Public Health’s Power-Neutral, Fatphobic Obsession with “Food Deserts”

Marquisele Mercedes
7 min readNov 13, 2020
Source: Unsplash

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…