In 1923, long before the rise of McDonald’s golden arches, an advertisement for beef made this proclamation in the Bridgeport Telegraph: “Ninety percent of the diseases known to man are caused by cheap foodstuffs. You are what you eat.”  The phrase you are what you eat actually dates back to the 17th century. Over time, science has repeatedly demonstrated that nutritional intake directly affects health outcomes. That we are what we eat is a medical fact. But to what degree does what we eat and, thus, our health, depend on where we live and the types of food we have access to?

Examining the Impact Of Food Deserts On Public Health In Chicago, by Mari Gallagher Research & Consulting Group, probes this very question. Given our foundational premise that the health and vitality of urban communities is a block-by-block phenomenon, our first task is to measure the distance from every City of Chicago block to the nearest grocery store and fast food restaurant. Next, 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 health outcomes, holding constant education, income, and race. Here is what we found:

  • Residents of food deserts – large geographic areas with no or distant grocery stores – face nutritional challenges evident in diet-related community health outcomes. Those outcomes worsen when the food desert has high concentrations of nearby fast food alternatives. We call this the Food Balance Effect.
  • Majority African American and majority White communities that have out-of-balance food environments will have higher rates of residents dying prematurely from diabetes that are statistically significant, controlling for income, education, and race. African American communities will be the most likely to experience the greatest total years of life lost from diabetes as a result. To measure this effect, we developed a Food Balance Score: the distance to the closest grocer divided by the distance to the closest fast food restaurant for each block, tract, and Community Area in the City of Chicago. The more out of balance the community, the higher the life lost to diabetes.

The study also uses driver’s license data (height and weight) as a measure for obesity.

The full report provides a very detailed account of our methodology and findings. The foreword is written by noted epidemiologist George Kaplan, and the “Author’s Comments” section provides an interesting narrative by key author Mari Gallagher, who ties the intersection of community development, market investment, and public health together. The work has been widely acclaimed nationally and seen as a groundbreaking study.

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

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