The epidemic puts millions at risk for Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease – chronic conditions disproportionately suffered by African Americans.
The medical cost of treating obesity-related diseases is projected to be about $344 billion by 2018. But the cost in black lives is even more staggering. According to 2006 estimates, twice as many years of potential life are lost for blacks than for whites due to heart disease, and two and a half times as many years due to diabetes.
Freeman and legal experts nationwide are investigating the effect of fast food on minorities and how fast food companies target them – minorities represent huge profits to the Burger Kings of the world. African Americans spend $65.3 billion a year on food, according to Target Market News.
“Although the harm caused by over-consumption of fast food cuts across race and class lines, its pronounced and extreme effect on low-income people of color represents a form of structural oppression,” said Freeman. “Food oppression undermines both the survival and well-being of low-income urban communities of color.
“Food oppression is structural,” she said, “because it is not the product of individual acts of discrimination, but stems from the institutionalized practices and policies of government and the fast food industry.”
Fast food chains are very well aware of their positioning in America’s neighborhoods. “Food companies indisputably target black communities. McDonald’s uses all kinds of software to determine the best places for their franchises, including near schools and in low-income black neighborhoods, where they will generate a lot of profit off people who don’t have options for cheap foods.”
To lower their costs, many firms serve second- and third-rate produce. Some are accused of adding filler to their meats. One attorney, Daniel Miles III of Beasley Allen, said his firm tested Taco Bell items and found that only 35% of what the chain calls “seasoned beef” actually appears to be beef.
Freeman said chains strategize their expansion based on “sophisticated cartographic software” that uses satellite imagery to predict growth. Meanwhile, as fast food chains move into neighborhoods, supermarkets that stock fresher, higher-quality foods move out toward more affluent suburbs. The average fast food joint offers, at most, dozens of items, compared to 45,000 items offered at the average U.S. supermarket.
Millions of African Americans suffer the consequences in “food deserts,” where residents lack access to healthy food alternatives. Newark, New Jersey’s 280,000 residents must depend on only three major supermarkets to serve their food needs.
The fast food market was $110 billion in 2001, when one in four Americans visited a fast food restaurant daily. The market has since grown because fast food companies have perfected a slew of successful marketing strategies.
To boost sales in 2002, McDonald’s introduced its Dollar Menu, where select food items sold for a buck apiece. The company used slogans crafted by advertising agencies that targeted minorities, and also included African Americans in ads. The ads focused on the amount of hearty food a dollar could buy, a message young consumers on limited budgets could appreciate.
The tactic worked. The New York Times reported in 2006 that the Dollar Menu had helped stimulate 36 consecutive months of sales growth at stores open at least a year. Other firms have adopted dollar/value menus.