eat, drink & do good 2.28.2021 | view email in your browser
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You may remember from our last newsletter that we are bringing on a guest writer for each issue of Eat, Drink, and Do Good — to invite all of us to think more critically about how we move through the world and expand our relationships. We are so thrilled to introduce Marquisele (Mikey) Mercedes as our first guest contributor! Mikey is a PhD student in public health who often writes about fatphobia, anti-Blackness, and food apartheid. You can learn more about her on her website, and make sure to give her a follow on Twitter and Instagram.

Recentering Equity and Decentering Thinness in the Fight for Food Justice

By: Mikey Mercedes

While working in public health and around other professionals concerned about the existence of food deserts, or food apartheid as coined by activist Karen Washington, I’ve been struck by the ongoing alliance between those who advocate for food equity and those who consider themselves soldiers in the ongoing “war on obesity”. The panic about food inequity is often justified through the relationship between higher weight and “food deserts”. The common line of reasoning is that marginalized people who don’t have access to “healthy” food are more likely to be fat, which causes them to be sicker and die earlier. The motivation of food equity advocates, especially those in public health, then becomes irreparably tied to a desire to enforce a narrow standard of acceptable body types and make marginalized people thinner instead of holistically addressing their health and nutritional needs. 

This ongoing disconnect has been primarily enabled by fatphobia, or the hatred and fear of fatness. It is a historically-rooted, racism-driven notion that fat bodies are physiologically and morally deficient; it is present in almost every inch of public health research, advocacy, and practice that fat bodies are unworthy of respect or safety. As a result, fat people are only deemed worthy of humane treatment when they are actively trying to shrink themselves. 

As a doctoral student in public health, I try to explain to food equity advocates that nourishing under-resourced communities cannot be done in the spirit of paternalism or correction. I know this because I have personally witnessed the harm done by outsiders that don’t bother to hide their disdain at fat poor people and what they eat. I grew up in the Bronx and have lived in a fat body for 23 years. I will never forget the irregular farmers’ markets that became popular nutrition and food access interventions during my childhood. For a few hours, a few days a week, small booths with produce would open for sale to the public. These markets never lasted in one place for long, were barely affordable, and almost always came with a few white people handing out brochures on eating “the right way” — or, put plainly, in accordance with white supremacist food ideals. Nurturing the community is rarely the point of these short-sighted initiatives: there was never any investment into community-led responses to food inequities, like urban farming or cooperative grocery stores. The point is to remind fat people the way they live their lives is fundamentally deficient and that they must alter their lifestyles if they want to become worthy of equitable food access.

For too long, fatphobia has derailed the real purpose of social justice work in the food access and equity space. By measuring the success of food access programs through weight loss or idealized body sizes, fatness has become framed as the underlying problem — instead of historical systems of inequity preventing communities from thriving. Demonizing fat people implicitly designates thin people as superior on the singular basis of weight, which creates a hierarchy that justifies the mistreatment and abuse of fat people. Building a truly inclusive future requires us to dismantle this hierarchy and the institutions that uphold it.

Consider BronxWorks’ SNAP Nutrition Education and Obesity Prevention program, which aims to promote health among Bronx residents through nutrition education, grocery store tours, and widening the array of nutritious foods available in Bronx bodegas. In 2019, BronxWorks was awarded over $600,000, one of 16 nonprofit organizations to receive part of a $12.9 million pot of federal funding, with the goal of “helping low-income and working-class New Yorkers avoid obesity and chronic nutrition-related diseases” by “improving food resource management and preparation skills among participants, while also increasing access to affordable and nutritious foods”.  

If criticizing the lifestyles of fat people was not such a priority, how much further could the funding BronxWorks received, as well as the rest of the $12.9 million, go towards supporting community-driven solutions? How could access to and operation of BronxWorks’ two pantries been expanded if we ceased to fund weight-centric initiatives that place the burden of social ills like food apartheid on individuals who are just trying to survive? This is how institutions at all levels use fatphobia to further the notion that fat, poor marginalized people are not capable enough to take care of themselves

With fatphobia’s hold on all of us, decentering thinness and recentering equity can feel like an impossible, uncomfortable feat. But it’s doable. Here’s how to start:

1. The first step is to ask yourself: Do I want everyone to have access to all foods or do I want everyone to be thin? 

To truly work towards food equity, we have to work towards everyone having access to all foods — from the normatively “healthy” to the normatively “unhealthy”. The existence of differential access to food is the problem and is evidence of a longer history of inequality that should be the primary concern of all working in the food equity space.

2. Next, for those who help mobilize food access initiatives, it is crucial that you reconsider how you are evaluating the effectiveness of your work. 

Does your work make people in the community feel less stressed, more empowered, and more confident about their ability to stay fed and nourished? Are you providing community members an opportunity to actively shape their neighborhood? Food equity is not about weight loss but about meeting a crucial human need that is threatened by inequality, racism, capitalism, and imperialism. 

3. Then, reimagine your short- and long-term outcomes as steps towards food sovereignty

Instead of working towards a future where a community is thinner or has altered their culturally-rooted foodways to suit white palates, outcomes need to build towards food sovereignty — a sustainable, ecologically sound food system that centers the autonomy and rights of communities to own the land, means, and methods of producing what they consume. This can include actions like land acquisition, farmer training, and the promotion of community-owned food markets, as well as preserving the knowledge of traditional community foodways.

The work of fat liberation activists has been crucial to recentering equity and decentering thinness in my own work. I recommend you start your reading with these pieces: 
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A la carte tickets for our first-ever Movie Club Series, Contemporary Queer Migrations, are now live! Join for this 6-part series where we will watch and discuss 13 films from across the globe — and explore the complex relationship between queerness and migration, queer diasporic families, the power of queer cinema beyond LGBTQIA+ representation, and so much more. Even if you can't participate in the whole series, join our Discord community as we imagine & build a better future for queer migrants and us all. 

Stay tuned for special events, including Q&As with activists and filmmakers! 
Read about the films and sign up here!
In every newsletter, we will also share 5 of our top reads of the last month. Many of these were first shared by members of our Social Impact Professionals FB group:

  1. Feeding the Problem: Community, Charity and Corporations by Elara Shurety
  2. Putting Harriet Tubman on the $20 Bill Is Not a Sign of Progress. It's a Sign of Disrespect by Brittney Cooper
  3. The Darker Story Just Outside the Lens of Framing Britney Spears by Sara Luterman
  4. Nextdoor Is Quietly Replacing the Small-Town Paper by Will Oremus
  5. The Quiet Misogyny of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” by Maria Watanabe
Resources Opportunities
  • The Association for the Study of Food & Society is offering 3 $1,200 to BIPOC working in food studies. Apply here by March 1.
  • The Creative Capital Awards is open for applications, with the chosen artists receiving $50K for their creative project. Apply here by March 8.
  • Asian Women Giving Circle is offering up to 8 grants of $15K for individuals or organizations working on issues relating to AAPI women, girls, or families. Apply here by March 12.
  • Genuine Foods is providing $2,500 & $7,500 grants to food entrepreneurs / organizations. Submissions accepted in phases; apply here.
  • The Sophie Coe Prize awards GBP 1,500 to the author of an original, informative article or essay on some aspect of food history. Applications are due April 23.
Organizations to Support
We are so appreciative to our new Patreon backers Mimi Ng, Matt, Jonathan Fong, Monica Luppi, Kristen Kessig, Hils Bell, and Lynn Mione, as well as all of our incredible crowdfunding contributors. We have also officially finished our first-ever crowdfund, raising over $11,000 towards our 2021 operating budget!

We want to extend a special thank you to the team at
Community Cultures, who raised $1,300 for us as part of their January fermentation classes. As a community-supported organization, we literally would not be here without all of you - so truly, thank you!
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