If you were asked to define your relationship with food, what would you say? What words come to mind, and does a relationship even exist? For younger people, food is most often viewed as a commodity. On college campuses, fast food chains dominate our dining halls, satisfying those cravings for pizza, hamburgers, and all the foods kids are told to avoid growing up. Many public health officials have attributed the food choices people make day-to-day as the cause for a growing “obesity epidemic,” but what if there is no other choice? For some, food is more of a liability, stretching monthly budgets past their limits as it’s one of the few necessities that can’t be cut out; not just in terms of price, but increasingly in access. In communities across the world, access to fresh, healthy food has become an ongoing struggle. What has been omitted from most of history is that it is an issue not rooted in geography, but in politics and prejudiced policy, resulting in health concerns that are passed from generation to generation.
The Misconceptions of the “Obesity Epidemic”
For most of the 21st century, the “Obesity Epidemic” has been to blame for deteriorating health, following the rise of fast-food chains and an increasingly sedentary American lifestyle. Public health professionals have grappled with this concept for years, initiating various programs to “fight obesity,” particularly for children, that target a very limited set of factors to combat unhealthy lifestyles. In 2010, First Lady Michelle Obama helped back this initiative with federal power through the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, transforming outdated nutritional guidelines and adding healthier options to lunch menus in public schools.
Despite these efforts, almost half of all Americans are still overweight today, with prevalence rising 12% over the past 20 years in adults aged 20 and over. With so many initiatives in place to combat obesity, why does this issue persist? A common, debunked answer is apathy; people just don’t want to take control of their health, or are too lazy to go to the gym regularly and therefore don’t care about themselves. According to the CDC, these reasons are false. Americans are dieting more than ever before, yet obesity rates continue to skyrocket, showing that simply eating a salad ignores the complexity of the crisis. To truly address the health concerns attributed to the obesity epidemic, we must first address the social and physical environments that actively contribute to health inequities nationwide.
Food Apartheid, not Food Deserts
When describing the lack of access to nutritious food options due to one’s physical environment, public health practitioners use the phrase “food desert.” However, in recent years, activists have devised a new term that describes the systemic barriers which actively prevent people of marginalized classes and races from achieving their healthiest potential. Coined in an Atlanta Black Star article in 2015, the term “food apartheid” has been used to emphasize the political nature of hunger and nutritional deficits in Black communities by calling out the systemic inequities that allow food deserts to persist. While “food desert” describes the physical landscape, “food apartheid” targets the political.
As food access became a prominent topic in social justice circles, describing the physical landscape was simply not enough. Food deserts imply that there is no food available. The reality is that readily accessible food for these communities is often of much lower quality and does not meet adequate nutritional needs. Predominantly Black communities have a higher saturation of fast-food restaurants and fewer fresh grocery stores than White communities. They are also up to eight times more likely to have stand-alone liquor stores in higher quantities. Finally, the majority of corner stores in these communities tend to inflate their prices, forcing residents to forfeit fresh goods for cheaper, less nutritious options. The inability to access nutritious food in these communities cannot simply be blamed on the physical geography of the neighborhood. Food apartheid is systemic and deliberate.
What does it mean when lack of access to food is systemic? Systemic issues arise through policy; while American law is constantly evolving through a series of checks and balances, policies affecting land development and zoning persist from less equitable times in history, particularly the Jim Crow era. One of these practices is redlining. To segregate communities to “prevent” interracial movement between neighborhoods, zoning laws were created after the Great Depression to diminish property value in neighborhoods based on racial and class discrimination. A ranking system was developed based on how “homogenous” neighborhoods were, and Black Americans were effectively denied access to home loans and the ability to acquire wealth through property.
Contrary to popular belief, racist zoning policies did not stop in the 1920’s. In wealthier communities, a wide array of food options are available through high quality grocery stores, farmers markets, and dining establishments. Redlined communities do not share the same privilege. According to the CDC, zoning regulates what sources of food are available in communities. In Louisville, there are only two Kroger’s in West Louisville to serve eight neighborhoods and over 61,000 residents. For residents who rely on public transportation, shopping for groceries becomes a challenge, with long bus wait times and limited carrying power. Without ready access to grocery stores or gas stations, convenience stores and fast food restaurants become the only sources for food, further limiting nutritious options for these communities.
While some presidential administrations have sought to tackle health disparities, others have widened them. To address the “race riots” of the 1960’s, the Nixon administration ignored the demands of the protestors and instead funded an initiative to provide federal grants to fast-food corporations like McDonald’s to open their stores in predominantly black communities. The goal was to inspire a new generation of “Black capitalists” to become entrepreneurs and take control of their wealth- the result? While the program inspired success in a few, communities already lacking in fresh options became a hub for greasy, unhealthy restaurants.
The Lasting Effects
Low access to food poses an immediate threat to health. Communities with lower socioeconomic status (SES) tend to have higher rates of chronic conditions such as heart disease and diabetes, in addition to a lower life expectancy compared to communities with more resources. Along with high saturated fat content, fast-food chains like McDonald’s offer very little nutritional diversity in their menus. Starch, sugar and sodium dominate every item, providing low nutritional value while also offering addictive properties to hook the diner, particularly children. As children grow up without a complex and nutrient rich diet, they are more likely to experience negative health outcomes later in life.
These outcomes run deeper than chronic health conditions and are often difficult to detect. Contrary to popular belief, most of the neurotransmitter serotonin that helps regulate mood and happiness is produced in the gastrointestinal tract, not the brain. Sugars and “comfort” foods provide an instant boost of serotonin that help alleviate stress in small doses. While these small boosts are often used to self-treat depression, overconsumption of carbohydrates with few other vitamins and minerals to balance them out creates a deficit in other key metabolic functions that influence mood. Consistent nutrient deficiency throughout life promotes a cyclical effect of depression and self-medication through unhealthy foods, resulting in poor physical and mental health outcomes.
Finally, as a medical term, “obesity” does not adequately describe the many different factors that influence one’s health or size. Even within the field of healthcare, the relationship between environment and genetics are often overlooked because all sizes above “normal” are viewed as unhealthy. It wasn’t until the past 50 years that a new, radical way of thinking about the effect one’s environment has on inheritable traits called epigenetics was proposed. According to the CDC, gene expression, or the “reading” of DNA to determine physical traits in humans, can change from generation to generation depending on health behaviors and environment. If a family resides in a neighborhood with low access to nutritious foods and experiences negative health outcomes, these outcomes are inheritable as a mother’s poor health during pregnancy can change their child’s epigenetics. Each generation is then faced with significant challenges, such as the physical environment literally changing their genetic makeup.
Power to the People
Solutions for deeply rooted systemic issues are never easy to develop. While policies can be changed, uprooting entire communities to enact these policies is expensive and unethical. The trouble with problematic policies is that they’ve shaped communities in more ways than one, and not all of these effects are negative. Fast-food and trips to the corner store are comforting to many, and the positive effect on mental health should not be ignored when developing solutions to tackle health disparities. This is why many activists have sought to take matters into their own hands, developing a wide array of community based solutions that are for the people, by the people.
Most notably is food justice advocate, Karen Washington, a key figure in denouncing food apartheid. Interviews with Washington helped shape the way that inequities are addressed within communities and emphasize the need to look at food deserts as areas with great potential, rather than desolation. In her opinion, the best way to ensure the success of a community is to enable its residents to build wealth and capital themselves rather than “changing the dynamics” of the neighborhood through gentrification.
Through her work, Washington addresses the multiple layers that sustain food apartheid. By targeting the political and economic causes of food insecurity, Washington and other food justice advocates force us to acknowledge how deeply rooted health inequities are in marginalized communities. To build a healthier nation, we must first challenge the system that allows these inequities to persist.
Fortunately, many community organizations have already begun to tackle this challenge. Within Louisville, there are several grassroots organizations that not only work to provide healthier options for their communities through direct mutual aid but also by working to promote Black farming, entrepreneurship and political power that can create lasting change from within. In 2020, Black Market KY opened its doors to directly address food apartheid in their community by sourcing quality groceries from Black farmers in Kentucky and making them accessible for residents of the Russell and Portland neighborhoods. Additionally, public health programs run by community members are necessary to address the unique challenges residents face regarding health literacy that accompany drastic lifestyle changes.
Whether you are a resident of a community facing food apartheid or an outsider wanting to help improve health conditions nationwide, it is imperative to first listen to the needs of the people most affected. The “war on obesity” has been lost because many preconceived notions of obesity are rooted in prejudice and fatphobia rather than addressing the true systemic causes. It is every citizen’s responsibility to ensure a healthier future for the well-being of all people. Food is a building block of life. It sustains and promotes happiness down to a chemical level, while also being a vessel to share love and joy. By tackling food insecurity, it can be made certain that all people are equipped to build a healthier relationship with what they eat.
By: Leah Bookout
Photo by John Cameron