duty to not exist because its forcible acquisition of land, extortion of cheap labor, and commodification of communities is disgusting, harmful, and morally bankrupt. There is no incremental reform in existence that can do justice and honor to the people who have been harmed by this company and other capitalist enterprises like it. And it’s really that simple.
Inequitable access to food is bad because it means many people in this country and worldwide cannot eat foods they may want to eat because they have been systematically dehumanized and discriminated against.
Inequitable access to food is bad because it is just one example of how racism, anti-Blackness, colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism exist and restrain people’s abilities to live the lives they want to live, the lives they deserve to live for virtue of being human.
Oppression should not exist because it oppresses. That’s it.
If you find you cannot resist the opportunity to talk about “obesity” or “good” foods or “bad” foods or “health” when discussing food access, you may just be fatphobic.