The holiday season is closely associated with food and how it brings together families and communities. However, for those who do not have the means to access healthy food, the holidays are just another few weeks of an epidemic. Demographics of the people most heavily harmed by food inequity reveal a divide along socioeconomic lines: the have-nots are getting sicker while the haves are getting healthier.
To put in perspective how dire the situation is, the United States, a leading global power, is the second fattest major country in the world (Mexico is currently number 1), with almost one-third of our adult population currently obese. Across income divisions, obesity leads to increases in the occurrence of health problems such as diabetes. The situation poses a grim challenge for members of low-income communities, who cannot afford the healthy foods necessary to stave off health problems.
While it is easy to pin the blame for the collapse of healthy dietary practices at an individual level, the conclusion is shortsighted and fails to consider the economic forces that restrict our choices. Yes, the decision to forego purchasing fresh produce for a quick visit to McDonald’s is a conscious one. However, for those who live in low-income areas with an abundance of fast-food menu options, choice and options regarding healthy food are merely illusions. These areas, known as “food deserts,” have a conspicuous abundance of processed food and lack of nutritious, organic food. A 2007 Los Angeles Times report found that in low-income South Los Angeles, 45 percent of restaurants were classified as fast-food restaurants with limited seating, compared to only 16 percent in the more affluent West Los Angeles.
For low-income folks, access to healthy food is not simply a matter of availability. It’s no surprise that developers are less inclined to build healthier food retail stores in low-income areas. Those from poor neighborhoods cannot afford to shop at Whole Foods, or even a farmers market. Buying healthy foods is not an option because those who can’t afford it have to buy enough fattening or sugar-rich food to keep their families full. The inequitable distribution of food resources deprives people of good health.
The scope of food inequity reaches much further than lack of access to healthy food on a community level. Transnational corporations pose the largest threat to achieving fairness at the dinner table. While the negative health effects of Monstanto’s genetically modified produce are yet to be seen, the corporation has been the target of numerous lawsuits and allegations regarding unfair labor practices.
Culpable in contributing to food access disparity within low-income communities, Monsanto was the subject of a 2012 lawsuit in which several Texan migrant workers sued the corporation for poor working and housing conditions as well underpayment.
While Michelle Obama and several prominent food activists herald the arrival of Walmart, along with its stores’ stock of affordable fresh produce in low-income urban neighborhoods as the solution to combating food deserts, others remain skeptical of the good the large corporation will contribute. Perhaps the most striking example of the responsibility large transnational corporations such as Walmart have in perpetuating food inequity was the photos that surfaced online last week of an Ohio Walmart holding a food drive for its own employees. While Walmart spokesperson Kory Lundberg maintained that the food drive exemplified the employees’ good works during the holiday season, the necessity of the food drive unequivocally points to a stark reality. An indictment of Walmart’s deplorable labor practices, the food drive, is the direct result of the corporation’s refusal to pay its employees a living wage that is able to provide enough food on the table.
Here is where we as students must take a stand and defend not only the nutritional integrity of our food, but the integrity with which it was produced and distributed. Only if we make it a priority to use our wallets to put pressure on companies that produce and distribute food will we slowly earn the food equity that is necessary now.
There is no excuse. We know that processed and unhealthy food is a leading cause of deadly diseases and cancers. Often race, gender and class divide support for pressing issues. Although food inequity is interconnected with other forms of inequity along axes of race and socioeconomic class, we should not be hesitant to utilize our privilege to enact reform of the global forces that shape what is finally consumed at the table. Beyond this holiday season, as we return from uniting with our families at our own tables, as we return to consuming a smorgasbord of food that was grown and harvested by those who cannot afford to buy the fruits and vegetables of their labor, we must keep in mind that we are obligated to unite with them in the efforts to achieve food justice.
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