Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Food Desserts

We aren’t all fat here in the US—just some of us. Mainly, poor people.
According to the received view, the poor are more likely to be overweight because they live in food deserts where fresh vegetables and other “healthy” foods are unavailable. Without access to transportation, they’re forced to eat locally available junk food. To remedy this, social reformers have introduced green carts stocking fresh fruit and veg to slums.
A recent NYTimes article however challenged the received view. According to a recent study, most poor neighborhoods “have more… grocery stores, supermarkets and full-service restaurants” than more affluent venues and there is “no relationship between the type of food being sold in a neighborhood and obesity among its children and adolescents.”[1] The introduction of green carts made no difference to slum-dwellers’ eating habits: they simply preferred tasty junk food to healthy vegetables.
The article drew outraged responses. Most critics were skeptical—convinced that there really were food deserts whose residents could not get “healthy” green food. Others weren’t having it, and roundly condemned fat slum-dwellers for their irresponsibility, laziness and lack of self-control.
Food is the new sex—the focus of purity regulations and moralism, and a class marker. Victorians condemned the undeserving poor for promiscuity and non-marital liaisons, for irresponsibility and laziness. The new guardians of morality despise them for promiscuous eating, for being too lazy to cook from scratch, and for their irresponsible consumption of fatty, salty, sugary junk food.
Most of these moralists live here in California, the slimmest state in the nation, where everyone carries a water bottle for ongoing hydration and all women do yoga. Being fat in California—at least in the upper middle reaches of society—is hell. In upscale neighborhoods you are liable to get the hate stare just for walking down the street while fat. You do not dare to admit eating meat—unless it’s grass-fed and certified by a boutique butchery—and vegans condemn mere vegetarians as slackers.
There’s no mystery why poor people disproportionately run to fat. They don’t have to live with these moralists so they have less incentive to sweat and starve to be “healthy.” Amongst the working class fat is acceptable—and for women of a certain age the norm. They can enjoy chili, burgers and cheap beer at tailgate parties, far from the censorious gaze of fastidious foodies and exercise enforcers. They can shop for extra-size clothes at Walmart without embarrassment and shamelessly consume junk food at the in-store McDonalds. In their world fat is not a moral failure or a loathsome disease: it is not punished.
Living amongst censorious microbrewers, spandex cyclists, and yoga moms I finally succumbed to social pressure. I joined a gym. I work out every day and starve myself so I am now “healthy” and can appear in public, even in upscale neighborhoods, without shame. But I still don’t care for this regime.
Last month I went to a conference in Arkansas, a poor Southern state and so, along with Alabama and Mississippi, one of the fattest in the country. I wish I lived there! It would be so relaxing not to be always under the gun, not to live in a place where one has to work so hard to avoid social opprobrium. I wish I lived in a place where it was ok to be fat!