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: