We can’t talk about the politics of food insecurity in the United States without talking about systemic racism, anti-Blackness, and fatphobia.
By Patrilie Hernandez, MS
It was almost one in the morning when I ended my shift as the hostess of an upscale Latin American restaurant in downtown St. Louis city when I got a glimpse of something I will always carry with me; a small group of young Black men gathered around a trash dumpster, chuckling amongst each other as I exited the restaurant through the kitchen’s back door into the employee parking lot. The first thing I noticed about them was their unkempt clothes, so my immediate assumption was that they were experiencing homelessness. Some were smoking cigarettes while others picked through the discarded food that had been dumped by the nearby restaurants after the dinner rush a few hours before.
One of the men quickly mumbled something towards me as I made my way towards my car (probably asking for some change) but the rest of the group ignored my presence as I unlocked the door, sat in the driver’s seat, put on my seatbelt, and turned on the car engine.
The reason I will always remember these few moments is that they stirred up so many unexpected feelings that I ended up spending many years trying to sort them out.
The main feeling was confusion. Why did seeing them dig through a dumpster for food surprise me so much? As the daughter of young, working-class Puerto Rican parents living in the South Bronx and other parts of New York City during the late 1980s and early 1990s, I had seen my fair share of hungry addicts asking my parents for money or something to eat outside of our apartment building or the subway.
When we moved into the suburbs some years later, we would often go into the city to visit extended family and I vividly remember seeing similarly unkempt people lined up outside of homeless shelters or under bridges as we would drive by on our way through Queens, to the lower east side of Manhattan, before we entered the Holland Tunnel to cross the river to “safety,” otherwise known as northern New Jersey. As hard as my parents tried to move farther and farther away from the face of poverty (both literally and figuratively), I never forgot what people that were chronically “hungry” looked like: people that had no clue where their next meal was coming from, people that would eat as much as they could when they could, because food for tomorrow was never guaranteed.
Sitting there in my car, I was thinking about how just a few hundred feet away and just a few hours ago, it was common for customers to wine and dine their paychecks away on steaks, ceviche, and cocktails while we (the servers and front of house staff who depended on decent tips to pay rent) catered to their every request and food allergy. Meanwhile, a few hundred feet away in the opposite direction, the nonprofit housing organization next door had their own daily food lines; serving meals nowhere near as decadent to predominantly Black folks that had been pushed out of this neighborhood by “urban renewal” the decade prior.
A wave of anger and sadness then started to sink in.
During the first few years of my life, my parents used SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly known as food stamps or EBT) and WIC and I was on SNAP for a good part of my 20s. So it’s safe to say I knew how it felt not to make enough money to put food on the table. But it had never really dawned on me that in a country where we produce and throw away more food than nearly a dozen developing nations combined, whether you were truly hungry (or food insecure) was never really a matter of proximity to the nearest grocery store, farmers market, or restaurant, but a matter of proximity to power. I realized there in that parking lot that I was occupying a food landscape with vastly different realities depending on your socio-economic class (the one you were most likely born into) and the shade of your skin.
I wish I could say sitting in my car on that cold winter night in 2007 jolted me into the right side of fighting for a racially just food system. The truth is, even as a mixed-race, working-class Puerto Rican (albeit with light skin privilege), I was still complicit in perpetuating problematic, particularly anti-Black behaviors and ideas around the health and social disparities experienced by urban, low-income BIPOC communities.
It wasn’t until I was confronted with my own internalized anti-Blackness and anti-Indigeneity (manifested through my family’s aversion to our own Afro-Indigenous roots, my deeply dysfunctional relationship with food and my body, and ultimately, an eating disorder diagnosis), that I began to come to terms with the role that white toxicity and colonization plays in how I thought about food insecurity and food access.
The Civil Rights Movement and Hunger in America
We can’t talk about the politics of food insecurity in the United States without talking about systemic racism. At first glance, the magnitude of the issue seemed to enter the public eye on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement, when Senators Bobby Kennedy and Joseph Clark toured the Mississippi Delta for the 1968 CBS television documentary, Hunger in America.
While many historians and academics are quick to assert that the documentary was the first to highlight food insecurity in the United States, Dr. Laurie Green, author of the book “The Discovery of Hunger in America: The Politics of Race, Hunger, and Poverty, 1967-1977”, contends that Black and Indigenous civil rights activists were the true force behind the federal response. The 1967 hearings held in Jackson, Mississippi by the Senate Subcommittee on Employment, Manpower, and Poverty centered the testimonies of voting rights activists and labor activists on the negative impacts of food insecurity, not only on the physical body but also on brain development and mental health. Another important part of this movement were the successful breakfast programs founded by the Black Panthers (that the federal government later adopted after criminalizing the Black Panthers). Initiatives by those centering Black liberation were the real heroes behind pressuring the federal government to fund programs and projects to address food insecurity in the US.
But this history was never shared with me in the ten years I spent in predominantly white-led food justice and advocacy circles. Past and current Black and Indigenous food sovereignty efforts were rarely centered; many nonprofits and food banks would love to pitch ideas like subsidized voucher programs for farmers markets or corporate food drives where employees would be incentivized to donate the dusty canned and shelf-stable items that sat in the back of their cupboards as primary ways to address food insecurity. Additionally, “healthy eating” and cooking education programs for these communities would be touted as the key that would make these efforts even more successful. It was common for these institutions to recruit and send white or white-adjacent individuals (like myself) into low income Black and brown communities to conduct “mission” oriented work, and implement programming derived from the deficiency-based, “white man’s burden model” more commonly known as “the white savior complex.”
For the majority of my career, I volunteered/worked for organizations that maintained the idea that neighborhoods with concentrated areas of Black and Indigenous people living in poverty are lacking or broken, and that we were here to “fix” their lives. For many years, I chose to exploit my proximity to whiteness as a way to justify entering “underserved” or “under-resourced” communities as a cooking instructor or nutrition educator in order to “save them from themselves.” The reality, however, is that I was a part of a rotating cast of privileged outsiders who would show up at schools or local recreation centers attempting to relate to the program participants for a short period of time, and then move on when grant or program funding ceased. What it took me a long time to realize is that I was often causing more psychological harm and trauma to the children and communities than if I had never entered their lives in the first place. Not only that, but I was also projecting my disordered body beliefs and food behaviors onto children and families that looked up to me because of my professional expertise and nutrition degree.
The “Obesity Epidemic”: Food Policing and Fat Phobia
About two years after Michelle Obama revealed her “Let’s Move” campaign in 2008, I was already part of a larger food justice community eager to partner with “anti-obesity” programs that aimed to tackle the “Hunger Obesity Paradox.”
This “paradox” was first introduced in 1995 after a leading pediatrician published a report suggesting a relationship between food insecurity and “obesity.” This report seemed to provide “evidence” validating the argument that lack of “healthy” food choices resulted in higher weight status among food insecure individuals, thus explaining their poor health outcomes. Of course, there was no mention of how medical neglect and discrimination due to classism and racism negatively affect health more than individual health behaviors, which has become even more apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A few years after this report was published, a panel of NIH tapped medical experts lowered the BMI cutoff for the “overweight” category from 27 to 25 (reportedly because it was easier to remember) thus making millions of people suddenly “overweight.” As overweight and obesity rates literally grew overnight, the fear-mongering behind the dangers of a possible “obesity epidemic” was thrust into the spotlight by media outlets and an already fatphobic medical field.
Nonprofits and policy experts leveraged these headlines and studies over the next decade in an effort to bring attention to the ways that not having reliable and affordable access to a variety of food on a consistent basis did, in fact, harm health. Even if this implicated body size as the primary driver of health, which many know is not the case.
Still, many food justice activists and advocates were adamantly convinced that poor people suffering from food insecurity also often lived in fat bodies because: 1.) they didn’t know how to prepare healthy meals on a limited budget, 2.) they made unhealthy food choices and were too lazy to exercise, or 3.) they were simply unfamiliar with healthy food because of the lack of high-quality grocery chains in the area.
But thinking that food insecure individuals mainly experience poor health because they make “unhealthy”, “uneducated” or “irresponsible” decisions about what they eat, and not about the larger systems of oppression that impede equitable access to health services and care, is rooted in white toxicity and colonization.
Dr. Ashante Reese, food anthropologist and author of “Black Food Geographies: Race, Self Reliance, and Food Access in Washington D.C.” says these widely-circulated beliefs result in a narrative that “African Americans and other people of color are reduced to bodies that need to be regulated and changed” and efforts that focus solely on individual behavior changes as the solution only further perpetuate the idea that “Black people need fixing.”
What we consistently see is that poor people experiencing food insecurity are more likely to be publicly shamed for their food choices, their body shape, and weight. We also see the same food moralizing, food policing, and fatphobia sustained through proposed policies like SNAP restrictions, Soda Taxes, initiatives like Healthy Corner Stores, Produce Prescription programs, and community nutrition programs that are very often led by white women unloading their fatphobic and healthist ideology on women of color.
What these programs and policies actually do is further marginalize low-income Black, brown, Latinx women and mothers, who are often forced to restrict their own food intake and sacrifice their own ability to properly nourish themselves in order to make sure their children have enough food to eat. There is a questionable level of hypocrisy in suggesting (and even promoting) that women of color who are already experiencing food insecurity should restrict or modify their food intake even more in order to lose weight or avoid gaining weight.
There is an abundance of evidence that our food system is steeped in white supremacy, systemic oppression, and colonialist ideology. Food justice/food access activists and advocates should be asking ourselves if we are equally as committed to examining how we are internalizing harmful, especially anti-Black narratives around food choice, interrogating what is deemed “healthy” by dominant, white supremacist power structures, and asserting that our worth is not reflected by the shape and size of our body.
Patrilie Hernandez, MS (she/they) has over 12 years of experience working in the health and nutrition sector as an educator, advocate, project manager, and policy analyst. She approaches Health at Every Size from an Intersectional lens and uses a Body Liberation framework as the foundation of her work. She combines her academic background in anthropology and nutrition/health, with her lived experience as a queer, fat, neuroatypical, multiracial, Puerto Rican femme to disrupt the status quo of the local health and nutrition community and advocates for a weight-inclusive paradigm in health and educational settings.
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