Food for Thought: Julie Guthman on Obesity and Food Justice in the United States

by Dolores (MAS)- I think about food all the time.  Not only do I love it, but  as a recent graduate of a nutrition program, it was all I talked about for 2 years.  While we often focused on the more cellular and biochemical details of nutrition—where digestion occurred, how different nutrients are transported and absorbed by the body, and how to extract the most nutrition out of our food, we often failed to ask more important questions.  Even if we, the nutrition experts, know what is best to eat and the best way to extract all of a food’s nutrition from it, if people aren’t eating these foods, then does it really matter? What are the vast majority of people eating? And is it all that bad?

In recent years there has been uproar and a focus on the obesity epidemic that has spread throughout the United States.  According to the Center for Disease Control, 37% of Americans are obese and obesity is linked to disease such as Type II Diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. I studied countless of different behavioral theories and looked at studies that used these theories to change the eating habits and help people lose weight to combat this obesity crisis.   However, most of these studies failed to provide fundamental solutions and changes in the end.

As an alternative to the mainstream food movement, self-proclaimed “foodies” like Michael Pollan have spearheaded an alternative food movement that pushes eating local, organic foods, focusing on small farms and staying away from processed foods. “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants,” is one of his most famous mottos and words that other Pollanites live by.  This movement has caught on and throughout the US there are more people signing up for Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs) farm boxes of local produce and countless new nonprofits that focus on food justice have sprung up.

In an early 2012 interview on the radio show, Against the Grain, Julie Guthman, Professor of Community Studies and author of Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice and the Limits of Capitalism challenges this alternative food movement as a solution to the problems with the current industrial agribusiness, as well as the rise of obesity and other chronic diseases [1].  She also questions whether being fat is necessarily unhealthy.

Guthman brings up interesting points and issues, not all that I agree with, but that are worth considering when we think about ways to change people’s consumption patterns here in the United States.  Specifically, she finds it problematic that the alternative food movement focuses on the individual and on consumer choice as a way to change the market.

Wealthy people that as Guthman explains “love food,” and can afford to shop organic and buy local gourmet foods primarily shape the movement.  Therefore, if this movement is consumer driven, only a small number of consumers are able to participate and even influence any type of decision making.  She argues that instead of looking at the side of production the alternative food movement is looking at the supply side.  She brings up the example of the focus on bringing farmers markets to poor communities and paying premium prices for organics, which does not address the whole other part of the market of conventional produce which is nearly as regulated as organics, but is what most people consume.  So while certain people get to buy and eat better food, a whole other segment of the population is left out.  Additionally, she brings up the issue that local farmers do not necessarily have better labor practices than larger agribusiness.

Guthman also challenges the obesity epidemic.  She questions the energy balance model of weight gain, which basically states that a calorie in vs. calories out is necessary for weight maintenance.  Basically, if you consume more calories than you use you will gain weight.  Instead, she offers the theory that chemicals and hormones that are added to mostly processed foods and animal products are contributing to the rise in obesity.  She backs this up with studies done in animals where they were given certain of these synthetic hormones and they gained weight as a side effect.

While Guthman’s positions are still questionable and I disagree with some of her points about the energy balance model, she brings up important points in the debate about food and environment justice.

What the alternative food movement is offering is a liberal, individual solution.  If you can afford to eat good, local and organic then you can subvert the dominant food system (to an extent) but it leaves out the majority of people, which are primarily the working class. In the short term, we need to support farmworkers organizing for better working conditions and wages as well organize our communities to challenge and fight for better environment, health and sanitary conditions in regards to our food and food sources.  Also, we need to fight and reclaim land in our community and use it for what we see is best whether that is a community garden, a park or community space.

It is only until we are able to fully control our land and food production system; there will not be true food justice.  Although Guthman only touches the surface of these problems and how to address them, the interview that follows is interesting and brings up some issues around our food system, capitalism and body image that too often are not discussed.