When it comes to living a healthy lifestyle, like everything in Chicago, location is everything.
“Home prices, gun violence, and the quality of the public education opportunities usually make the headlines, but the truth is that obesity and malnutrition caused by food deserts is just as big of a problem,” said Jacquelyn Anne Corley, a third-year medical student at Rush Medical College and a founder of Wil-Power, an activist organization on Chicago’s South Side. “If there are no healthy options available, how can we expect people to make healthy choices?”
“Food deserts,” or census tracts where no grocery stores exist with at least 10,000 square feet within one mile, have been a chief concern for Chicago lawmakers in the state over the past decade. Current Mayor Rahm Emanuel made the elimination of food deserts a primary focus of his campaign on the South Side, and under his tenure, the number of Chicagoans living in food deserts has fallen from 100,159 to 79,434.
But despite these advancements, health advocates remain concerned about growing disparities. Because unhealthy foods are often inexpensive compared to prices of healthier options at large supermarkets and because personal preferences in food deserts favor unhealthy food choices, some studies have found that an increase in healthy options often does not lead to healthier communities.
“It’s not just about healthy options,” Corley said. “A second, perhaps even bigger, problem is that food deserts have created a culture of poor eating habits. Many of the people I meet feel like they don’t have the money or time to cook healthy meals even if the options were available to them. A lot of hardworking families in Chicago that juggle all sorts of daily problems rely on fast-food restaurants that simply won’t deliver quality choices.”
For activists like Corley, changing attitudes about eating healthy is just as important as providing quality options. The responsibility for effecting change then often rests with health care professionals and educators.
“Health professionals have a duty to explain to their patients that poor eating habits have real negative effects and cause all kinds of complicated problems down the road,” said Corley. “Teachers and other educators can also make a big difference in this area as well. We all know that math, English, and history are all important subjects for students, but the truth is that virtually nothing will harm a person more over the course of a lifetime than a consistently poor diet.”
A 2008 study by the Center for Disease Control supports Corley’s conclusions. It indicates that diets that are “high in saturated fat, trans fat, or refined sugars” are likely to contribute towards the development of diabetes, a poor immune system, and cardiovascular disease. The study also concluded that “sugar-sweetened beverages,” which are consumed at higher rates in food deserts, “increase the risk of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease” as well.
Efforts to eliminate food deserts, which have traditionally centered on increased food options, need to change course. Government officials currently spend a great deal of time, money, and effort to incentivize grocery stores to move into areas where demand for large grocery stores is low. If efforts focused on increasing the desire of the local population to eat healthy, it’s possible that grocery stores would be more likely to change their attitudes about moving into areas that are now considered food deserts.
“A real push by health professionals and urban activists is necessary to change the culture in many of Chicago’s more economically disadvantaged neighborhoods,” Corley explained. “If we don’t start putting in the work now to eliminate food deserts and the attitudes that have developed as a result of their existence, we can only expect future generations to see increasing rates of health complications. We are out of time at this point. We have to act now.”
Additional Sources: Interview with Jacquelyn Anne Corley on February 14, 2014.