State of Detroit – Detroit’s Food Landscape

DETROITography

IMG_7920The team at the Chicago Design Museum approached me to contribute some maps and data visualizations to their upcoming “State of Detroit” exhibit. It grew into a collaboration that built off of my research focus on food access in Detroit while also addressing some of the “Detroit is Empty” misconceptions.

IMG_7919The installation has a cool sliding feature so you can view different map layers together.

Visit the exhibit from now until August 30th, 2015. More. . .

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indicators of econ-obesity growth

Obesity is still on the rise. In many cities there have been decade-long campaigns to improve healthy food access, spread information about health risks, and new national efforts to get children active – are they not working? Latest estimates predict that by 2030 almost half the adult population will be obese. Recently, the CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) wrote in the Washington Post about their latest report and the future impact of obesity on our economy. She noted the decline of productivity and increasing health care costs associated with obesity. While we often think about fast food, inactivity, and individual choices related to being obese, how often do we consider the economic causes and effects?

Obesity is Not a Choice

I have never met anyone who said that they specifically chose to suffer the health effects of being obese because they thought it would be a great way to live. However, beyond personal choices, obesity can be correlated with a number of social and environmental factors, namely: poverty, urban areas, as well as minority and low-income populations.

Just as individuals cannot choose their parents, they also cannot choose their life circumstances, which unfortunately can sometimes hinder efforts to live a healthier lifestyle. Research has shown that rising rates of obesity disproportionately affect Black and Hispanic populations. This demonstrates a confluence of factors with roots in racially motivated housing policies, lack of social mobility due to historical discrimination, and the absence of adequate health services for these communities.

Impoverished communities are filled with companies looking to take advantage of the marketplace of poverty. Dollar menus, frozen dinners, and corner store snacks – not to mention the advertising which helps build a psychological belief that it is quicker and cheaper to eat unhealthy foods.

In short, obesity is just as much an economic reality as it is a need for healthier lifestyles. It represents a by-product of mass producing foods to reduce costs and increase profits. People do not choose to live in poverty nor do they choose to be obese. Economic constraints on top of fast food advertising drives a culture of  unhealthy eating.

Tax the Fat

The debates have raged about recent plans to tax the size of soda pop in New York City or in other countries the tax on fatty foods. There is a growing field of research on behavioral economics, which argues that people will choose the option that is most beneficial to themselves.

This is, however, not always true. People do not always make the most rational decision especially when it comes to their food and eating habits. Increasing the economic burden on people who typically choose unhealthy foods is not necessarily the best option. If a tax is placed on high-calorie or high fat foods it allows the food and beverage companies to continue avoiding responsibility. It isn’t about personal freedom, it is about being able to compete in a marketplace where the cards are constantly stacked against the poor.

Food and beverage companies will still find a cheap way to produce their products that works around any tax or restrictive policy. These companies have a primary goal to make a profit. If making that profit means burdening the population with unhealthy foods and the long-term health effects, they have no qualms. This is where people generally argue that it is about personal choice. This is partly true, but also relates to my first argument that you can’t always choose your life circumstances. All around the world now people are struggling with obesity and healthy eating. Food and beverage corporations are able to take advantage of global income and food disparities to generate their profits.

Behaviors Always Win

Using a “fat tax” to increase the economic difficulty of buying unhealthy food is doing no good when there is a psychological war on TV and advertising campaigns.

“It’s the behavior stupid!”

We can talk all day about the responsibilities that corporations have to give people healthy foods as well as the responsibility of individuals to keep themselves healthy, but in the end it all comes down to behavior. When I say behavior I’m talking about the eating habits that people have learned since their childhood, the behavior influenced by the food commercials seen on TV, the behavior informed by the massive portion-sized, “give me what I paid for” food culture.

When we are constantly bombarded by images of juicy burgers, steaming pizzas, and actors telling us how amazing it is to get quick, cheap food – we will eventually believe it. Food and beverage companies employ their own teams of psychologists to be able to manipulate their advertising to be the most convincing. These companies have found out the best ways to exploit the disparities that people face in order to get more people to buy their unhealthy foods. Don’t have time to make dinner? Bring your kid through the drive-through. Buying groceries on a budget? Get 3 for $5 cases of pop or 2 for $5 bags of potato chips.

When it all comes down to what will or won’t work, people need to understand what they are up against, they need to be informed on what foods will benefit their health, and they also need to be able to have the tools to make healthy lifestyle changes. While many food companies watch their profits grow, many individuals watch their weight grow due to their own economic disparities. Helping people address these learned behaviors and economic barriers will help to reduce health care spending and increase the productivity of our economy.

Global Malnutrition and the Politics of Food

Whether they are starving or eating too much, children around the world are malnourished. A full belly doesn’t necessarily mean that a child is getting proper nutrition from the food that they eat. Obese children are just as nutritionally deficient as children who have bloated bellies from hunger. The result is a global generation of unhealthy children who will experience a shorter life expectancy than normal from complications with their health and related diseases. The double burden of malnutrition is seen in both a complete lack of access to food and an overabundance of unhealthy foods.

A recent World Health Organization (WHO) report stated that combating five major health factors could eliminate millions of premature deaths. Among those top five is childhood nutrition. Lacking nutritious food has serious implications for health, but consuming too much food without nutritional value, which contributes to obesity, is more likely to lead to a premature death. For the first time in 15 years, children in the US have a lower life expectancy than their parents. By the same token, children in countries defined as “developing” have faced low life expectancies for many years, but what they eat (or don’t eat) is less likely to kill them. Who would have imagined that being overweight is more likely to kill you than being underweight?

On the flip side of childhood nutrition is the near complete lack of access to food in developing countries. There were any number of crises this past year that qualified the “need” for food aid from “developed” countries. Floods, earthquakes, droughts, famines, etc. – but what is the state of food aid? Is it excellent nutritious assistance in difficult times? Bill Easterly and the Aid Watch blog ask: “Can the story on US food aid get any worse?,” noting that the US continues to support relief agencies that use a corn-soy food blend that doesn’t even meet the 1960s international nutrition standards of food aid. Children in developing countries don’t necessarily die from a lack of nutritious food, but rather from the diseases that attack their weakened immune systems. The food we eat is a first line of defense by keeping the rest of our body systems healthy. Some of the best examples of the importance of food and health come from Paul Farmer, who often says that, “the treatment for hunger is food.” Many times food is overlooked as a critical treatment in health crises, which makes it that much more important to invest in nutritious alternatives for food aid and support local farmers around the world.

Unfortunately here in the US, corporations have a firm grip on what we eat. There are a small number of major factory farming corporations that produce our food. They use coercive actions and their money to keep control of farmers and the food industry. This hurts our families and communities here in the US and contributes to the nutritional inadequacy of what Americans eat, but it also has far reaching implications in developing countries. Because of the control by US corporations of the food industry and the US government’s subsidies for farmers, food prices have been rising steadily around the world. This impact is hitting small farmers in developing countries hardest as they struggle to find markets to sell their produce and support their families. These small farmers can’t compete with US farmers who are government subsidized or the US corporations who are mass producing and shutting them out. Even as people in developing countries struggle to buy food to eat, one in six Americans are struggling with hunger. This is largely a result of the economic downturn and has affected more than just those already considered poor in the US. It is estimated that nearly one billion people do not have access to a secure source of food around the globe.

While the fact that many Americans struggle with food security is shocking, the spike in rates of obesity demonstrates the pressing need for communities to rethink how they eat and live. Obesity gives a blatant visual representation of how much control we have lost when it comes to our food. The WHO states that “globesity” is spreading across the globe and millions will suffer if we don’t make changes. A recent study conducted by Wayne State University showed that one third of infants in the US are obese or at risk for obesity. This allows us to easily assume that an obese infant will become an obese adult. Hunger and food security are extremely important issues when it comes to talking about health and nutrition. Many who suffer being underweight have suffered through natural disasters, but the immediate threat to children and the global population is the man-made disaster of being overweight.

Thankfully there are many people who are working to fix the food industry, support local farmers, and promote healthy eating to children in schools. President Obama recently signed the Child Nutrition Bill to increase access to healthy foods in schools. Where there have been numerous policy barriers nationally and internationally, this is a step in the right direction to bring policies in line with the health needs of our global population. We must commit to supporting the basic health of our children if we care about a building a healthy future.

Originally featured and posted at,  Americans for Informed Democracy on 18 January 2011.