The Politics of Food

Natalie Nelson | Staff Writer

The amount of health disparities between races and gender has always stood as one of the pillars of racism and misogyny in the United States and still marks one of the biggest issues facing women of color across the country. Diabetes is a disease that does not constrain itself to appear in a specific genetic code, however, over the last century or so, the rate of diabetes in Black and Native American communities has increased to a horrifying degree. In addition to that, women with diabetes also experience more serious complications at a higher risk than men.

The indigenous people on the Pima Reservation in Southern Arizona exist with the highest amount of cases of diabetes in the country and low-income Black people living in urban settings tend to suffer from diabetes more than any other demographic. Although the risk of diabetes can be genetic, the propensity for people to have diabetes had to start somewhere. After the Coolidge Dam finished construction in 1928 to bring water to the settlers in Arizona, the Pima lost access to the Gila River, which was once their main source of irrigation. Right as the Great Depression was beginning, this loss of water was detrimental to their survival. In the dry climate, the Pima, who were once self-sufficient, began to pass away from starvation. The U.S. Military then provided the reservation with free commodity food to make up for their loss in crops. The kinds of food offered from free commodity are beans, cheese, grape juice, refined sugar, lard, white flour, chips, candy, and canned food.

This is also the kind of food Black people in low-income areas tend to buy since there are typically little to no fresh food options in urban areas, such as Pittsburgh’s Hill District, which closed its last supermarket in March 2019. In addition to that, people that are a part of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) tend to buy the cheapest options with the monthly benefits they receive. It is typically believed that diabetes is simply more prevalent in these populations due to genetics, but coupled with the lack of accessible healthcare, that is not all there is to the phenomenon. The poor diets that people were politically and economically redlined into has caused the number of diabetes cases in Native American and Black communities to skyrocket over the last century.

Within these demographics, women are also in more danger than men. While men are more likely to develop diabetes, women suffer more due to an increased risk of other health problems such as heart attacks, kidney failure, blindness, and depression. Meanwhile, men tend to suffer from a loss of muscle mass and erectile dysfunction. Because of the various complications that can come from diabetes in women, women receive less aggressive treatment than men, causing their mortality rate to rise. All of these factors put Native American and Black women at the highest risk of death from diabetes than any other demographic in the country.

The differences in the healthcare that people receive based on their race and gender is prevalent when studying how and why diseases present in different people. Under the conditions that many women of color live in, their healthcare suffers more than most others, giving them a higher morality rate than anyone else.