oppression with a side of fries:
fast food inequality in cities
In one of the most powerful, prosperous, and prominent nations in the world, many people cannot find healthy food to eat every day. Most of these people do not go hungry, however; there are tens, even hundreds, of cheap and greasy fast-food chains and corner stores just five minutes away. These areas of cities are often the poorest sections, and are inhabited by predominantly African-American and Latino people. As a result of this difference in food quality, there are higher rates of disease, and obesity, in these demographics across cities in the United States.
The disparity of healthy food options by neighborhoods in cities is an issue that has existed for a hundred years, and is only increasing today. Many communities, typically poorer, and predominantly African-American and Latino, have only one, or no, healthy grocery store, and are riddled with fast-food restaurants. These people’s access to nutritious food is considerably below the United States’ average, and is rooted in a centuries-long history of oppression of minorities in the United States. Not only is their physical access more difficult, they are at a financial disadvantage, especially when it comes to expensive supermarkets that carry higher-quality products. As a result of this dearth of grocery stores, and abundance of fast-food restaurants, rates of diseases such as diabetes and obesity have gone up in recent years. I aim to answer this question: How is it possible to cheaply provide poorer neighborhoods with healthy food?
Since the first fast food burger joint opened in 1916, Americans in cities have been flocking to their nearest fast food restaurant, and returning home within minutes. Up until the 1940s, the concept of fast food did not grow extremely quickly as it did after; it was still a novelty, though restaurants did still make improvements to capitalize on this new style of food (AccuPOS). However, in the 1950s, the industry boomed, and more and more fast food restaurants appeared, trying not to improve but to replicate their quality across many locations (AccuPOS). Their popularity was accelerated by their marketing strategies as well as their uniformity (AccuPOS). With this new style of dining sweeping the masses, people from many backgrounds and financial situations could have a cheap and accessible way to eat food without having to make it.
There was one major problem, however: its lack of health, and thus, the accessibility of healthier options for America’s poorer populations. Fast food has always been cheap and convenient; it earns these benefits by sacrificing the nutrition of its food, and using lower-quality ingredients. As a result, anyone can afford it, even if they earn a low wage, and anyone can access it, even if they work two jobs and have nearly no time free. Because of this, many such restaurants have been built in neighborhoods where the majority of people do not earn much money and do not have much time. Similarly, grocery or convenience stores in poorer neighborhoods might contain “potato chips…frozen burritos, and one bruised-up, waxy apple” (Bass et al.). Such neighborhoods, where few or no healthy options can be found, arose, and became known as food deserts.
In the 1960s, government “officials…decided that a particularly promising kind of entrepreneurship for the urban underclass was in fast food” (McWilliams). The government then encouraged business initiatives for people in poorer urban neighborhoods to run even more fast food restaurants, giving loans to new franchises (Jou). The already rapid expansion of unhealthy food was only exacerbated by the government, and the decision to provide financial support to fast food franchises mainly owned by African-Americans and mainly in poorer neighborhoods was often a decision rooted in subtle yet impactful racism. Some argue that even though the programs did “assist African-American entrepreneurs…in the inner city”, the government’s support “transformed the African-American diet from a relatively healthy one to one that’s far too reliant on junk food” (McWilliams).
In 2002, a class-action lawsuit was formed against McDonald’s by the families of teenagers who developed numerous health problems having eaten fast food commonly (Freeman). The district court struck down the lawsuit, saying that, ultimately, no one needs to eat fast food (Freeman). This eventually led to a bill in the House of Representatives that aimed to ban such lawsuits (H.R. 554). Here we can see food oppression on a national level. The judges and lawmakers that come from privileged positions can afford to choose all of their meals, but they ignore that the plaintiffs, and many more people in poorer communities, may not be able to do the same, especially with no nutritious stores or restaurants in sight (Freeman).
This issue has not only materialized itself in specific cases in time; it has shown itself in many cities, as one of many parallels to racial segregation. Allow us to do a case study on the city of Chicago. Chicago has a long history of racial divide and oppression, and while it legally can’t discriminate by race, according to many in the city, it “[b]asically [i]nvented [m]odern [s]egregation” (Moser). As a result of its history, it’s no surprise that the African-American population of Chicago is considerably poorer on average than the white population. The racial divide is so prominent that “African Americans are three times as likely as whites to be in deep poverty” (Newman).
Now, how does Chicago’s segregation relate to food? We know that racial segregation has existed in the United States for over four hundred years, but disparities in obesity have not. This is where fast food incorporates itself into the array of issues. This disparity in quality of food effectively becomes another form of racial segregation.
Here we see two maps of the Chicago area, with rates of obesity and poverty shown to be greater in the blue and lower in the green (Sullivan). With our knowledge of the Chicago area’s history, we can reasonably state that there is a racial divide in obesity, which has been confirmed nationwide. Fast food companies may not be racist inherently, or outwardly (though some are), but they, just like basically every other type of business, have capitalized on the United States’ racist history. An anomalous and controversial Whole Foods exists in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood; however, this is one of only four Whole Foods nationwide that exist in poor locations, out of 460 total (Trotter).
Even today this issue remains prominent, not just in Chicago, but every major city, with companies taking advantage of new mass information and advertisement. Fast-food marketing campaigns have been found to disproportionately target African-American and Latino customers to promote these groups’ consumption of fast food, and effectively, their decline in health, yet another example of the subtle racism used by corporations (Harris-Lovett). These advertisers know that the issue exists, and instead of aiming to solve it, they are capitalizing on it for their own personal and financial gain. The United States’ four-hundred-year history of discrimination against minorities has led up to a literal statistical difference in health among these groups. The disparities in nutrition by socio-economic status and race in the United States have been considered “food oppression” (Freeman). There is no quick and easy solution, but the grocery and fast-food industries can attempt to acknowledge the problem as more than a marketing ploy.
For this problem to be solved, grocery stores must be able to provide healthy and cheap foods (which do exist) to their poorer locations. Cheap foods that are known to be nutritious include beans, lentils, yogurt, and many grains. These products are also available in ways that do not require preparation: canned beans, for example, are ready to eat, and yogurt can be eaten straight out of the pint or quart. These foods may not be the most appealing, but then again, fast food should not be. It uses low quality ingredients which surely do not taste like they are top quality food. When these foods are popularized and fast food is not as much, we will see health improve in poorer neighborhoods.
Here is an image by Spencer Nadolsky demonstrating how healthy food can be cheaper than unhealthy fast food. Pictured on the left is a McDonald’s meal which consists of four orders of fries, two burgers, and chicken nuggets. On the right is a meal three dollars cheaper and much healthier (Nadolsky). Within this meal is frozen broccoli (which can be bought for less than one dollar), and potato ‘fries’ that keep the healthy peel of the potato (Nadolsky).
Bass, Angela, et al. “Oakland’s Food Divide.” Oakland North, Oakland North, oaklandnorth.net/few-food-choices/.
Harris-Lovett, Sasha. “Junk Food Ads on TV Tend to Target African American and Latino Youth.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 13 Aug. 2015, beta.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-junk-food-advertising-racial-disparity-20150812-story.html.
“The History of Fast Food in America.” AccuPOS, AccuPOS Point of Sale, www.accupos.com/pos-articles/history-of-fast-food-in-america/.
Jou, Chin. Supersizing Urban America: How Inner Cities Got Fast Food With Government Help.
McWilliams, James. “Why Is There So Much Fast Food in Poor Urban Areas?” Pacific Standard, The Social Justice Foundation, 30 Mar. 2017, psmag.com/news/why-is-there-so-much-fast-food-in-poor-urban-areas.
Moser, Whet. “Chicago Isn’t Just Segregated, It Basically Invented Modern Segregation.” Chicago Magazine, 31 Mar. 2017, www.chicagomag.com/city-life/March-2017/Why-Is-Chicago-So-Segregated/.
Nadolsky, Spencer. “Healthy Food Is Cheaper than McDonald’s.” Dr. Spencer Nadolsky, 14 Mar. 2017, drspencer.com/eating-healthy-is-cheaper-than-mcdonalds/.
Newman, Jonah. “New Census Data Shows Persistence of Poverty in Chicago.” Chicago Reporter, 18 Sept. 2015, www.chicagoreporter.com/new-census-data-shows-persistence-of-poverty-in-chicago/.
Providing for Consideration of H.R. 554, Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act of 2005: Report (to Accompany H. Res. 494), H.R. 554, 109th Cong., U.S. G.P.O. (2005). Print.
Sullivan, Karin Horgan. “The City of Big Stomachs.” Chicago Magazine, 27 May 2007, www.chicagomag.com/Chicago-Magazine/March-2007/The-City-of-Big-Stomachs/.
Trotter, Greg. “A Year In, Whole Foods’ Englewood Project Still a Work in Progress.”Chicagotribune.com. N.p., 22 Sept. 2017. Web. 05 Feb. 2018.
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