Map: United Strohs of America

DETROITography

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Detroit’s iconic beer brewer has a storied past of fire brewing beer in copper kettles, switching to near-beer during Prohibition as well as ice cream to finally losing all of its billions of dollars after the company tried to take on national brands without the necessary budget.

Currently Stroh’s is distributed 126 zipcodes in 21 states. The Stroh’s brand is now under Pabst, which manages a number of small yet iconic beer brand names.

My colleague Matt Elliott and I began wondering where can you get Strohs in Detroit right now? Is it on tap anywhere?

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Map: Midtown or Cass Corridor? Responses from the streets of Detroit

DETROITography

midcassDuring the Data, Mapping, and Research Justice workshop offered in August, participants conducted their own data collection based on shared research questions about the Cass Corridor. One question in particular that was brought up was what different people called the area: Cass Corridor or Midtown.

In all 30 people were rapidly interviewed along Cass Avenue, 2nd, and Third Street. Sometimes the workshop participants’ data collection clipboards made people wary, but often the clipboards invited more questions making it easy to engage people on the street, at restaurants, and waiting for the bus. The participants didn’t make it further than Peterboro Street due to time limits in the data collection.

Cass Corridor 11
Both 3
Midtown 16

Midtown was the more commonly referenced placename, but overall the data gave a fairly even representation of the area. If anything the responses collected from people shows the well documented debate over…

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The Future Geographers of Detroit Haven’t Yet Made a Map

DETROITography

In May, I had the honor and privilege to collaborate with the Detroit Future Schools program at the Boggs School to present a series of activities about data visualization. Our main goal was to visualize and understand patterns and relationships.

I ran the mapping activity where 2nd and 3rd graders identified where they lived, how far that was from school, and if they had any classmates who lived nearby. Many of the students didn’t realize they had a classmate who lived very close or similarly, how far some of their classmates lived from the school.

My favorite response to the map was:

“That doesn’t even look like Detroit.”

It is all too easy to get wrapped up in data, boundary lines, and “accurate” depictions of reality. Children can quickly…

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Beijing and the Great Wall Adventure

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China!

The mass of people that represents China was no more evident than when we arrived at the gates to the Forbidden City. We encountered many Chinese tourists while in Taiwan, but nothing prepared us for the masses that visit China’s capital city, including the short elderly women who attempt to clothesline you (ask Nichole). The pushing and pressing of the crowds were sometimes too much, giving a whole new meaning to breath-taking.

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Ancient History!

I can’t even tell you how many ancient and amazing temples we visited in both Taiwan and China. Most of our time in China was spent walking between various ancient structures: Forbidden City (13 miles walked), Temple of Heaven (15.5 miles walked), Summer Palace, Drum and Bell Tower, etc.

IMG_3824DSCF6776IMG_3727Nichole conferred with Confucius. She is now overflowing with wisdom.

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Communism!

From the cold, gray heart of communism we snapped a great selfie with Mao’s portrait…

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The History and Conflict of Food Access in Detroit

The food desert term has been readily applied to Detroit’s food system. However, the majority of academic and other research fails to take a comprehensive look at Detroit’s food system or its history. Following the New York Times article questioning whether the “food desert” term is just media buzz, I decided to share some of my initial findings in Detroit. I began researching Detroit’s food system about a year ago and started surveying grocery stores in Detroit 6 months ago because I could not believe the research coming out of the University of Michigan and other institutions that Detroit was devoid of fresh foods or healthy options. NPR recently published an article titled, What Makes a Food Desert Bloom, but fails to note the importance of food education on healthy eating to accompany increased visibility and access to healthy foods.

Detroit is a Food Desert or Food Swamp?

The map image accompanying this post is not the best illustration, but it is a complication of the best data sources on Detroit’s food system. The map represents the flaws and misunderstandings of outside consulting agencies and more general displays of either out-of-date or misguided information. Rob Linn has been creating some excellent maps of Detroit food stores data and now works with Data Driven Detroit. His maps are more current and show a cleaner picture of the actual data in Detroit. The surveys conducted by outside agencies have missed the mark and have published misguiding research to back up the “food desert” claim. The biggest problem with maps is that they are very “planner” focused and it is very easy to make broad claims based on maps. A recent PhD. out of the UM School of Public Health conducted research on African-American’s perceptions of food choice in Detroit and I’m very excited to read her findings. Understanding community perceptions and choices is going to be more important than placing food stores on a map.

Brief History of Detroit’s Food System

Currently, there is only one black-owned grocery store in Detroit where 4 out of 5 residents are African-American (DFPC Annual Report of Detroit Food System, 2009-2010). Detroit is a city with historic racial and economic divisions. These divisions often played out within the food system and its evolution up to today.

Small neighborhood grocery and convenience stores also hired few blacks. […] Few blacks worked where they shopped. Fewer felt any loyalty to neighborhood stores. Only a decade after the survey, inner-city grocery stores were among the most prominent targets of young looters. White-owned and -operated stores were the most prominent businesses in Detroit’s African American neighborhoods and the most convenient symbol of the systematic exclusion of blacks from whole sectors of the city’s economy. (Sugrue, Origins of the Urban Crisis, 113-114)

The title of “food desert” has been both accepted and refuted in Detroit. The majority of academic researchers lean towards labeling Detroit as a food desert, however others have come to that conclusion without adequate research into price and accessibility of foods the term is not helpful. Counting chain supermarkets and the 1 mile radius around those locations doesn’t give an accurate picture of food availability or access to quality fresh foods. Shannon Zenk (PhD ’04) while at the UM School of Public Health reported that Detroit was a food desert based on her research of “chain” supermarkets and their proximity to large numbers of residents. Her research found that, “supermarkets were farther away from African-American neighborhoods with the highest levels of poverty than they were from white neighborhoods with the highest levels of poverty (SPH Findings Spring/Summer 2009). This is an extremely inadequate picture of healthy food access and environment within the city.

Detroit has a long history of local grocers supplying neighborhoods while there have only been a few chain supermarkets to ever exist within the city limits. As of 1954-55, there were 69 supermarkets operated by Kroger, A&P, and other small local suppliers in Detroit. One of these small local suppliers was Food Fair, which in 1955 merged with Lucky Stores which operated as Food Fair markets under the Borman Food Stores Inc. In 1959, Borman bought up other smaller chains (State Super Markets, American Stores Inc., Lipson-Gourwitz Co.) and expanded to 46 stores in Detroit and Ferndale. In 1966, Borman announced the opening of three superstores under the name of Farmer Jack.

Farmer Jack was A&P’s most profitable division after the merger, but by the 2000s was having trouble competing with larger supermarkets like, Kroger, Meijer, K-mart and Walmart. Farmer Jack is recognized as the last chain supermarket to remain in Detroit before A&P put the stores up for sale and all locations closed in 2007. Kroger acquired twenty former locations while independent grocers collectively bought 21.

The flip side of the grocery and chain supermarket story in Detroit’s food system is that of community and urban gardens. Detroit Public School (DPS) student handbooks from the 1950s included a chapter on how to create a community garden. Urban farming and community gardens is a whole aspect of access to healthy food that needs its own post, so I won’t go into it here.


Detroit Food Map: access and environment

Contrary to popular belief and to oft-cited media, I have found that Detroit is not a food desert in its entirety. Detroit has a few neighborhoods and areas that lack a good number of options, but as a whole Detroit is a food swamp or as some say a “food grassland, rain forest, and jungle” (Rob Linn).

The families that I work with across Detroit tell me a similar story. They access food resources from a plethora of sources. One family told me that they try to get to Kroger whenever they can (outside Detroit), but otherwise get good fresh produce from a food bank since the Caregiver is out of work, they participate in the community garden, and visit an independent grocery store when they need to restock staple foods. Other family’s have told me similar stories of utilizing multiple food access points.

A food desert is defined as:

“any area in the industrialized world where healthy, affordable food is difficult to obtain. Food deserts are prevalent in rural as well as urban areas and are most prevalent in low-socioeconomic minority communities. They are associated with a variety of diet-related health problems. Food deserts are also linked with supermarket shortage.” (wikipedia)

Access is a key word when talking about food deserts and this is where many researchers count the number of stores and measure the distance from supermarkets to given populations. However, this often paints an inaccurate picture. There is more to access than the number of stores and how far away they are. Just because a grocery store is close by doesn’t mean that it has a huge fresh foods section or many healthy options. New research has noted that distance to healthy food may be psychological. This is where greater education on healthy food is necessary to create a more direct connection between people and healthy eating. I have been using the Nutrition Environment Measures Survey (NEMS) in order to attempt to get a more accurate picture of access to healthy foods. NEMS criteria focuses on comparing availability, price, and quality of foods between healthy food options and less healthy food options. Access is more than just distance and can include issues with the stores not stocking healthier food options, the quality of healthy foods available, and most importantly the price: is it cheaper to buy a bag of chips?

I have used the NEMS criteria to survey 20 grocery stores in Detroit (see Detroit Food Map) and what I have found has been entirely different from the large body of research that pegs Detroit as a “food desert.” All of the grocery stores had availability of fresh and healthy foods. Some produce sections were bigger than others and some carried more varieties, but all in all fresh foods were available and in good quality. The only items that were regularly low in quality were strawberries and cantaloupe. Likewise, I found in many stores that price could potentially be a hindrance for purchasing a healthier option, particularly with fruits, baked goods, meats, and juices. I spoke with a number of store owners and employees. Many said that they too have had a hard time with the “food desert” label and want people to know that they carry fresh foods. In some stores the owners noted that customers don’t regularly buy the healthier food options (i.e. ground turkey) or their fresh produce is purchased slowly, so it goes bad more quickly.

“It’s not enough. People always want more. We carry everything, many options, but people would rather shop at the super markets: Meijer, Wal-Mart. . . Is it because we don’t have the options? Look around!” – Staff Interview, Independent Grocer 02/02/12

My coworker, who has lived in Detroit her whole life and has been involved in improving the food system, has seen over the past 2 years an increase in farmer’s markets and community gardens in what she thinks is a response to food desert hype. Potentially, Detroit’s independent grocers have done the same and hopefully will continue improving their price, quality, and availability of healthy and fresh foods.

(image source)

the limits of human research

*Please note, the names and details of program participants have been changed to ensure anonymity.

After working with one of my first families, we’ll call the teen Larry, I began to feel limited by the research aspect of my current program. Since it is a research program testing various protocols for successful weight loss, my options and actions were often limited in what I could or could not do to help the family. At the time Larry was the heaviest teen in the program. I remember he was late for our first session at his house because he had missed the bus. I saw him walking down the street and knew immediately that he was who I was waiting for. Larry had knee and ankle problems as well as hypertension at age 15. At the time he was the heaviest teen in the whole program.

I built a strong rapport with the family and really enjoyed going to their house twice a week to work with them. Larry‘s weight fluctuated often, spiking and dropping dramatically from week-to-week. The family often attributed it to the medications that he was taking that cause him to retain water. However, over the first half of the 6 month program, Larry had lost about 20 lbs. from his starting weight. His Mom reported losing about 25 lbs. from participating and helping Larry during the program. She no longer needed to regularly wear oxygen and could walk more often than she was previously able.

In the last two months, Larry began to gain the weight back. Since his weight fluctuated so much it was hard to tell if he was really gaining a significant amount or if it was just related to the medications. By the final session of the 6 month program Larry had returned to his starting weight. His weight loss is considered significant and for him to gain it back is a red flag for larger problems. Research shows that when lost weight is gained back quickly it is much more difficult to lose again. His Mom was worried, he was confused, and I was unsure what to do. I gave the family additional information about other programs that Larry could participate in, but focused on affirming the skills that they had learned and the successes they had over the last 6 months.

It was during the following couple of weeks, which turned into months, that I really began dissecting Larry‘s dilemma. He was a very bright student, had some nice friends who helped him be active, and a very caring mother and grandmother. He took on more responsibility than most because his Mom wasn’t very mobile and yet he was unable to maintain his success in the program. I began to think back to other issues that the family dealt with during the program. The major one that jumped right out for me was their access to food. Larry and his Mom were getting food assistance and usually shopped once a month when the Grandmother could drive them to Meijer, which was located in another city. The family mostly ate frozen dinners that Larry could heat up in the microwave.

Beyond Larry and his family’s motivations, their social and economic situation became their largest barrier. Since they couldn’t afford to purchase healthier foods because they would go bad before the month ended, they were somewhat stuck to buy foods that were cheap and could be frozen. Their lack of money to be able to be more financially stable affected their food security in a similar way. Larry also reported eating a lot more at the beginning of the month. This is common among families using food assistance. One study found

“[…] a corresponding decrease of 10 to 15 percent in food consumption over the course of the month, suggesting some recipients may eat well for the first couple weeks after they’ve shopped and then run low on food near month’s end. This kind of ‘binge–starvation’ cycle has been linked to changes in metabolism, insulin resistance and, ultimately, increases in BMI.” (2004)

Larry‘s Mom would often report that he had eaten all of some food after they returned from the grocery store. Further research has identified connections between obesity and food stamps. The research found that the majority of food assistance receipts went shopping once a month, right after the food assistance amount is credited.

“Obesity cannot be totally pinned on food stamps,” says Jay Zagorsky, a research scientist at The Ohio State University’s Center for Human Resource Research and lead author of the study, “but it certainly is related to how the program is structured.”

In this situation, regardless of how committed the family was to weight loss and helping Larry manage his obesity, they were economically stuck in a cyclical nutrition pattern that would negatively affect his weight no matter his level of motivation. Socio-economic factors will win out over motivations every time, no matter the intentions. This is where human research is limited because the cause for failure is not pegged on the systematic inequality related to racial minorities and food assistance programs, but rather it is placed on Larry and his family for being unable to keep up with the program guidelines.

I keep reminding myself that this research will be applied to other programs in the future. Those programs will be able to replicate tactics that were most helpful and hopefully help even more adolescents in programs with more room to address multiple issues: medical, social, and economic.

real life public health isn’t sexy

The field of public health does not lend itself to being glamorous or satisfying after a full day’s work.

I currently work as a Community Health Worker (CHW) in Detroit supporting a NIH funded grant using behavior change techniques to tackle childhood obesity among African-American adolescents.

Snapshot: Thursday, December 1st, 2011

After a meeting with my supervisor, I had three family appointments scheduled for the day. My first appointment was with a family that needed to be caught up after missing 2 weeks. We provide transportation for families that come into the office, so I had called them a cab. However, the cab company had not sent the cab after 45min. and the appointment had to be rescheduled for another day. My next appointment was with a Teen who obviously preferred not to be meeting with his Mom and me. We worked through topics on Hunger and Cravings, but had to finish early because I had another family appointment coming up. After waiting 10min., I called my last family to confirm and they had forgotten they were supposed to come in today.

I spent my 8 hours that day driving a lot and meeting with only my supervisor and one family. It was a long, trying day to only be able to check a few items on my weekly to-do list. The over-used quote that I have to keep reminding myself is:

“An ounce of public health is worth a pound of health care”

Hopefully somewhere down the line the families and Teens that I work with will someday use the skills and information that I share. All I can do is offer my knowledge and support for their efforts while reinforcing their positive changes.

Public health has become a buzzword along with the growth of the global health field. It’s great that health has become such a prominent topic of interest, but not everyone is going to save a life or change entire communities. Buzzwords don’t make the best career choices. It may be that you spend all day tracking people down and hoping some knowledge sticks, maybe you make posters for wellness events, or even get covered in dirt planting vegetables with kids who prefer to play video games. Public health isn’t sexy; work can be dirty, sometimes lonely, unappreciated and often unnoticed.

Public health is not a new field. It has been around for a long time, but in the media it has most often been portrayed by medical doctor drama series that always have to include twisted webs of personal relationships and hookups in broom closets from Boston to Kandahar.

Public health is intense and has its own great stories and dramas – can’t these stories tell themselves without the backdrop of casual sex and relationships gone wrong? When will the public be ready to watch a show that is about real public health?

The truth is that although public health may not be as glamorous as a television drama, but it is full of exciting adventures, dramatic endings, and stories of hope.

poverty, in landscapes of scarcity and abundance

I haven’t been posting any new writing in a while because I’ve been off getting married to the love of my life! Everything went amazingly with the food, pictures, families, and the party after the ceremony. I couldn’t have been a happier person on that day, nor will I ever be happier than I was that day – at least until some other huge life events.

We spent 10 days on our honeymoon in Peru. Many people asked us how in the world we chose Peru. The truth is that we found a great deal on plane tickets and it was cheaper than Hawaii. What sealed the deal was that we both had never traveled anywhere in South America and wanted to see one of the wonders of the world: Machu Picchu. As long as our horrible Spanish was deciphered, we could buy the lower deck seats on the overnight buses (top deck feels like riding in a boat), and could find some fresh produce to eat – all of which are not necessarily easy, then we did alright. People were helpful, the Plazas de Armas were beautiful and manicured, the mountain scenery was incredible, and there were plenty of tourists – Peruvian and foreign alike.

What most shocked me about the experience was going back to work the Monday after we returned from our honeymoon. Driving down areas near Grand Boulevard and Trumbull:

Detroit’s poverty hit me hard.

I know that poverty and urban decline in Detroit have become romantically connected to the grit of America and its loss of industry, but this was different. I wasn’t excited to see the “ruin porn” or the decay of Detroit’s empty landmarks. I was having true culture shock. Growing up near Flint, urban decay and vacant industrial buildings were nothing new. On this drive, however, I could see the downtown Detroit skyline from the expressway while on my left and right were neighborhoods falling apart and huge structures with broken windows and without any activity.

The stark contrast was the difference between the poverty of abundance and the poverty of scarcity. Peru is not a wealthy country. The country gets a steady stream of tourists from around the world due to its pivotal location hosting the Incan empire and its prized city on the hill, Machu Picchu. Beyond the Plazas de Armas and the tourist meccas, there are obvious signs of poverty. My wife commented that just two or three blocks away from the manicured Plazas seemed to be the boundary for where any wealth reached. I recently wrote about how Mount Kilimanjaro is known for having the highest percentage of tourist dollars go back into the communities nearby, Peru made me wonder where all the tourist dollars were going besides improving tourism. In every city, we were met with street vendors, but also women and children dressed in traditional clothing asking if we wanted to take pictures with them for a fee. It hurt to see because it seemed to be a selling of their spirit, their culture, but it was one of the few ways they had to get by. Taking the taxi from Cuzco to Poroy train station gave a clear visual of the layers of wealth and poverty based on access to tourist dollars. The housing became more and more rundown as we went further from Cuzco and down into Poroy, where the best looking building was the train station. On many long bus rides we also witnessed the vast, empty, barren spaces were dotted with square homes. The poverty of scarcity was obvious in Peru, but it was also mostly hidden from tourists.

Maybe the reason that Detroit’s poverty hit me hardest was because Detroit doesn’t try to hid its poverty. There is no large tourism industry in Detroit and buildings lie abandoned, burned out, and collapsed. Our honeymoon to Peru really highlighted the differences between poverty based in areas of scarcity and poverty in places of apparent abundance. Even while Detroit has a history of abundance, many could argue that it is just as much a landscape of scarcity.

carrenhos de chocque em mocambique (required to fight aid worker burn-out)

During my three-month long internship with a small-scale HIV/AIDS non-profit in South Africa, I visited a friend working in Mozambique with an HIV/AIDS activism organization as part of her Peace Corps placement. Beyond the entirely new experience of traveling to Mozambique, I met a very interesting crew of international development/ aid workers who gave me some great insights into who I might want to become if I entered the international development/aid arena. From working on a small operation in East Darfur, Sudan with a religious relief agency, to a technology focused firm constructing health curriculums funded by PEPFAR, to those doing backend all office-based, administrative work for USAID and the Clinton Foundation,  they were all at various stages in their lives and working in very different aspects of  development/ aid work. Some of the volunteers were in their 40s, others just out of college in Peace Corps, some had just come from extremely stressful environments where “guns were like sticks,” while others had just come to complete an internship for their Princeton graduate degree, all in all it was a motley group that gave a compelling snapshot of aid workers and the many directions they can come from and be headed towards.

4 August 2008

After walking from our hotel, my friend and I stopped at a “local” bar named Pirata (Pirate) to meet up with the motley crew of aid workers. We then headed into downtown Maputo for dinner at a restaurant recommended by one of the aid workers who had spent the longest time in and around Maputo (he had serious Mozambique cred). I had a supposedly traditional Mozambican dish of beans, rice, and shrimp which was very delicious or I was just supremely hungry from the day’s 8 hour bus ride from Johannesburg.

The Maputo based aid worker then took us to an odd sort of carnival hidden in what seemed like the middle of Maputo. It was randomly placed and not very large, but took me back to days of my earlier youth when we would visit the noise, lights, and crowds of the church carnival. We all were initially a bit shy about expressing our joy at the sight of children’s carnival games, but soon we were all reveling in the freedom from our assigned professional roles.

As we were the only ones at the carnival late in the evening, we had the whole place to ourselves. We all lined up and filled the bumper cars (carrenhos de chocque). The crackle of the electric wires, childish shouts of aid workers, and huge grins of pure joy made me realize that this should be a required exercise for all aid workers no matter if they are in the USA or based in a foreign country. We all need to take a step back every once in a while and just let ourselves enjoy being uninhibited by things as unimportant as bumper cars so that we can focus on important work.

A note for the future:

We all have to find what it is that helps us keep sharp and focused while also reducing stress, physical and emotional. The best thing to do is to schedule time when you can be unfocused, let loose, and enjoy time unencumbered by tasks, to-do lists, or responsibilities. My current job has a lot of frustrating client cancellations (currently the reason that I can sit and write this), long commutes with driving stress, and odd hours. As individuals who work in the field of aid, global health, and community development, we all want to love what we do, but the reality is that it is often a grind with harsh and far reaching social consequences that can cause us to resent a job. We all need to find those coping mechanisms that allow us to vent and rejuvenate our passions.