Inner City Obesity (Part 1)


Obesity is both a massive and familiar issue in modern America, with profound effects on the health of American citizens. Obesity in America rose after World War II, intimately connected with the urban sprawl that happened over the last sixty or so years. Both sides of the urban sprawl coin, the decline of the inner city and the creation of suburbs across America, both contributed to America’s massive obesity rise.

People living in the inner city such as minorities are the worst affected by America’s rising obesity because of a variety of factors. Urban sprawl played a part in causing the economic decline of the city. As businesses were outsources to the suburbs or outside America, new businesses such as rising supermarket chains had little incentive to erect stores in the inner city. Other practices such as red zoning further locked the inner city, preventing transportation and economic mobility. Liquor store and fast food restaurants became food stores in the inner city, leaving the people there with little access to healthy food.

The conventional response to obesity is to take the liberal, individualist route; blaming obese people for poor individual choices and advising changes in lifestyle. While people responding this way may have good intentions, they ignore the historical and socioeconomic realities that shape what many obese people eat. Activists have attempted alternate methods such as farmer’s markets, installing supermarkets in the inner city, and growing food gardens. While they all show promise they cannot deeply change America’s obesity problem unless America’s entire economy is changed.


Under conventional body mass index (BMI) measurements, calculated by dividing a person’s weight in kilograms by his height in meters cubed, a person is overweight when his BMI ranges from 25 to 30 and obese when his BMI is above 30. According to Dr. Youfa Wang of the Center of the Center for Human Nutrition, 66% of adults were overweight or obese in 2007 while 16% of children and adolescents are overweight. Obesity has skyrocketed from the 1960s to 2004, increasing from 13% to 32%. Dr. Wang projects that by 2015, 75% of adults will be overweight or obese.[1]

Among elderly people in the United States, aged 60 or older, more than 70% were obese. More men than women were overweight or obese.[2] Minority groups such as non-Hispanic blacks and Mexican Americans were especially prone to obesity. With 76.1% for non-Hispanic blacks and 75.8% for Mexican Americans respectively, both groups had 10% higher obesity than whites. The statistics were even more striking among women. Non-Hispanic black women were 20% more likely to be obese than white women, with 77.2% of non-Hispanic women being obese compared to 57.2% of white women being obese.[3]

While obesity increased since the 1960s, it sharply role from 1976-1980 in particular. Children and adolescents were the most effected during this period. Obesity rates of children ages 6-11 tripled while obesity rates for adolescents more than tripled.[4] Obesity rates also correlate with education levels. 27.4% of people with less than a high school education were obese, 21% of people some college education were obese, and 15.7% of people with above college education were obese.[5] Obesity rates even varied among people of different races depending on their citizenship. Only 1-4% of Asian American women were obese while the national average of obese Asian American women was 15%. Asians born in America were four times more likely to be obese.[6]

Dr. Wang is not the only researcher to discover such trends. Russel Lopez and Patricia Hynes of the Environmental Health Journal, for example, discovered that 39.4% of inner city men were obese compared to 35.5% of suburban men. Similarly, 20.6% of inner city women were obese compared to 19.1% of suburban women.[7] Dr. Flagel and his colleagues in the 1998 issue of the International Journal of Obesity concluded that among 50-59 year olds 72.9% of non-Hispanic white men, 80.6% of Mexican-American men, 78.1% of non-Hispanic black women, and 62.8% of non-Hispanic white women were obese.[8] Dr. Flagel and co. also discovered that differences in obesity prevalence by race was among women was more extreme than among men. Obesity was much higher for non-Hispanic black and Mexican-American women than for non-Hispanic white women.[9]

Dr. Wang’s and other’s research shows several overall trends in American obesity. The most notable trend is the prevalence of obesity among racial minorities and people with little education. This suggests that obesity may correlate with poverty, since racial minorities in America tend to be much poorer than whites. People with little education also tend to be poorer than people with high levels of education since poor people do not have the education and mobility to access higher education. In addition, older children and adolescents are more obese than younger children, which suggests that the older someone is the more they follow an unhealthy lifestyle. As it turns out, many socioeconomic forces played their roles in shaping different people’s access to foods and lifestyles.


America’s obesity among poor people in the inner city may strike skepticism in some people. Poverty is usually associated with starvation. Our stereotypical image of a poor person is a hoary old man with nothing but skin and bones. However, as the statistics suggest, obesity is a massive health problem for America’s poor, which is verified by sociologist literature. Historically, the rise of American obesity for the past sixty years is linked to the urban sprawl that has been taking place since World War II. Urban sprawl, with all of its numerous causes and manifestations, has caused both the decline of the inner city and the creation of American suburbs. The decline of the inner city in particular caused the most damage for America’s most vulnerable people, lower class people and racial minorities, leading to their massive rise in obesity.

It is difficult to define the exact start of urban sprawl. Most academics generalize its fruition as happening in the 1950s and 1960s though historians can pinpoint its beginnings as far back as the turn of the century. The causes of urban sprawl are many. The invention of automobiles allowed middle and upper class people who could afford them to flee from cities full of lower class squalor.[10] Automobiles and telephones both decentralized the business district of the inner city in the first half of the 20th century, as customers could live farther from their place of work and businesses could expand their offices outside the city.[11] The drain of both middle and upper class people and businesses from the cities into the suburbs took away much of the wealth and commerce from the inner city, leading to its decline.

People did not merely follow the path new technology led them towards. Public servants, business owners, and politicians actively changed the inner city in pursuit of modernist ideals. In pursuit of a new, modernist city, with wide spaces and large, angular, identical buildings, they declared the slums to be “blighted” in order to demolish them.[12] Thus, they demolished the slums and replaced them with public housing. While a noble effort, public housing eventually degenerated into a new form of slums, arguably worse than the first. Private interests routinely hampered government maintenance of the projects, forcing their tenants to pay from their own pockets, which they could not. Politicians further exacerbated the problem by reviling government support and social justice movements as socialist and antithetical to the free market. [13]

Meanwhile, new businesses arose to satisfy suburban consumer needs such as the rise of the chain supermarket. Though chain supermarkets existed since the 1930s, replacing chain grocery stores from earlier, they rose to prominence in the suburbs after World War II. They could accommodate industrial amounts of processed food with their massive size and allowed customers to purchase all their food with only one car trip. By the 1960s more than two thirds of all grocery stores were supermarkets. As time passed, chain supermarkets drove smaller, independent stores out of business. By 1975 chain supermarkets controlled more than two thirds of the food retail market.[14] With the rise of massive supermarket chains and the decline of smaller food stores, the location of healthy, good quality food shifted further away from the city into the suburbs where people needed cars for transportation.

Cuts in government spending in inner city infrastructure also played a role, such as the Reagan administration’s cuts to many food programs. One example are the cuts done to the Community Renewal Team, its services plummeting from giving 380,000 meals per month to only 30,000 meals per month.[15] With the food safety net compromised, lower class people could not get enough food stamps to feed themselves during the month. Instead, they resorted to soup kitchens provided by charities and churches[16], or to spend what little money they had on cheap but unhealthy food sources such as fast food chains and liquor stores. Government subsidies and state infrastructure function to allow lower class people to keep up with the volatile movements of the market, even if only by its coat tails. The movements of the market, which generally makes goods and services more expensive for everyone while less accessible to the poor, combined with the eroding of government services, pushed lower class people further away from the market, including what supermarkets provide.[17]

How does all this history lead to inner city obesity? It does so through two ways. Firstly, urban sprawl gradually drained money and profit from the inner city into the suburbs. As people living in the inner city become poorer, it becomes harder for them to buy good quality food. Instead, they must purchase worse quality food in fast food chains, Chinatown stores, and liquor stores, which are laden with fat and grease. Secondly, as chain supermarkets rise and independent stores decline, people in the inner city lose more and more alternate options for buying good food. In the process, the aforementioned fast food chains fill in the void left by the independent stores. Ultimately, people in the inner city are left to eat bad food as part of their daily diet, which drastically increases the prevalence for obesity.

[1] Wang and Beydoun, pg. 1
[2] Wang and Beydoun, pgs. 4-5
[3] Wang and Beydoun, pg. 5
[4] Wang and Beydoun, pg. 10
[5] Wang and Beydoun, pg. 7
[6] Wang and Beydoun, pg. 6
[7] Lopez and Hynes, pgs. 1-2
[8] Flegal, Carrol, Kuczmarski, and Johnson, pg. 7
[9] Flegal, Carrol, Kuczmarski, and Johnson, pg. 6
[10] Fogelson, pgs. 28-29
[11] Fogelson, pgs. 106-107
[12] Moses, pgs. 1-3
[13] “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth”, mins. 20-22
[14] Alkon and Agyeman, location 2276
[15] Winn, pgs. 23
[16] Winn, pg. 32
[17] Winn, pg. 23


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