For African-Americans who live in “food deserts” on Chicago’s South and West Sides, where fast-food restaurants are plentiful and grocery stores are scarce, a lack of choices is more than an inconvenience. A provocative new study concludes that residents are more likely to die prematurely from diabetes, cancer and other ailments.
Starting with the fundamental premise that the well-being of urban communities is a block-by-block phenomenon, Gallagher measured the distance from every Chicago block to the nearest grocery store and fast-food restaurant. She then developed a score to quantify the balance of food choice available to residents.
Finally, Gallagher compared food access to health outcomes shown in Cook County death records, city epidemiology data and outside studies. Gallagher said her calculations show that the correlation between food choice and health holds true regardless of differences in education, income and race.
Overall, though, the study shows the worst food choices fell in African-American neighborhoods.
“If you’re finding huge disparities, say, in levels of obesity by neighborhood, then you can’t really say that people with genetic deficiencies up and move to the South Side,” Drewnowski said. “The only deficiency, frankly, is in the wallet.”
Though he had not read the report, he said he suspects it suffers from what he dubs the “Chernobyl model of nutrition”–a model that would suggest mere proximity to McDonald’s means people will be obese and diabetic, while living nearer to Whole Foods would make people healthy.
“Physical access, I suspect, is not as important as economic distance,” Drewnowski said. “The issue of economic distance is trickier to handle. Higher minimum wage? Health insurance? What do you do?”
How about changing the American food system as a whole? If food is healthy no matter where you buy it, you’ll be healthy, too.