Is Food Political?
Not to be that person, but it seems like we live in a time where anything and everything can create controversy. Even… dare I say it? Food. The debate over what we eat goes beyond scoffing at that vegan bitch down the hall who tries to convince you that she’s singlehandedly saving the planet. It involves taking a minute to think about where our food comes from, what cultural effects the food industry has, and how our government is (or should be) involved. These are concerns we rarely talk about; but, at its core, food is an integral part of our culture and it affects the way we live even if we don’t always acknowledge its impact. We swear it’s not just some bullshit conspiracy designed to deprive you of your midnight Big Macs…
Let’s start with the first, very problematic issue of food production and distribution. Who is behind the scenes making our 6 a.m. quesaritos and how do they get there in the first place? Spoiler: the answer isn’t a pretty one. According to food.org, people of color have long been exploited by the food production system as laborers during times of American crises (such as WWII), and even now “while white farmers dominate as operator-owners, farm workers and food workers are overwhelmingly people of color.” These workers are also reportedly mistreated, paid poor wages, and made to live without much food security. Now isn’t that ironic? In fact, out of the 49.1 million people that go hungry in the United States, 52.6 percent of them are made up of African-Americans and Latinos, and a disproportionate amount of people affected by food instability, pesticide poisoning, and diet-related diseases are people of color. These diet-related diseases includes obesity, which affects non-Hispanic blacks the most at rates of 48.1 percent, and Hispanics second at 42.5 percent.
This shocking amount of abuse and unhealthiness amongst this particular demographic is no coincidence. Urban areas, low socioeconomic communities, and other places generally populated by minorities are often characterized as “food deserts” where the absence of grocery stores leads to restricted access to a large variety of food choices, including many healthier options. For example, according to foodispower.org, “white neighborhoods contain an average of four times as many supermarkets as predominantly black ones do, and grocery stores in African-American communities are usually smaller with less selection”. This means that people of color are at a severe disadvantage in terms of seeking out, obtaining, and selecting the different types of food many of us are accustomed to. Instead, these communities are forced to focus their energy on getting calories as inexpensively as possible, eliminating their ability to pick and choose the things they eat.
This limited amount of choice is what leads people to turn to foods with higher caloric intake and less nutritional value. They’re cheaper, they’re readily available, and, as stated by foodispower.org, “Healthier foods are generally more expensive than unhealthful foods, particularly in food deserts.” The prices of fruits and vegetables have gone up nearly 75 percent from 1989 to 2005, while the prices of junk food have dropped by more than 26 percent within the same timeframe. Based on these numbers and taking into account what we know about the limited selection of foods in urban areas, it’s clear that minorities and people of lower socioeconomic status are suffering, yet we don’t talk about it.
With alarming statistics such as these, it’s bizarre that a crisis of this enormity could exist in our country with so little discussion. One possible explanation for this silence could be our society’s refusal to initiate proper discussions about structural racism as it relates to food. We like to think of the things we eat as sacred, unscathed by politics; but, in reality, we are only perpetuating oppressive practices and indulging in the privilege that allows us to turn a blind eye and continue ordering our $12 açai bowls. This includes our politicians who use food as a tool to seem more relatable and cultured (cough… Donald Trump’s Cinco de Mayo taco bowl twitter post… COUGH) without really talking about any substantial policy change in terms of food production and distribution.
What we need is for people to recognize that food isn’t as harmless as we tend to believe it is, and that it’s time we initiated a conversation about its function in our society. Michelle Obama led us in the right direction with her Let’s Move! program, which worked towards “ensuring that more people have access to healthy, affordable food,” but there is still more that can be done. Areas of poverty need access to healthier options, laborers need to be treated and compensated fairly, and the root causes of obesity need to be addressed. So let’s dig in and start acknowledging food as a source of politics, and make an honest effort to move towards progress for a healthier and more just country.