by Nareissa Smith

Burger King recently introduced the Impossible Whopper—a vegetarian version of its signature sandwich. The meatless masterpiece has been so successful that Carl’s Jr., Del Taco, Dunkin’, and others are now adding meat-free options. As a vegetarian, I’m glad that I’ll have more options when I’m out and about. As a woman of color who cares about racial justice, I want these restaurants to add more healthy, vegetarian options to their menus because unhealthy fast food is a racial justice issue.  

When people think of racial justice, burgers and fries usually don’t come to mind, but they should. Fast food restaurants are key components of the food environment in many communities of color. African Americans and Latinos are far more likely than whites to live in “food deserts”—neighborhoods that lack grocery stores and other sources of fresh, healthy foods. Without grocery stores, people in food deserts turn to what’s available, which usually means bodegas, corner stores, and fast food restaurants. In fact, researchers have found that the race of the people in a neighborhood, more than their income or any other factor, predicts how many fast food restaurants can be found there.  

It’s no accident that fast food restaurants dominate the food landscape in African American and Latino communities. In the late 1960s, the Nixon Administration hoped that minority entrepreneurship would give neighborhoods affected by racial unrest and white flight an economic boost. They encouraged entrepreneurs of color to open fast food franchises. However, most of the franchisees were told that they could only open restaurants in affected (read: black, Latino) neighborhoods. This 50-year-old policy created today’s reality: In most U.S. cities, fast food restaurants are far more likely—sometimes twice as likely—to be present in neighborhoods that contain people of color.  

The overwhelming presence of fast food restaurants in neighborhoods of color is only part of the problem. Fast food companies also target communities of color in their ad campaigns. Recent research has found that ads for major fast food and junk food products feature African American actors or celebrities. While that alone is problematic, the research found that ads for more healthy products nearly always feature white people. The message to communities of color is clear: healthy food is not for you.  

Sending such horrible messages to adults is bad enough, but the fast food industry also targets children of color with their ad campaigns. The Rudd Center at the University of Connecticut found that while junk food and fast food advertising declined 4% overall from 2013 to 2015, the amount of money spent targeting African American youth increased by 50%. As a result, African American children saw 86% more food ads than white children during this period. Many of these companies also invested in Spanish-language ads aimed at Latino children, though at a slightly lower rate. Like big tobacco before it, the fast food industry clearly recognizes the value of getting people hooked on their products at a young age. And it’s working: In a survey of adults, Gallup found that 53% of Latinos and 52% of African Americans ate fast food at least once a week, compared to just 46% of whites.  

Targeted marketing and multiple restaurant locations make fast food an inescapable reality in neighborhoods of color. Sadly, the food they provide is killing people of color. Fast food meals are high in calories but low in nutrients. As such, they are positively associated with obesity. African American and Latinos suffer from high rates of obesity. African American adults are 23% more likely than whites to be obese. Similarly, obesity is 24% more prevalent in Latino adults than white adults. But childhood obesity rates in these communities are also a problem. African American children are 56% more likely than white children to be obese. Latino children are 83% more likely to be obese.  

Obesity is a serious health issue; It increases the risk for arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, certain cancers, and other health conditions. While there are many reasons for the racial health disparities that exist in communities of color, obesity is a key contributor. And because fast food and obesity are so closely linked, changing the fast food environment for people of color is crucial.

And that’s why the Impossible Whopper is a huge step forward for food equity.

Don’t misunderstand me: One veggie burger is not going to solve the issues that cause fast food chains to dominate the urban foodscape. Food deserts exist because historical practices and created them and current policies allow them to thrive. Historically, decades (or centuries) of racially motivated policies such as redlining and housing segregation shut people of color out of the neighborhoods with healthy food environments. Now, zoning policies, limited space, parking requirements, and other constraints also make it difficult for supermarkets to open in urban areas. Though new initiatives designed to combat food deserts by bringing more grocery stores to inner cities, supplying healthier foods to bodegas, or building food pantries show promise, they will need time to create real change. In the meantime, many people of color will be forced to rely on fast food.

Because fast food is the only food option for many people of color, those who want to see better health outcomes for people of color must either remove and replace fast food restaurants or encourage them to provide healthier options. Eliminating fast food might be impractical, but adding healthier menu options is an easy, practical solution. It took Burger King just months to take the Impossible Whopper from a few small test markets to a national rollout. Other fast food restaurants can and should do the same.  

Going vegetarian can benefit fast food chains’ bottom lines as well. Many consumers—not just those who eat meat—want healthier food options. Last year, sales of vegetarian meat alternatives rose 24%. While it’s too soon to know how the Impossible Whopper is doing nationally, traffic at Burger King’s test restaurants jumped 18% when the meat-free option was introduced. Fast food companies stand to make millions from flexitarians, vegetarians, and other curious customers.

For decades, fast food companies have blanketed neighborhoods of color with their restaurants and aimed their ads at children of color. These acts are objectively awful. But adding healthier, vegetarian options to their menus could be the beginning of a new era. Proving that they actually care about the communities that underwrite their existence would be one small way of atoning for their past actions. The companies have millions to gain and nothing to lose in the bargain. Changing menus might not be easy, but Burger King has proven that it’s not impossible.  

Nareissa Smith is a former law professor and a journalist who writes about racial and gender justice issues including law, health, and education. She is a graduate of Spelman College and Howard University School of Law.  You can contact her via Twitter (@NareissasNotes).