"Diet Pepsi, SPAM, and Wonder bread"

What are the parameters of government's responsibility for public health?

At the end of 2017, we took a family trip to the Grand Canyon. The drive from Flagstaff to the South Rim took us through a sliver of the Navajo Nation. We stopped for snacks and gas at a tiny convenience store on the reservation. While I was grabbing a Diet Coke to go along with my peanut M&Ms, I noticed that there were flavors of Pepsi in the soda cabinet that I’d never seen before. Specifically, there was a salted caramel flavor that, had I not been scrupulously Weight Watching at the time, I would have sampled. I was intrigued.

But I was also bothered because, here we were, on this gigantic, desolate swath of land with no grocery stores or cropland to be found. The only food available for purchase that I could see was packaged snack food and sugary sodas in this little gas station. Now, I’m not trying to position myself as some sort of white savior, but I couldn’t help but notice that I was in a literal food desert.

I thought about that salted caramel Pepsi again recently when the FDA announced it would be banning menthol cigarettes, specifically because menthol cigarettes are particularly harmful to Black folks. That issue hadn’t even been on my radar until someone tweeted about it. My initial response was, “hmm, that seems a little paternalistic.” But my interlocutor pointed out that the tobacco companies had actively cultivated the market, and he’s not wrong.

But! I find it ironic that the government is regulating marketing of cigarettes to Black people when that same government literally created the conditions in which Indigenous people live today, complete with terrible commodity food and the health problems those foods engender. (Note: The U.S. government isn’t the only one that used food as a way to torment Native people.)

Thomas smiled and walked into the Trading Post, one of the few lucrative businesses on the reservation. Its shelves were stocked with reservation staples: Diet Pepsi, Spam, Wonder bread, and a cornucopia of various carbohydrates, none of them complex. — Reservation Blues, Sherman Alexie

American colonizers, in the form of the U.S. government, completely disrupted Native foodways with the Federal Indian Removal Act of 1830, which saw forced relocation of countless Indigenous people from their lands to “Indian Territory” in Oklahoma and beyond. The government supplied rations of coffee, lard, flour, sugar, and canned meat twice a month as an interim solution to feed these displaced peoples until they were able to reestablish their agriculture and hunting practices. But, as this TikTok video demonstrates, the government didn’t exactly remove Natives to fertile land.

This, of course, is how frybread became a staple food on reservations and beyond, and is how the Indian taco was the avatar of Native cuisine for generations, as described in There There by Tommy Orange.

They only knew about Indian tacos because their grandma made them for their birthdays. It was one of the few Indian things she did. And she was always sure to remind them that it’s not traditional, and that it comes from lacking resources and wanting comfort food.

There’s a well-established movement for Native food sovereignty these days, along with programs dedicated to helping Indigenous people maximize the nutritional value of their government-provided food boxes with recipes and techniques rooted in culturally relevant practices. But if tobacco is a racial justice issue that the Biden administration feels compelled to take action on, shouldn’t the government also be cleaning up its own mess in terms of the public health crisis created by the entire reservation system?

As I’ve mentioned several times over the past year, the depth and breadth of both racial injustice and food insecurity have been brought into stark relief as a result of this pandemic. For example, staple foods are more expensive on-reservation than they are off-reservation, and when you’re isolating or on lockdown during a pandemic and also short on funds and/or lack transportation, the deck is already stacked against you.

For Black, Latinx, and Native American communities, food insecurity is experienced at a much higher proportion due to discimination and structural racism. The disproportionate impact is evident when only 1 in 12 white individuals inhabit a food-insecure environment, while 1 in 4 Native American, 1 in 5 Black, and 1 in 6 Latinx individuals live in a food-insecure household. — LiveKindly

To that end, I am hopeful (and, to be honest, pretty skeptical) that banning menthol cigarettes is just the first of many steps the Biden administration will take to address the institutional barriers to address other public health issues affecting BIPOC folk, particularly the lack of access to fresh, affordable food our Indigenous people face and have faced for generations.

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