The Privilege of Picky Eating


Originally published August 21, 2016, TheThirdCitizen.Com

The ability to choose one's diet is a luxury. This includes the ability to choose to eat meat at every meal, or the ability to choose to abstain from it. It really has little to do with veganism itself, and more to do with privilege and access. To be able to eat what you want, say no to free food, and to be able to afford speciality foods, isn’t a luxury most people can accommodate. The argument of ‘vegan staples are cheap’ (rice, beans, grains) is kind of a stretch considering nobody actually lives off just rice and broccoli, not in contemporary industrialized society anyway.

Racism, the systemic mistreatment of people based on their ethnicity or skin color, affects all aspects of our society, including our food system. While racism has no biological foundation, the socio-economic and political structures that dis-possess and exploit people of color, coupled with widespread misinformation about race, cultures and ethnic groups, make racism one of the more intractable injustices causing poverty, hunger and malnutrition. Racism, individual, institutional and structural also impedes good faith efforts to build a fair, sustainable food system.

Think about the relationship of race to class in both the US and SA, access to information and resources; the neighbourhoods or areas where certain kinds of foods are available is not a coincidence, it’s structural planning, cultural norms and the disproportionate distribution of wealth. Organic non GMO foods are priced higher than their industry engineered counterparts, because the industrial food industry prides cost effectivity over sustainable practice. When every dollar counts, faced with the choice between the cheapest or healthiest option, the majority of families in the US and in fact all countries that reflect a striking wage gap, have very little room to even consider it. When dollars are flexible however, it becomes much easier to make a choice in the best interests of our health over our pockets, especially when there’s a famers market on your street corner instead of a fast fried food joint, consider here geographical access; food deserts.

Food deserts are defined by the USDA as parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas. This is largely due to a lack of grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and healthy food providers. This has become a big problem because while food deserts are often short on whole food providers, especially fresh fruits and vegetables, instead, they are heavy on local quickie marts that provide a wealth of processed, sugar, and fat laden foods that are known contributors to our nation’s obesity epidemic.

Recognizing racism as foundational in today’s capitalist food system helps explain why people of color suffer disproportionately from its environmental externalities, labor abuses, resource inequities and diet related diseases. It also helps explain why many of the promising alternatives such as land trusts, farmers’ markets, and community supported agriculture tend to be dominated by people who are privileged by whiteness. Making these alternatives readily accessible to people of color requires a social commitment to racial equity and social justice. Ensuring equity of access to healthy food, resources and dignified, living wage jobs, would go a long way towards ‘fixing’ the food system, making vegan and healthy eating in general, less of a privilege and more of a choice, however, in an article published in The New York Times in 2015, Margot Sanger- Katz identified that this might not be enough, citing:

'If people can’t afford healthier foods, then it would be reasonable to think that just giving them a better store wouldn’t solve their problems. But Ms. Handbury’s paper found that the education of the shoppers was much more predictive than their incomes. Poorer families bought less healthy food than richer ones. But a bigger gap was found between families with and without a college education. Those results, Ms. Handbury said, suggest that improving people’s diets will require both making food accessible and affordable and also changing people’s perceptions and habits about diet and health.

Mr. Elbel, who studied the grocery store in the Bronx, says the work highlights just how hard it is for public policy to help reduce obesity. The studies aren’t a reason to stop caring about food deserts, he said. But they do tell us that improving access, alone, will not solve the problem. “Nothing is going to show a huge impact for obesity, or almost nothing,” he said. “We can’t always just negate the smaller things.”'