4.12.2015

Shake for your &@#!ing hood if it's all good
Food Issues Book Club - Weighing In, Chapter 4

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

Weighing In, Chapter 4: Does your neighborhood make you fat?

Summary:

There is a prominent theory which proposes that "people are fat because they are surrounded by cheap, fast, nutritionally inferior food and a built environment that discourages physical activity," also known as an obesogenic environment.  While positive in that this school of thought seems to take aim at something other than personal responsibility, the idea of the "obesogenic environment" can reinforce healthism.

Studies of the obesogenic model presume that obesity is solely the result of excess caloric intake - the much embraced yet vastly oversimplified "calories in calories out" model.  It also implies that people living in obesogenic landscapes are only affected by it, rather than considering the ways in which they may interact with or mitigate its effects.

These studies also tend to be severely restricted by the narrowness of data types used: "many possible explanations of geographic variation in obesity are not explored, whether cultural, economic, or environmental."  These types of data may not be used due to difficulty in collection.  Other data though, such as those on unemployment, housing, and educational opportunity also go unused - likely because "they don't fit existing assumptions about what causes obesity."  In this way, a true examination of the causes of obesity is precluded by studies designed with a cause presupposed.

Both dense urban centers with little access to groceries and low walkability, as well as sprawling suburban neighborhoods that foster dependence on cars, have been pegged as obesogenic.  However, what if cause and effect have been reversed?  "Contemporary geographers emphasize that spatial patterns in housing, commercial development, and public land access are a reflection of social relations of race and class rather an a producer of them...  what may be 'predicting' the prevalence of obesity in certain places is in fact race and class... with features of the built environment being an effect of that spatial patterning rather than a cause."

People who live in either of the two types of obesogenic environments likely do so due to financial concerns - they cannot afford to live in areas that are more conducive to eating well and exercising outdoors frequently.  In short, leptogenic (thin-making) environments are only available to the privileged.  It is more appropriate, then, to state that both obesity and living environment are reflections of class status, which itself is too often informed by race.  "[I]f the idealized "leptogenic" environment is one of privilege, there are limits to how much we can redress the obesogenic environment without confronting class and racial inequality."

So far, attempts to address obesogenic environments have focused on actions such as incentivizing grocery stores to open in "food deserts." These supply-sided interventions are based on the belief that the mere presence of "better" offerings will create "better" behaviors and relieve obesity - a sort of "if you build it they will come" theory.  Such efforts, though, can have the unintended effect of pushing people of fewer means - often people of color - out of the areas that have suddenly become attractive to the more privileged.  Instead of creating a less obesogenic environment for the underprivileged, these efforts can instead open a door to gentrification. 

Discussion:

If you build it, "they" will indeed come.  "They" just aren't the intended audience.

The Whole Foods that opened last year on Broad Street had the very best of intentions - well, beyond the intention of every for-profit business of turning a profit.  It was put in the abandoned Schwegmann's as part of a broader effort to revitalize a low-income neighborhood that has become increasingly more blighted since Katrina, and specifically to provide more fresh food and health education to the area.  But you know what they say about good intentions.

I live in Mid-City, and I shop at this new Whole Foods that's less than a mile from my house.  It wasn't there when we moved in.  Since then - the summer of 2012 - area housing prices have gone up, and not slowly.  And yes, I know that we are part of the problem.  As my husband likes to say about us, "here comes the neighborhood!"

This is what really sucks about gentrification - so often, it's unintentional.  Some middle-class white folks like ourselves find a house in a neighborhood predominately populated by lower-income people of color, not in any effort or desire to displace them, but because we've been priced out of any neighborhood not meeting that description.  Once more affluent families start moving in, businesses catering to more affluent households follow.  Soon, housing prices increase - what with all those new amenities close by, why wouldn't landlords and real estate investors take advantage?  In short order, that neighborhood that used to be populated with the working class is full of the more privileged, and the marginalized are pushed even further away from those features that were meant to "fix" their health problems.  Of course, those great features don't help the people who can no longer afford to live near them.  And so, the cycle continues.

To its credit, the so-called ReFresh Project in which Whole Foods is housed does have some other benefits for the immediate community.  Tenants include:
  • Liberty’s Kitchen, providing culinary work readiness and leadership skills training for at-risk youth (and also serving pretty great vegan red beans and rice as well as a tasty black bean burger);
  • Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine at Tulane University;
  • FirstLine Schools' central offices (of debatable utility, but they do offer Edible Schoolyard programs at all of their schools);
  • Boystown center for children and families;
  • Broad Community Connections offices;
  • Crescent City Community Land Trust offices;
  • AND an on-site teaching farm in partnership with SPROUT NOLA, Harambee Gardens of New Orleans, and Faubourg Farms which works with students and the community to teach hands-on vegetable growing skills
In addition to Whole Foods / ReFresh, the Mid-City Lafitte Greenway is endeavoring to improve the neighborhood's walkability and create exercise opportunities.  Scheduled to open early this summer, the only direct effect I've witnessed thus far is that the makeshift foot bridge over the canal at N. Lopez and St. Louis has been fenced off, forcing those who walk or ride bikes to travel several blocks out of the way to Jeff Davis Parkway to pass.  So... I guess they're getting more exercise?  They'll be fit in no time, no doubt!  (Please sense my sarcasm.)  Really though, I'm sure my husband and I will use this pathway.  I fear, though, that it will cause housing prices along the entire swath to rise even more quickly.

I don't know who is to "blame" for this process, though I'm compelled to lay more blame at the feet of corporations and city planners than at those of individual homeowners... and that could be just because I am one.  Certainly at issue are the underlying problems of systemic racism and classism that still shape so much of American culture, and seem most troublesome here in the South.  Even I, with all my privilege, am powerless in this process.  I can only hope that the people who were living in the neighborhood before all us privilege folks started to roll in do not get pushed out - or that they at least get to take advantage of some of the "better" amenities before their ousting.

To the initial chapter question "does your neighborhood make you fat?" my answer, for now, is a solid maybe.  I think that for some people, under some circumstances, an "obesogenic environment" could be one of the contributing factors to adiposity.  However, it is folly to look at such a complex issue from just one perspective; rather, I believe it's crucial that we look at the complete set of biological, psychological, environmental, and social factors that affect an individual in determining that individual's situation.

And now, because there was an implicit promise in the blog post title and because I freaking LOVE this song (and don't worry, it's the safe-for-work version):


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