The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), as the entity responsible for the federal Dietary Guidelines, encourages Americans to avoid high-fat dairy products, based on extensive medical research revealing their harmful effects. This advice precipitated a thirty-year decline in milk sales. To deal with the resulting surplus, the USDA, which is also responsible for the health of the dairy industry, created Dairy Management Incorporated (DMI). DMI is a marketing branch of the USDA funded primarily through fees levied on dairy farmers. DMI partners with fast food companies to create new products, such as Domino’s seven-cheese American Legends pizzas and Taco Bell’s steak quesadilla, which contain higher than usual amounts of cheese. DMI also works with the fast- food corporations to market and advertise these products. For example, DMI launched the American Legends pizza line during the 2009 Superbowl. Domino’s sales subsequently increased by 14.3%, and the additional sales helped reduce the milk surplus. DMI also created the award-winning advertising campaign, “Got Milk?,” which featured a vast array of celebrities with milk moustaches.
The USDA’s efforts to reduce the high-fat milk surplus by selling it to fast food consumers impose health costs on Americans generally, but disproportionately harm low-income African Americans and Latina/os who live in urban centers dominated by fast food restaurants. DMI-created marketing campaigns that specifically target these populations, such as “Got Milk?” and “Toma Leche?” ads featuring African American and Latina/o celebrities, also exacerbate already significant health disparities between African Americans, Latina/os, and whites. The USDA’s policy of promoting dangerous milk consumption in some communities while warning the general population against it is an example of food oppression.
Food oppression is institutional, systemic, food-related action or policy that physically debilitates a socially subordinated group. Politically and financially weak communities absorb the external costs of food oppression, rendering these costs largely invisible to the mainstream. The effects of the oppression also increase the harmed groups’ vulnerability by constraining their political voices, reducing their work capacity, and draining the energy of household and community members who must care for the sick and take on the responsibilities that ill members cannot fulfill. In the long term, food oppression diminishes already vulnerable populations in numbers and in power. Illness arising from food oppression also leads to social invisibility, decreased social status, depression, and despair.
Food oppression is a difficult concept for many to embrace because of the powerful rhetoric regarding personal choice that is endemic in the United States. This rhetoric attributes ill health to individual weakness, regardless of the very real constraints that shape nutritional intake, particularly in low-income, urban communities. The focus on the individual that dominates medical, scientific, and social views of health carries harmful consequences. By ignoring the structural aspects that shape consumption choices, this myopic perspective forecloses effective prevention and treatment of illnesses that disproportionately harm vulnerable communities.
Social position, which reflects the amount of privilege individuals possess along multiple axes, including race, class, gender, sexual orientation, physical ability, and immigration status, dictates how much disposable income and access to nutritious food people have. These factors, in turn, largely determine what we eat. More than taste, preference, willpower, or a commitment to health and fitness, structural forces shape diets.
When fast food dominates a person’s diet, the reasons are complex and manifold. They include government-corporate partnerships that place fast food in schools, government assistance checks that stretch further in a fast food restaurant than a produce aisle, public transportation that fails to provide routes between low-income neighborhoods and grocery stores, and government subsidies that artificially lower the price of food. Fast food tends to offer more bang for the buck, calories for dollars, making it a sound economic choice for many low-income African American and Latina/o households.
Fast food corporations exploit these harsh realities by devoting millions of dollars to race-targeted marketing annually, including Spanish-language advertising, McDonald’s “365 Black” and “Me Encanta” websites, the reconfiguration of restaurants to accommodate large Latina/o families, and the introduction of culture-specific food items. Health problems linked to fast food, including heart disease, strokes, cancer, and diabetes, affect low-income African Americans and Latina/os more frequently and more seriously than whites. In “Fast Food: Oppression Through Poor Nutrition,” I introduced the theory of food oppression to explain how government actions and policy that lead to the dominance of fast food in low-income, inner-city African American and Latina/o communities contribute to these health disparities.
Here I expand on the theory of food oppression, using the problem of the USDA’s dual roles of nutrition adviser and dairy promoter as an example. I argue that USDA-sponsored dairy consumption, particularly in partnership with fast food companies, increases and perpetuates health disparities. Part I lays out the theory of food oppression. Part II contrasts the traditional salutary image of milk with the scientific and medical realities. Part III analyzes the structural mechanisms and cultural factors that lead the USDA to institutional strategies that result in food oppression. I conclude by exploring the role that law might play in addressing this problem.