No Such Thing as a Free Lunch: Paternalism, Poverty, and Food Justice

Article excerpt

Two recent, controversial policy initiatives have revealed conflicts among three groups that take an interest in the eating habits of the poor: anti-hunger advocates, anti-obesity advocates, and "food justice" advocates. These initiatives-Los Angeles's zoning ordinance banning new fast food restaurants in one low-income neighborhood and New York City's proposal to ban the use of food stamps for soda purchases--are supported by anti-obesity advocates but opposed by many others, including (in the case of the latter initiative) anti-hunger groups. Opponents have argued that there is something uniquely troubling about government paternalism when it singles out a marginalized group like the poor. The food justice movement has been largely silent during these debates, though the issues strongly relate to the movement's central goal of promoting equal access to healthy food. This silence seems to stem from the movement's lack of a coherent vision of equality, which leaves it unable to decide if these policies are discriminatory. This Article argues that this lack of a coherent vision is a major failing of this important emerging movement, which should follow the lead of the environmental justice movement by using these sorts of difficult issues to refine and communicate its message. The Article also examines the scholarship surrounding paternalistic policies that target marginalized groups, creates a rubric for exploring whether such policies are at odds with the ideal of equality, and applies that rubric to the two policy initiatives. This exercise demonstrates how different conceptualizations of equality influence the analysis of these types of proposals. This observation underscores the food justice movement's need to articulate a clear vision of equality, particularly since many emerging food policy issues involve paternalism that disproportionately affects the poor.


A nation's approach to the challenges presented by poverty reveals a lot about that society's values and culture. The issue of feeding the poor is universal, but in the United States, there has recently been a notable burst of interest in feeding the poor in a healthy way. Traditional anti-hunger advocates still fight to make sure the poor have enough to eat, but they now share the stage with two groups that focus not on the dangers of malnutrition and food insecurity, (1) but instead on the healthfulness of the food the poor consume: anti-obesity advocates (2) and "food justice" advocates. (3) The former work within a public health model, attacking obesity much like tobacco. (4) While their concerns are not solely about the poor, they often focus on that population due to the prevalence of obesity in low-income communities. (5) Food justice activists, meanwhile, aim to bring a certain type of food to low-income communities--the whole, unprocessed food that Michael Pollan and other popular figures view as optimal. (6) Their rhetoric is rights-based and equality-based: they argue that everyone has an equal right to fresh, healthy food regardless of income. (7) While the goals of these three groups are similar enough that they often co-exist peacefully, (8) recent disputes have exposed important philosophical differences. (9) These disputes offer a glimpse into contemporary debates not only about the food system, but also about issues as fundamental as the proper role of government, the value a society should place on autonomy, and the meaning of justice and equality.

Anti-obesity advocates, seeing government regulation as one important tool for combatting a public health threat such as obesity, have proposed a range of government interventions to reduce consumption of unhealthy food, particularly in low-income communities. (10) Two such initiatives that gained the support of local governments are discussed here: Los Angeles's decision to zone a low-income part of the city so that new fast food restaurants cannot be built (11) and New York City's proposal, which was rejected by the Department of Agriculture, to make it so that food stamps (now called SNAP benefits (12)) cannot be used to purchase sweetened beverages. …


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