a blog about philosophy in public affairs

What is the real problem with food deserts?

Hispanic Sodas Sabor Tropical Supermarket Miami” by Phillip Pessar is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

This is a guest post by Emma Holmes (University of St Andrews/University of Stirling)

Why do some people choose to eat unhealthy food? Earlier this year, Kate Manne – Cornell philosopher and author of several books about misogyny – published Unshrinking, a fascinating and compelling critique of fatphobia. Throughout, she argues against moralising our food choices. There is nothing immoral about wanting to eat greasy, salty, delicious, processed food, says Manne. I agree – but I think she misses something. People’s food preferences are not just random – some people prefer to eat unhealthy foods because their desires have been shaped by an unjust system.

I’ll focus on Manne’s discussion of food deserts to make this point. A so-called ‘food desert’ is a place where there is nowhere nearby or affordable to access healthy food. The term ‘desert’ makes it sound as if this problem is naturally occurring, which it is not – food deserts are the result of urban planning decisions and they disproportionately affect poor people and people of colour. I argue that people who live in food deserts are done an injustice because they are influenced to prefer foods which are bad for their health.  

A lack of choice?

Manne starts by telling us what is not wrong with food deserts. Fatness isn’t (in and of itself) bad, so it isn’t enough to say food deserts are bad because they make people fatter. If we want to criticise food deserts for worsening people’s health, we should talk about health specifically, since fatness is at best an indirect measure of health (p. 88). We shouldn’t moralise food – think of foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – because of implicit connections between those foods and fatness. And we shouldn’t blame individuals when they eat so-called ‘bad’ (read: fattening) foods (p.88). We might want to eat ‘junk food’ – McDonalds, hot dogs, takeaways – because they are so comforting, and Manne says this is a perfectly good reason (p. 89).

So far, so good. What does Manne think is wrong with food deserts?

First, they may prevent people from being able to make healthy choices: Manne writes that “everyone should have access to fresh foods (among others), as well as the resources to exercise in ways that suit their body, as a matter of social justice,” (p. 86-7).

Second, food deserts prevent people from being able eat the foods they want to. This is especially important because food can be a big part of our lives. Manne writes: “everyone deserves access to the major kinds of foods they want to eat, and for most people in most communities, this will include a range of fresh and shelf-stable foods.” (p.88). It is important to bear in mind that Manne opposes the moralisation of food: it is not that people lack access to ‘good’ food, it is that they cannot access the food they want.

Why we choose what we choose

Manne’s criticisms are important, but she leaves something out: how food deserts can shape a person’s preferences. Manne is right that individuals should not be shamed for their food choices, but we should pay attention to where those choices come from in the first place.

Here’s an example to illustrate my point. Coca-Cola has become the largest soda company in Mexico, dominating sales and influencing government policy. Many people choose to drink their soda daily and face adverse health effects as a result. As Manne says, it is bad that these people experience ill health, but no one should be blamed for choosing to drink Coca-Cola. But there is something else to be said here: the choice to drink Coca-Cola – though not immoral – did not happen in a vacuum. People want to drink Coca-Cola because it is marketed to them, because of government policies that Coca-Cola lobbied for, and because it is so popular. If there is a ‘health injustice’ going on here, Coca-Cola is partly to blame for causing people to develop a taste for their unhealthy soda.

Manne admits that food deserts are politically constructed – good – and defends the choice to eat the food you find in them – as she should. But Manne does not acknowledge the further harm: people’s preferences have been shaped by their disadvantaged situation such that they will prefer foods which make them less healthy. This is especially pernicious given that food deserts mainly affect oppressed groups like poor people and people of colour.

To fully explore this point, much more would need to be said about the value of health and what exactly is wrong with shaping preferences in this way. After all, it cannot be that anything which causes people to want something unhealthy is wrong – every food culture in history would be unjust! Still, Manne neglects something significant. Manne tells us that we should not blame, shame or judge someone for what food they eat – which is true! But Manne risks implying that our food choices are innocuous, given, or not to be analysed – which is wrong. Thinking about what shapes our food choices is imperative. Our desires and preferences are shaped by political systems. If we leave this out, food deserts look like a problem merely because they get in the way of what we want; instead, food deserts are wrong because they shape what we want.

Emma Holmes is a PhD student at St Andrews and Stirling. She works on issues of beauty, oppression, and desire.


If animals have rights, why not bomb slaughterhouses?


The Disruption of Human Reproduction


  1. Gilmour Bill

    Every super market has a wide range of fruit, vegetables, pulses, brown rice, wholewheat pasta and etcetera.

    These are all healthy. They are alll cheaper than cheese, fish and meat.

    It is simply not true that healthy cheap food is not available.

Leave a Reply

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

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén