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Do Republicans care more about burgers than what you eat?

The clash of personal responsibility, American identity, and diet culture

Photo by amirali mirhashemian on Unsplash

Food isn’t a subject that often gets characterized as political, but that’s a mistake. Food is highly political: from the way that its consumption informs identity, to the regulations that keep us safe and healthy, to labor conditions in farms and factories and slaughterhouses.

Recently, politicians are beginning to talk about it too. Just not in the way any of us might have anticipated.

Fox News and many GOP politicians recently circulated a (false) rumor that President Joe Biden’s climate plan included banning or severely limiting hamburger consumption in America. You could taste the outrage, and the message was clear: this is an attack on your personal freedoms. Diet is, of course, intensely personal. And yet, America is obsessed with diet. Diet culture is everywhere: from Instagram Influencers to WebMD tweets.

And the theme of diet culture is rooted in personal responsibility. Personal responsibility is the sneaky flip side — the quiet undertone — when we talk about personal freedom.

You have personal freedom for making food choices; but you have personal responsibility for health, personal responsibility for weight, personal responsibility for illness. Diet culture makes food a question of morality and virtue: it asks, do you have self-control or are you gluttonous?

Diet culture and the cult of personal responsibility ignores food environment and the deep inequalities in access to healthy food across various communities. Low income communities, for instance, have greater access to fast food and less access to grocery stores. Diet culture is anti-black, it is fat-phobic, and it is not healthy.

The conversation about hamburgers and the climate plan embraced the narrative of personal freedom. Your diet, your choice: Hamburgers are American. Fox News’s Jeanine Pirro and others insisted that Biden’s Green New Deal would force Americans to cut down to just one hamburger a month.

“Do you like red meat? … Not so fast. The left with their Green New Deal wants to make sure you don’t.”

Of course we all know — even Fox News knows — that no one is is taking your hamburgers away. But the fake outrage takes away from the much more important policy questions about food that we should be discussing. Instead of glorifying some individuals for their all-American diets, and blaming others for their weight, Americans need to engage in a more substantive conversation about meat-consumption, diet, and culture.

Photo by amirali mirhashemian on Unsplash

Americans should cut down on their meat consumption, both from an environmental perspective and a health perspective. But dietary shifts won’t happen overnight as a result of a (fake) hamburger-ban. Long-term and large-scale shifts in diet need to be rooted in deliberate policy choices oriented toward incentivizing healthier behavior.

If the federal government did want to reduce meat consumption, it could do so by increasing taxation on meat (much the way it taxes cigarettes and alcohol), and by mandating higher wages for workers and stronger safety regulations (this would make the meat more ethically produced but also drive up the price). But driving the price of meat up, alone, is not a viable policy solution and it would hurt low income Americans in particular.

We would also need to invest in making vegetables more affordable and more accessible. And accessibility is a major issue here since many people live closer to fast food joints than they do to grocery stores. Additionally, of course, the accessibility of healthy affordable food is often related to racial segregation in particular cities and neighborhoods. Wealthy people have access to Whole Foods and poor neighborhoods have access to fast foods.

Even addressing issues of accessibility and affordability probably still won’t be enough to equalize food. This circles back to the original point: food is identity and culture, and it is inherently social. Reducing meat consumption for all Americans (not just wealthy Americans) will also require a reinvestment in communities.

Fast food’s over-representation in low income communities — both urban and rural — also means that it is a source of employment, and often a safe and clean play space or gathering place; where in wealthy neighborhoods, the local upscale grocery store often has an outdoor dining space with live music, perhaps even a play space. Equalizing food access will also require reinvesting in parks, sidewalks, and public gathering spaces, and deliberately incentivizing grocery stores to locate in food deserts. Food, it turns out, is infrastructure too.

Photo by Martins Cardoso on Unsplash

The arguments we have watched unfold around Hamburgers this week are ultimately rooted in ideas about Americanism, personal responsibility, & morality: these ideas simultaneously glorify & shame food depending on the appearance of the eater. For half of America, hamburgers are a glorious symbol of “personal freedoms,” while for the other half, burgers are just another symbol of their “failure of personal responsibility.”

Representative Lauren Boebert wants the government to “stay out of my kitchen.” But all of us should be looking for the government to step up and get into our communities.

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Clare Brock

Clare Brock is an assistant professor of American politics and public policy at Texas Woman's University.