April 14, 2015

Noliwe Rooks on food justice and Michelle Obama

At first glance, obesity and hunger are the complete opposite of each other. One involves an excess of food; the other, a lack.

However, in the talk “Michelle Obama, Food Justice and the Big Business of Poverty in the South Bronx” on April 10 on campus, Noliwe Rooks, associate professor of Africana studies and director of graduate studies, explained that these two issues are “two sides of the same coin.”

Rooks said obesity and hunger are both related to food justice – or rather, the lack of it. “Healthy food and access to it is a matter of both equity and justice,” she said. A lack of readily available healthy food is a major issue for low-income urban areas with large minority populations, such as the south Bronx, she explained. Many of these areas are “food deserts” where there are no supermarkets.

The lack of healthy food, combined with other factors such as high rates of pollution in low-income minority areas, are part of the reason why “chronic health conditions are overrepresented in the poor,” she said.

The federal “Let’s Move” campaign, championed by First Lady Michelle Obama, seeks to increase food justice by providing information and tools for good nutrition, improving school lunch quality, and increasing the access and affordability of healthy food in these communities.

Although Rooks praised the campaign and its goals, she also highlighted how government and corporate actions sometimes backfire, no matter their intentions.

In an attempt to decrease the number of food deserts, many supermarket chains have announced the opening of new stores in underserved areas. Rooks questioned what she called the “if they build it, they will come” strategy, pointing out that many low-income people cannot afford to regularly shop at a Whole Foods.

Rooks also mentioned the controversial 2012 decision of FreshDirect, an online grocer, to relocate to the south Bronx. FreshDirect was offered more than $100 million in subsidies by the city and state with the understanding that FreshDirect would create 1,000 new jobs and provide the borough access to healthier food. However, South Bronx Unite, a coalition of community groups formed to oppose the move, argues that the additional pollution caused by FreshDirect’s trucks would outweigh any potential benefits and amounted to “environmental racism.”

Rooks remarked, “If job creation or poverty reduction is the goal ... the $140 million given to FreshDirect could be much better spent.”

This highlighted her point that government programs and corporate actions aimed at food access will never cure the ills of a community because they are trying to treat the symptom, not the cause. “The problem is not food but poverty,” Rooks said, “which requires more than a supermarket” to be fixed.

The lecture was sponsored by the Department of City and Regional Planning.

Sascha Hernández ’17 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.