A Republican state senator running for reelection drew criticism this past week over bizarre comments he gave to a local TV station, claiming that high obesity rates in the “inner city” were due to eating fried chicken.
“The obesity rate in the inner city is bigger than anywhere else. Because what do they do, they go to a 7-Eleven or a convenience store,” Sen. Todd Gardenhire told WTVC-TV on Thursday.
“There’s fried chicken so they get them some fried chicken on the way home and have dinner on that. Well, that’s the worst thing you can eat. I mean, it’s good—I love fried chicken, but that’s the worst thing you can do,” Gardenhire continued.
The remarks were an attempt to explain the benefits of new legislation he was proposing to bring more grocery stores to low-income, underserved communities. Instead, Gardenhire—who has represented Chattanooga at the state legislature for the past eight years—leaned heavily on lightly-coded racial stereotypes to drive his point home.
Vying for Gardenhire’s seat is Glenn Scruggs, a Democrat who also serves as Chattanooga’s police chief.
“Contrary to Gardenhire’s statements, health concerns are not limited to urban areas. These issues affect all Tennesseans, rural or urban, regardless of race,” Scruggs, who is also Black, told the Associated Press.
Causes for obesity are layered, and cannot be attributed to diet alone, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention note. Inactivity and diet certainly play a role, but so do genetic and environmental factors—like whether neighborhoods have enough features—sidewalks, bike trails, playgrounds, nearby healthcare, and childcare, as well as healthy grocery options—to make it easier for residents to engage in healthy behaviors.
According to obesity data from United Health Foundation, Tennessee experiences higher rates of obesity than the U.S. at large, and while Black Tennesseans do experience higher obesity rates than white people do (42.7 percent vs 33.3 percent), people who identify as “multi-racial” are the most likely to experience high obesity rates, at 45. 8 percent.
The results are similarly mixed across income and education. The people most likely to qualify as “obese” made less than $25,000 or made between $50,000 and $74,999. High school graduates and those who attended some college were also more likely to be obese than those who did not graduate high school and college grads.
Gardenhire’s questionable logic was on display several more times during his interview, which reporter Josh Roe characterized as “long and at times confusing.”
In an attempt to explain why police departments should hire more Black officers, he suggested police not arrest people caught driving drunk, but take them home if they know the person.
“Do you throw them in jail for the rest of your life? No. You say, ‘Look, we’re gonna take you home. Don’t do this again. I know your momma. I know your daddy,’” Gardenhire said.
When he was pressed about what he meant by those comments—did he really suggest that police ought to let drunk drivers go?—Gardenhire clarified that he was talking about intoxicated people who may be sitting in their car.
“You don’t throw somebody on the ground, throw handcuffs on them, everybody pile on them because they were drinking,” Gardenhire said. “That’s my point. If somebody’s driving, if somebody’s driving the car DUI, that’s a different story. I didn’t say that.”
He also questioned whether his opponent, Scruggs, was actually against defunding the police—a stance that both Gardenhire and Scruggs share. Scruggs, a 26-year-veteran of the Chattanooga police department, told WTVC that he knew calls to defund the police raised earlier this summer were “going to land flat.”
When reporter Roe told Gardenhire this, Gardenhire, who also opposes defunding the police, suggested Scruggs may not be telling the truth.
“What choice does he have to say that?” Gardenhire said. “He works for them. He can’t advocate defunding the police.”
“So you don’t think he really believes that? Is that what you’re saying?” Roe pressed.
“I’m just making a statement,” Gardenhire responded. “You draw your own conclusions.”