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Examining the Impact of Food Deserts on Public Health in DETROIT - June 19, 2007

This report ought to serve as a wake-up call, and my guess is that it will.  It documents a serious problem clearly and forcefully.  It is much harder now to avoid the conclusion that action to address it in Detroit warrants a high priority.”  

These are the opening words of Thomas Kingsley of the Urban Institute who wrote the foreword to Examining the Impact of Food Deserts on Public Health in Detroit, by Mari Gallagher Research & Consulting Group.

We know Detroit as the birthplace of Henry Ford’s moving assembly line, an invention that put America on wheels. Detroit also installed the first mile of paved concrete, the first traffic light, and the first urban freeway. But today, the Motor City has the distinction of being the most expensive place in the US in which to own and operate an automobile; more than a fifth of Detroit households are carless. Never having been a city known for its public transportation, Detroit is now an even tougher place in which to do simple things, such as make a trip to the grocery store. The increased costs of driving parallel Detroit’s new title: world’s top potato chip consumer. But what are the health costs for residents of any city consuming potato chips, high fat burgers, or soda in greater and greater quantities over more nutritious, fresh foods on a regular basis? Science has repeatedly demonstrated that diet equals health, but to what degree is our heath determined by the kinds of foods that are available to us?

This is the focus of Examining the Impact of Food Deserts on Public Health in Detroit. Our premise is that the health and vitality of urban communities are block-by-block phenomena. Therefore we first measure the distance from every block in Detroit and the surrounding metropolitan area to the closest grocery store, fast food establishment, and other food venues – 50,000 blocks! We consider the locations of USDA Food Stamp retailers and conduct an analysis of their distribution by specific retail category.  Then we develop an empirical score to quantify the balance of food choice available to residents. Finally, we compare food access and food balance directly to diet-related health outcomes.

What we found surprised us, and will likely surprise you, too. Read not only the full study but its companion, The Detroit Project Appendix, where the key author, Mari Gallagher, discusses new methodologies and next steps. Because it is a large document, it is also broken up into sections in the event you have trouble opening the full version.

Mari Gallagher Research & Consulting Group is the sole developer of these very explicit food desert definitions and the innovator of the Food Balance Score.