High and dry in food deserts

Why the ‘fat American’ trope is classist

Rebecca Vanderkooi | Demo 64

Americans are sloppy, overweight, slovenly binge-drinkers who love McDonalds’ hamburgers. This is how AirTalk describes the European perception of us.

When researching “American stereotypes,” it does not take long for all discourse to devolve into two-dimensional fatphobia. While a reasonable diet is important, I believe that these stereotypes are offensive, as they tap into something more systemic.

It is true that the average American’s diet does not meet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s standard for nutritional quality. However, this generalization ignores the fact that low-income communities simply lack convenient access to affordable, healthy food. The Annie E. Casey Foundation reports that nearly 20 million Americans live in what’s called a “food desert.”

A food desert can be simply defined as a region without easy access to fresh, healthy food vendors like grocery stores. This may sound unrealistic if you live in a place with a Walmart in every town. I have even had someone try to convince me that food deserts are a myth because there are apple trees in big cities. But these numbers do not lie.

Medical News Today breaks down the numbers in their article “What are food deserts, and how do they impact health?” This is an ongoing problem. The USDA first identified over 6,500 food deserts between 2000 and 2006, a problem that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. It is also true that, when compared to affluent, white communities, neighborhoods with a high population of low-income, ethnic minorities have more limited access to quality supermarkets.

So, if there are places without a grocery store, where are people shopping? In urban areas where the nearest supermarket is over one mile away, or rural areas where that distance increases to ten miles, people will buy their meals from convenient stores or fast-food restaurants. I do not believe that this makes those shoppers lazy or bad homeowners.

If I was struggling to support a family, I know my options would be limited in a food desert. Hypothetically, four dollars (over half of the federal minimum wage) can get me one bag of apples from a faraway Walmart or an entire meal from the Wendy’s across the street. If I do not own a car and have no reliable public transportation near me, my choice is already made.

Obesity in America is not a mere reflection of personal failure. It is a failure of income inequality, public transportation and care for minority communities. Fortunately, there are solutions.

The CDC is working to improve food service guidelines in places like schools and food pantries. They are also attempting to increase access to healthy foods by working with states in their industrial partnerships. You can personally alleviate the problem by donating quality food to those who need it, or by supporting local food stands.