Keep your Fatphobia out of Food Deserts

Holly Allen
Aug 15 · 7 min read
A view towards a cloudy, blue sky showing a lone yellow and red sign for McDonalds
A view towards a cloudy, blue sky showing a lone yellow and red sign for McDonalds

“Food desert” is a term that’s been used with fair regularity in recent news reports and not without good reason. The American Nutrition Association and the USDA define food deserts as “parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas” (ANA, 2011). When considering the definition of a food desert, it is easy to see why this might be an issue deserving of attention. After all, a lack of food variety in poorer neighborhoods seems to be yet another factor widening the gap between America’s lower and upper classes. However, it seems that classism and poverty are not the main takeaways for most people when considering the food desert phenomenon. On the very same page of the American Nutrition Association’s website they mention the “obesity epidemic” and cite food deserts as a possible cause or contributing factor. Even the official Center for Disease Control and Prevention website has a multitude of articles on the subject of food deserts, many of which bring “obesity” or fatness into the discussion. In an article discussing a recent study on any possible correlations between food deserts and BMI, PhD Samuel Posner states the following:

“Mejia and colleagues conducted an analysis of the association of living in a food desert on consumption of fruits and vegetables in Los Angeles County. Their findings question current evidence about outlet density, access, healthy behaviors, and health status. In this setting, they found no consistent evidence that consumption of healthier foods or body mass index (BMI) were associated with density of food outlets commonly reported to carry less healthful foods. The finding was especially convincing because of the number of comparisons and the lack of any statistical associations detected. The findings of this study do not definitively answer the question of the relationship between access, intake, and BMI. No study will have sufficient sample size to “prove” there is no association.” (Posner, 2015).

This is an interesting study because the research group in question was specifically looking at a possible correlation between living in a food desert and one’s BMI. The very peculiar fact therein is that many, many reports have already stated that the BMI system is extremely outdated. Many articles, including one posted on Medical News Today, question why the BMI system does not take hormonal differences into consideration, nor muscle mass (Nordqvist, 2017). Public knowledge of the flaws found within the Body Mass Index system are not new, however. An article dating back to 2009 on NPR presented a host of problems with BMI, including mentioning the possibility that insurance companies may rely on this outdated system purposefully as to avoid losing a number of premiums levied on people they deem “unhealthy” using said system (Devlin, 2009). So, this bears asking why a study only four years old is looking into food deserts and the health of individuals therein with BMI measurements- a system that’s two hundred years old and isn’t considered credible.

What’s even more curious about the aforementioned CDC article is that the author goes out of his way to comment that no matter how large the sample group or study may be, one can never prove that there is no correlation between obesity and a food desert. That last line seems quite peculiar considering the circumstances. Just the sentence prior, Posner noted that the research group found no correlation to speak of and yet he feels the need to go out of his way to mention that the study’s findings cannot rule out the possibility that there is a correlation. While this is true, I have never seen a writer make such a point immediately following the report of negative results from an experiment. It may strike the reader as strangely defensive and almost out of voice or character for an otherwise mundane article with typical delivery.

I can, with complete certainty, tell you that at least some part of this strange obsession with the BMI system and attempting to associate fatness with food deserts comes from fatphobia. Many other studies that have looked for similar associations have come up empty handed, just like the CDC article above. However, these articles persist. These news stories persist. The strange fascination with demonizing fatness and coming up with a single, simple cause for said fatness is both injurious and omnipresent. You may be thinking to yourself that although the BMI system is outdated, a fixation on it is not particularly harmful. You would be wrong.

First, it is important to address the fact that focusing on fatness and emphasizing weight loss is often paradoxical and harmful. It is paradoxical in that many studies have shown that dieting and attempting to lose weight actually leads to weight gain. A study conducted by the Psychology Department at Drexel University found that “measures of attempted eating restriction might represent robust predictors of weight gain.” (Doshi, Feig, Katterman, Lowe, 2013). To make matters worse, the reinforcement of heavy-handed dieting and diet culture can be extremely harmful to individuals that struggle with an eating disorder or mental illness. Keeping these two points in mind, it is easy to see why attempting to introduce the concepts of “fatness is bad” and “dieting is a must” might be detrimental to those living in food deserts, regardless of whether or not they are viewed as healthy.

Second, fatphobic tendencies in research and media are not only deleterious for their paradoxical effect nor for the damage they do to those with eating disorders. They are also deleterious in that they detract from the true issues at hand. As mentioned in the definition of a “food desert” at the onset of this paper, food deserts typically occur in poverty-stricken areas of the United States. This is a strong correlation that has held time and time again, regardless of what region of the US one is focusing on. An article on the D.C. Policy Center site states:

“One of the necessary conditions for a food desert in our definition is that the median household income for the area is less than 185 percent of the federal poverty level for a family of four — about $44,995 in 2015. Therefore, any area falling below that threshold meets the first criteria of a food desert. Using data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, we see that most of the neighborhoods in the city with the highest poverty rates are located east of the Anacostia River; the median household income in Ward 7 is just over the federal poverty line at $45,469, and median household income for Ward 8 falls below it at $32,967.” (Smith, 2017).

A person of color seen from behind talking on a phone, walking down an aisle of food in a cheap general store
A person of color seen from behind talking on a phone, walking down an aisle of food in a cheap general store

As households that hover around and below the poverty line so often live in a food desert, one would hope that studies and news stories would shift away from outdated systems and fatphobic fixations, yet they persist. The same fixation not only detracts from focusing on solving issues of classism and poverty, it also seems to take away from confronting or solving the issue of racism and food supply. Native Americans are disproportionately affected by the existence of food deserts. With Natives commonly falling far below the poverty line and a lack of funding and infrastructure on most Native reservations, it is obvious that food deserts would pose a problem for Indigenous people in North America. The First Nations Development Institute states that “American Indian and Alaska Natives also have the highest rate of poverty of any other racial group in the nation. In 2009, their poverty rate was 27.3%, almost twice the national poverty rate of 14.2, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. In addition, American Indian communities have some of the highest unemployment rates in the U.S.” (FN, 2013). Despite this racial divide in experiencing food deserts, problem solving articles on the issue are scarce. At the moment of writing this, nearly every source I found critically discussing how to handle food deserts with consideration for Native peoples was limited to sources actually written by Indigenous people. Tragically, it would seem that this correlation, factual though it is, is almost wholly ignored by most researchers and media outlets.

A Native American dancer seen partially from behind, wearing colorful PowWow regalia.
A Native American dancer seen partially from behind, wearing colorful PowWow regalia.

It is a plain fact that food deserts disproportionately effect poor neighborhoods. It is also transparent that food deserts disproportionately effect Native Americans. Regardless, articles and serious attempts at studying a solution to these problems are far and few between. The majority of studies would rather focus on BMI- an outdated system. A plethora of recent news articles would rather make attempts to associate food deserts with villainized fatness using these outdated systems. As long as the public eye is turned towards these petty distractions, finding an apt solution to food desert connections with racism and classism will go unsolved.

References

ANA. American Nutrition Association. 2011. “USDA Defines Food Deserts”. Web. http://americannutritionassociation.org/newsletter/usda-defines-food-deserts

Devlin, Keith. 2009. “Top 10 Reasons Why The Bmi Is Bogus”. Web. https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=106268439

Doshi, Feig, Katterman, Lowe. 2013 “Dieting and restrained eating as prospective predictors of weight gain”. Web. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24032024

First Nations Development Institute. 2013. “Food Deserts, Food Insecurity and Poverty in Native Communities”. Web. https://www.firstnations.org/wp-content/uploads/publication-attachments/8%20Fact%20Sheet%20Food%20Deserts%2C%20Food%20Insecurity%20and%20Poverty%20in%20Native%20Communities%20FNDI.pdf

Nordqvist, Christian. 2017. “How useful is body mass index (BMI)?”. Web. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/255712.php

Posner, Samuel. 2015. “Eating Patterns, Body Mass Index, and Food Deserts: Does It Matter Where We Live?”. Web. https://www.cdc.gov/pcd/issues/2015/15_0352.htm

Smith, Randy. 2017. “Food access in D.C is deeply connected to poverty and transportation”. Web. https://www.dcpolicycenter.org/publications/food-access-dc-deeply-connected-poverty-transportation/

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