Zip Codes Determine Obesity


The surgeon general estimates that one out of every three children growing up in America is overweight or obese. The on-going argument that this is a matter of personal responsibility is not only trite, but also deeply flawed because it blames this preternatural rise in obesity on individuals and their choices.

In actuality, the growing obesity epidemic is an indication of how our food system is fundamentally broken, with inequitable access to healthy food. In order to mitigate obesity, we must address its root causes: poverty and an inability to access or afford healthy food. The solution starts with rebuilding our food supply infrastructure so people can access healthy, fresh food no matter where they live.

Obesity and starvation are two sides of the same coin: malnutrition. Malnutrition occurs when your body does not have enough nutrients to sustain itself. A person who is just skin and bones is often what people picture when they think of malnutrition; however, it is not just a problem of under-consumption, it also occurs with overconsumption, specifically with foods that have little nutritional value or nutrient content.

Depending on where you live in America, fresh healthy food is not available to you. You are in what researchers call a “food desert,” a geographic region where residents have little or no access to fresh fruits and vegetables. In the past decade, there has been a surge of research around this problem, even spurring the USDA to make a report. The findings are quite disconcerting: The grocery gap is quite large.

In a nationwide study, Policylink found that only 8% of African Americans live in a census tract with a supermarket, compared to 31% of Whites. As the study uncovered, this problem is not just confined to urban areas; in rural areas, desertification is even more extreme, with people forced to travel more than 10 miles to get fresh food. In fact, zip codes are a better predictor of obesity than education or income levels. The existence of food deserts is largely due to supermarket flight, the pattern where people (primarily white middle-class families) fled urban areas to live in suburbs while rural communities simultaneously depopulated. Not surprisingly, the states with the greatest obesity rates have some of the highest poverty rates and lowest rates of access to healthy foods.

Clearly, we need to get rid of food deserts if we want to begin to overturn obesity. Several years ago, Pennsylvania embarked on an ambitious plan, its statewide Fresh Food Financing Initiative. Leveraging a public-private partnership, it either seeded money for the building of new stores in food deserts or gave loans to existing local businesses, so they could renovate facilities in order to provide fresh food. This initiative has been such a success, President Barack Obama proposed a national Healthy Food Financing Initiative.

Another movement is occurring within urban food deserts to address this gap: urban farming and gardening.  Organizations like Growing Power in Chicago and City Slicker Farms in Oakland not only attempt to provide urban communities with access to fresh food, but also a way they can reclaim the food chain as both consumers and entrepreneurs.

While rebuilding our food supply infrastructure is necessary to overturn obesity, I would caution against regarding it as a panacea. Having grocery stores is just the first step; the harder step is making healthy food affordable. Numerous studies have pointed out that a healthy diet is grossly beyond the means of most families. At some point, we will need to face the factors that cause people to be too poor to afford healthy food.

The obesity epidemic has been several decades in the making. Due to the consolidation of food retail stores and the food industry as a whole, coupled with our government’s poor management in terms of investment and regulation, it is a sad reality that many Americans do not have access to healthy foods. While the actions required to solve this problem are by no means easy, the cost of inaction is even greater. We owe it to our children and future generations to fix this system so everyone has the ability to eat healthily, no matter where they live or how much they make.

Photo Credit: Rick McKee