The Complex Anatomy of Food Justice: Poverty and Obesity

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been discussing the ways in which your diet might be a function of your mother’s food-related habits. In a three part series, I described the emotional eater, the traditionalist, and the expert archetypes that moms might embody. In this post, as we wrap up our Thanksgiving break and look ahead to more of the holiday season, I want to go beyond the family unit and look at broader food issues that might limit how much or little we can control our own health.

First, some quick facts about the United States.* Unlike other countries, the poor tend to be more obese in the U.S. due to a set of interacting factors:

  • The poor tend to have low access to fresh food because they live in food deserts;
  • 43% of households with incomes below the poverty line have uncertain or unreliable access to food;
  • Inactivity due to fear of violence in poor neighborhoods leads to sedentary lifestyles, which contribute to obesity;
  • Parks and sports facilities are less available to people in poor neighborhoods, leading to less exercise; and
  • Obesity-related chronic disease including diabetes and obesity already account for 70% of U.S. healthcare costs.

Let’s pause for a moment and regroup. These statistics are appalling. Essentially, what we have created is a downward spiral between (1) poverty, (2) obesity and other lifestyle diseases, and (3) inactivity that affects mostly people of color. Food justice is part of a much larger justice issue that includes racism, environmental justice (gaining equal environmental protection and access to decision-making about it), women’s rights, and animal rights. As I’ve explained before, justice issues need to be addressed in an integrated way because the problem is a complex and interwoven one.

This places my previous series of posts about diet in humbling perspective: how could people who are poor, whose access to fresh food is unreliable, and who can’t exercise regularly, even attempt to heal themselves on a plant-based, gluten-free, whole foods, organic, or other diet of their choice? They do not have the luxury of experimentation and discovery because they can barely find fresh food. The barriers are stacked against them.

I still maintain that we must begin with ourselves: find our optimal dietary and health regimens and function at our highest potential. As we do this, we must also empower the poor, lift them out of poverty, and improve their access to fresh food. As I discussed in my post about belonging, any societal ill that affects one of us, affects all of us. Imagine it is your spouse or parent or child in this precarious situation. We must help these people as if they are our family because, well, they are. The circle of human concern must be completely inclusive for us to survive and thrive in harmony with nature. What we are doing to our poor, we are doing to ourselves and the planet, and destruction must now give way to regeneration.

As the documentary What the Health has shown, this is a systemic problem: corporations are in bed with big pharma to keep us just sick enough to need “healthcare” but not sick enough to die, as death isn’t profitable to them.

Fortunately, this situation is changing as some of us are individually starting to take charge of our wellness with preventive measures such as exercise and a healthier diet. There are also programs to help change the system. These include grants that help people on food stamps access fresh foods. Organizations like Just Food are finding ways to make community-supported agriculture (CSA) available to low-income people. Let’s help those in more unfortunate circumstances do the same. Check out this guide to food justice organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area if you live here like me. Join your local food justice organization and help make a difference. Also see this list for foods that are sourced ethically.

What keeps you up at night when it comes to food, poverty, and justice, what ideas do you have, and what are you doing to help? Tell me in the comments and let’s figure out more ways to be part of the solution. And read on next week as I connect these threads to one of the biggest challenges of our time: climate change.

The poor have impaired access to fresh foods, and are less able to fight obesity with healthy organic food options like this plant-based burger wrapped in lettuce.

The poor have impaired access to fresh foods, and are less able to fight obesity with healthy organic food options like this plant-based burger wrapped in lettuce.

*For definitions and measurement methods, see the United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service (USDA ERS) documentation.

My thanks go to Diane for inspiring this post. 


  • If you are in the SF Bay Area during the weekend of the Dec 9, you might be interested in the People’s Harvest Forum (, which “aims to inspire and empower both new and seasoned activists in working towards food justice and food sovereignty.”

    • Marilyn Cornelius

      Hi Kamal, thanks for the information. I am out of the country and will miss this event, but am so inspired to know that it’s going on! So important to bring food justice (and overall equity) to all people so we can tackle wellness and climate change challenges.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *