Health Consequences of Food Production: A Feminist Perspective (Part Three)

Cherise Charleswell I Women's Issues I Analysis I December 19th, 2013

The following is Part Three of a Hampton Institute Research Project on Eco-Feminism, which analyzes the various health consequences of the global food production operations, distribution systems, preparation, and consumption, that affect women.

Health Consequences of Food Production: A Feminist Perspective (Part One)

Health Consequences of Food Production: A Feminist Perspective (Part Two)

The following is the conclusion of a three-part series that focuses on the negative health effects of food procurement, preparation, and, consumption, which greatly impact women and families. Presented is an analysis of food consumption models, utilizing economic, social, and cultural perspectives. Across cultures, women continue to be responsible for the procurement and preparation of food for the household. 1 And, thus, they play an important role in overseeing the health and well-being of the family. Here, women are often solely responsible for ensuring the nutritional value of consumed foods, as well as the daily caloric intake. Once again, per the World Health Organization, "health" will be referred to as "a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity."2 Therefore, the discussion on the health consequences of food procurement, preparation, and consequences will focus on physiological manifestations, such as chronic disease and disability, as well as the psychosocial, political, and economic factors that directly impact health. The act of cooking, which is often a responsibility given to and performed by women, is an act of unpaid labor which demands additional investments of time and energy from women. Also, in considering the investment in time, one must consider the many steps that must be carried out in order to serve a meal: getting to a store (whether on foot, car, or bus), shopping, bagging groceries, unpacking groceries, preparing food, cooking meals, serving food, washing dishes, and finally cleaning the ktichen.3

Ultimately, the procurement, preparation, and consumption of food, particularly healthier options, depend upon not only cultural cuisines and preferences but, more so, on access; whether access to healthier food options or access to employment opportunities for jobs that pay much higher wages. Also, women are overwhelmingly involved in the preparation and distribution of food in the private sector, and they make up the majority of food service workers who are greatly underpaid, denied a living wage, and denied health insurance.

The feminization of poverty is a term coined by Diana Pearce in the 1970s.4 Diana studied how poverty had rapidly become a women's problem in Western society during that period. Currently, the problem persists, and a growing share of the population living under poverty are female.5 The 'feminization of poverty' is reinforced by labor markets that keep a category of high wages and stable employment exclusively for men. Thus, the 'feminization of poverty' leaves women and families, especially those led by single-women, the most vulnerable and at risk of facing a multitude of health consequences.

Feminization of Poverty

Women perform the majority of food-related work but control few resources, and thus hold little decision-making power in the food industry and with food policy.3 Immigrant women, particularly undocumented workers, are among those who are the most vulnerable when it comes to the distribution and preparation of food. They are the line cooks, servers, and janitorial staff who are seen and unseen at various restaurants; particularly fast food chains. The food industry itself is now rightfully coming under fire for its role in contributing to persistent poverty, through its unwillingness to pay workers a living wage. The average US fast food worker makes $8.69 hourly6 and 65% of fast food workers are women.7 Management, and thus better paying positions in the food retail industry, is still predominately male-dominated.2

Through protests across the nation, fast-food workers, along with other workers in the food industry (restaurant staff) are calling for a living wage, which may be defined as a decent and adequate wage that affords the earner and her or his family the most basic costs of living without need for government support or poverty programs, of $15 hourly. People working in fast-food jobs are more likely to live in or near poverty. One in five families with a member holding a fast-food job has an income below the poverty line, and 43 percent have an income two times the federal poverty level or less.6

Yet, despite making billions in profits, managing to pay CEOs millions, and continuously raising the cost of food products on their menus, the food industry is still unwilling to meet this demand. Following the slow economic recovery, 88% of growth went to corporate profits and only 1% to wages. 8 Certainly, at the root of the problem is market monopolies and globalization, which has driven down competition; and is exemplified by the fact that the 10 largest food companies now control 49 percent of food sales.9 Under these circumstances, low-wage workers, who again are mostly women, are forced to live in poverty, and thus depend on government subsidies paid for by U.S. taxpayers. Women made up about two-thirds of all workers who were paid minimum wage or less in 2012, and 61 percent of full-time minimum wage workers.10 Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of enrollments in America's major public benefits programs are from working families.6 Wages are so low that even full-time hours are not enough to compensate. The families of more than half of the fast-food workers employed 40 or more hours per week are enrolled in public assistance programs.6

Among these subsidies is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which provides for the disbursement of Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT cards, which are used to purchase food. The program is administered by the United States Department of Agriculture and funded under the U.S. Farm Bill, and it is often threatened by proposed budget cuts, such as additional cuts that went into effect on November 1, 2013, which are championed by Republicans; despite the fact that most of this funding goes to Red (Republican majority) states, and therefore aids their constituents. Essentially, blinded by wedge politics, these constituents repeatedly vote against their own interests.

Additionally, budget cuts to SNAP at this time is particularly shameful, due to the struggling economy, that have left many Americans the victims of stagnant wages and unemployment; which makes it difficult to feed themselves and their families. Further, the rippling effect in the cuts to SNAP is the loss of revenue to grocers and farmers who produce and distribute food.

Outside of the food industry, in industries such as retail, women also constitute the majority of workers, which again means that they disproportionately earn lower wages. For example, 72 percent of sale workers at Wal-Mart are women, who average $7.50 per hour, with no health benefits.11 The problem of poverty is also exacerbated with single-family households led by women who have limited financial resources. Even for those who earn above minimum wage, the income gender gap remains, with women making $0.77 for each dollar earned by men12 - and they must still cope with the rising cost of living.

The root causes of poverty are multifaceted - including historical racial, ethnic disenfranchisement, economic policies, and unfair trade agreements; and income is imperative when considering food preparation and consumption because it simply provides the needed access to these products, particularly the healthier options.

Thus, food insecurity is a problem of access and unfair distribution. While many women and children are unable to access healthy and quality food, there is not a shortage of food globally. Increases in food prices, again often the result of socioeconomic policies and war, which disrupts the production of food, generally mean an increase in food insecurity. The UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) estimated that one-third of all food produced for human consumption-about 1.3 billion tons a year-is lost or wasted.13 This problem is exemplified by the historical example of the Irish Potato Famine of the 19th century, where Ireland was actually exporting food to various other English colonies while the masses of the Irish, those producing the food, were starving.14 There was not a lack a food, but a lack of political will to distribute the food to the starving poor; and it is the same that is now occurring on a national and international scale. Finally, income is imperative when considering food preparation and consumption because it simply provides needed access to these products, particularly the healthier options. Therefore, the income disparities which women face may rightfully be referred to as a social justice issue.

Food Justice

The basis of social justice, which is a public health matter, is ensuring equity in that there is a fair disbursement of common advantages and opportunities, and the sharing of common burdens; and as a subset of social justice, food justice seeks the same. In other words, food justice seeks to transform the food system by ensuring that the overall benefits and risks of where, what, and how food is grown, produced, transported, distributed, accessed, selected, and consumed are shared equitably. Central to food justice is the achievement of food security, which will only occur when all people, at all times, have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious foods which meet their dietary needs, as well as food preferences for an active and healthy life.15 Food insecurity, which continues to be a global problem, is defined by the USDA as "a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.16 Thus, the core problem that brings about these issues of food justice is inequality, and more specifically, socioeconomic inequity; and this problem is seen globally.

Socioeconomic differences translate to differences in the built environment, and it is those differences that greatly impact the health and well-being of women and families. So, communities with lower incomes are plagued with the barrier of access. They are the communities - whether rural or urban-that are without adequate access to clean drinking water (water scarcity is a growing international concern, affecting one in there people on every continent), 17 lacking open space for community gardens, plagued with fast-food restaurants and liquor stores, and having an absence of full-service grocery markets. Further, the residents of these communities, which are often referred to as food deserts, are also without access to transportation to readily travel out of these areas to obtain more nutritious goods.

The end result is that residents of these communities, as well as women living in areas that are slightly more affluent, are still faced with the burden of acquiring healthier food options. This is particularly troublesome for mothers, who are often faced with the decision of feeding their children something/anything to eat, rather than just identifying items that are more nutritious. The decision to knowingly feed one's child food that is known to cause a variety of health consequences may seem immoral on the surface, but it pales in comparison to the decision of letting one's child go without eating and facing another set of more immediate health consequences. Besides, the harsh reality is that the less-nutritious items on a dollar or value menu still cost less than a salad, which may average from $4 - $6.

Food Preparation & Consumption

Cuisine is one of the most important hallmarks of culture; as pointed out, issues of food justice have greatly impacted decision-making on what is prepared and consumed within a household. For instance, with the growing popularity of organic foods and debates over genetically-modified foods (GMOs), women, and particularly women who are not from affluent communities, are left out of the discussion. Even though organic foods often found at markets such as Gelsons, Trader Joes, and Whole Foods (also sadly and humorously referred to as Whole Paycheck) may be free of pesticides and other harmful agents, they are simply not selected for consumption due to their high costs.

In the end, it is these costs and lack of access to resources to procure healthier food options that leads to the consumption of unhealthy meals and food-like items (which can of course be picked up at liquor stores, fast-food restaurants, and corner markets); and this is the basis of the Standard American Diet (SAD). Outside of the issue of cost, having women increase their numbers in the labor force - and this includes taking on multiple jobs - has led to a decrease in the amount of time for food preparation, and has thus led to an increase in dining out and the consumption of fast food. Between 1979 and 2005, the percent of food expenditures for food eaten outside of the home increased from 33 to 49 percent.18

The Standard American Diet (SAD) consists of a myriad of processed carbohydrates (cereals, breads, pasta, cookies, cakes etc.), processed meat products, and a few, if any, fruits and vegetables. Essentially, the diet is high in many things that your body does not need and is actually harmful (hydrogenated oil, high fructose corn syrup, phytic acid, acrylamide, sodium nitrate, monosodium glutamate [MSG]); and lacking in the basic essentials such as vitamins and minerals. Even more problematic is that the SAD is spreading around the world and impacting other economically-depressed communities through the process of deregulation, trade agreements, globalization, and unchecked corporate influence. Far worse is the introduction, of food aid to countries in the Global South, of food products that cannot be grown locally in the tropical and temperate climates. This process leads not only to a dependency on foreign nations to continuously provide these products, but also adds an additional cost burden to the fragile economies of developing nations; as well as displaces traditional crops, such as cassava, yam, quinoa, and millet. The end result, again, is the further progression of the harmful Standard American Diet. In a recent article, "Culture, Food and Identity II," Mervyn Claxton echoed this contention, stating, "The rapid development of consumer tastes for certain foods that cannot be grown in tropical countries not only condemns the latter to permanent dependence on external foods supplies, but is also culturally alienating.19

Health Consequences

The most detrimental consequence of inequitable access to affordable and healthy food options is an increased risk and higher prevalence of obesity, and resultant chronic diseases. Since women are more likely to be low-wage workers and live in neighborhoods plagued with inequity, they are also more likely to be impacted by these health burdens. Among scholars and health practitioners, it is already understood that there is a negative correlation between income and weight, which basically shows that as income goes down, weight goes up. Again, one simply has to consider the availability of food options in low-income neighborhoods to understand how this occurs. In these environments, food and food-like products high in sugar and fat are of low cost and are readily available, while the nutritious food items are expensive and most often not available.20,21

The number of women who are overweight and obese is increasing, with 63% of US women being overweight and 28% being obese.22 There are also other issues of inequity to consider, and that is that marginalized racial and ethnic minority women - African American, Native American, Pacific Islander, and Hispanic women-are more likely to live in low-income neighborhoods; and thus have higher rates of obesity, and carry much of the burden for preventable chronic diseases. For instance, in 2005, obesity was found to be the most prevalent among Black women (49%) and is at 38% in Mexican-American women, compared to a rate of 31% in non-Hispanic, White women.23 By 2009, the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, looking at data between 2005-2008, found the rates had increased to 51% for Black women aged 20 years or older, compared to 43% of Mexican Americans, and 33% of non-Hispanic, White women.24 For young girls, aged 2 - 19 years, the numbers are just as disheartening: 24% of non-Hispanic Blacks, 19% of Mexican Americans, and 14% of non-Hispanic White girls were found to be obese.24

Although declared an official and distinct disease by the American Medical Association, obesity is also a precursor and co-morbidity for a number of chronic diseases, which have a plethora of health consequences; with the most important being a reduction in the quality of life and life expectancy. Among the physiological health consequences of obesity are the following:

Cardiovascular diseases - Coronary heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure (hypertension). 24
Type-2 diabetes. 24

Cancers, such as endometrial, breast, colon cancer, and kidney 24, 25

High total cholesterol or high levels of triglycerides 24

Liver and gallbladder disease 24

Sleep apnea and respiratory problems 24

Reproductive health complications such as infertility 24

Mental health conditions 24 ,26

Alzheimer's disease and dementia27,28

Degeneration of cartilage and underlying bone within a joint (osteoarthritis); arthritis24,29

These chronic diseases contribute to a reduction in the overall quality of life, in that they may result in the loss of limbs and mobility, and income; and treatment may be time consuming, as is the case with dialysis. Further, the link between obesity, inactivity, and poverty is too costly to ignore because obesity-associated chronic disease already accounts for 70% of U.S. health costs;30 and much of those costs are paid out to cover the cost of emergency care, instead of the less expensive and more beneficial preventative care options. Due to this rising cost in care, those earning low income and many middle-income salaries are left without access to health insurance and health resources; which was the basis for the enactment of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which is slowly being implemented. Thus, the goal of the ACA is to provide health coverage, but particularly preventative health care to those who could not otherwise afford access, such as the 87% of front-line-fast-food workers who do not receive health benefits through their employer. 6


Ultimately it is clear that food, from production to final consumption, is a complex matter.

Theorists, being aware of the complicated and contradictory connections between gender and food, have called for a better understanding of this relationship through a new field of feminist food studies, which draws connections between women's food work in the labor market (material), their responsibility for food-related work in the home (socio-cultural), and their relationship with eating (corporeal).31 It is these varying factors -- the material, socio-cultural, and corporeal that directly influence consumption.

Consumption is a process with different stages, compromising: how and where food is acquired, what is acquired, how food is prepared, how and where it is eaten, and how wastes are disposed of; and this process is greatly dependent on those external factors in the built environment, which may present a variety of negative health consequences. Due to their prominent role in the production, distribution, procurement, and preparation of food, as well as the more specific responsibility of food selection and cooking in their households, women must become more vocal in agrifood movements and institutions, along with other food justice movements. Also, collaborative efforts with labor unions, public health organizations, immigrant rights associations, and other interdisciplinary groups that are concerned with the many determinants of health within the built environment which disproportionately affect women and children, should be sought out.


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