Inner City Obesity (Part 2)


At the end of the day, urban sprawl, especially the rise of suburban supermarket chains, created food deserts in inner cities throughout America. The United States Department of Agriculture defines food deserts as, “urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food. Instead of supermarkets and grocery stores, these communities may have no food access or are served only by fast food restaurants and convenience stores that offer few healthy, affordable food options.” Food deserts are identified under two criteria. Low-income communities are places with a poverty rate of 20% or greater while low-access communities are places where at least 33% of people are more than a mile away from a supermarket or grocery store.[1]

Though supermarket chains flourish in the suburbs, many owners are reluctant to open new supermarkets in the suburbs. Owners prefer to open new supermarkets near existing ones so they can supply customers with their brand in a large, consistent territory without much competition. Like all other businessmen, supermarket owners prefer to open shop in places where their investment pays off with large profits. They don’t open supermarkets in inner cities because they do not think they’ll sell food to enough customers to make a large profit.[2]

As stated in the previous page, supermarkets also drove out smaller, independent grocery stores out of business. With no supermarkets or independent groceries in the inner cities, people had to find other forms of food, which they could afford and access. Fast food chains fill in the inner city gap, providing cheap and convenient food at the price of health. With little education, inner city adults and children are especially vulnerable to fast food advertisements[3] and propaganda, such as the claim that cheap food gives them freedom.[4]

With the lack of supermarkets, liquor stores also fill the gap, “which had sprung up like weed on sidewalk cracks.”[5] Liquor stores became a primary source of food for inner city people. However, their goods were even more expensive than supermarket food, while having little healthy food such as fruits and vegetables.[6] Corner stores and Chinatown stores serve similar functions. Both give inner city people cheap, processed, easily prepared food at the cost of their health. Corner stores are de facto liquor stores in their own right[7] while Chinatown food is deep-fried, full of meat, fat, and oil with little antioxidants and vitamins in the form fruits of vegetables.

The longer the inner city stagnates in poverty, the more difficult it is for the inner city to economically bounce back or allow supermarkets to flourish. Inner city decline economically locks the inner city in a derelict state, preventing people and capital from entering or leaving. Zoning and redlining prevent capital from accumulating in the inner city partly because those areas are marked as dilapidated and dangerous.[8] Naturally, business owners such as supermarket owners do not open businesses in such places where risks are so high and rewards so little. Redlining also dissuades any new investment in housing repair[9] as well as investments to improve inner city infrastructure. This includes investments such as gyms and playgrounds where adults and children can exercise to keep themselves fit.

Social scientist writers such as Mark Winne and Alison Alkon and activists are not the only ones to blame fast food and lack of supermarkets for the rise of inner city obesity. Scientists and researchers have come to similar conclusions, blaming not only poor nutrition but also unhealthy lifestyles, both of which exist in a dying inner city. Lopez and Hynes link racial segregation to increased stress and fear of crime to decreased physical activity, people staying indoors. He also links having to work multiple jobs to decreased physical activity.[10] As strange as it seems at first glance, this statement holds truth. Not all inner city jobs demand hard physical labor, and jobs that did were outsourced. Inner city workers have little time to physically exercise between jobs. While obesity also rose in the suburbs, it rose by a lesser degree, tamed by sidewalks, a low population density, and interconnected streets.[11]

Rodrick and Deborah Wallace from The New York State Psychiatric Institute, squarely blame America’s rising obesity on the psychosocial stress of lower class people and racial minorities. With the deurbanization of the 1970s and the deindustrialization of the 1980s, many inner city communities lost a huge amount of economical, political, and social capital. The massive losses in working class employment and workers’ union influences contributed in the rise of metabolic syndrome, a cluster of medical conditions, obesity being one of them. As society becomes increasingly stratified between a mass of very poor people and a handful of rich people, obesity rises among people of higher classes of people and the majority population.[12]

Paula Whitacre, Peggy Tsai, and Janet Mulligan of The Public Health Effects of Food Deserts: Workshop Summary directly correlate food deserts with obesity and other medical conditions. In their research, they state that 29% of zip codes do not have a grocery store or supermarket while 74% do not have a chain supermarket. In addition, the prices of fast foods, soft drinks, and other unhealthy, non-supermarket foods dropped massively from 1990 to 2007. Even when income, education, and race are controlled, communities with “unbalanced” food environments, where unhealthy, “fringe” food is closer to people than supermarket, “mainstream” food, have more deaths from diabetes, one of the many side effects of obesity.[13] As both the literature and studies reveal, America’s inner cities are suffering from a massive socioeconomic decline. Obesity is merely one manifestation of poverty in American inner cities.


Politicians, scholars, researchers, and activists alike have given a decent number of proposals to tackle America’s obesity problem. Some proposals are effective albeit riddled with some problems. Other proposals are completely inept. The three most recognized proposals other than government interventions to improve inner city infrastructure are imploring people to take personal responsibility, erecting farmers’ markets, and experimenting with urban gardening.

The conventional liberal response that politicians use is for people to take personal responsibility and change their life choices. While politicians’ intentions were noble and sometimes ignoble, their advice was ineffective. It is very hard for inner city people to “take responsibility” in what they eat when they barely have any options available. Many of them may have to travel more than a mile away without a car to get to the next supermarket and even if they get there they cannot reasonably afford the food with the money they earn. In particular, the Reagan administration’s philosophy of personal responsibility clashed with their fiscal conservatism. By slashing government programs poor people needed to survive and investing little money to tackle poverty head on they exacerbated poor people’s food problems. They told the poor to take personal responsibility all the while denying them what little means they had to change their situation in the first place.[14]

The second and more effective proposal is to erect farmers’ markets in inner cities in the hopes of improving people’s diet. Activists’ plans included forming projects to distribute good food so they would not be out of reach, such as co-op stores and warehouses, and farmers’ markets.[15] Over the past thirty years, farmers’ markets have emerged in inner cities as inner city people form a community to try to feed themselves.[16] Farmers’ markets do indeed have a positive effect in inner cities. Lower income families are more food secure, and thus have access to better quality food, if they are highly connected to social networks. Over the years communities changed their goals from the vague mission to “feed the hungry” to increasing the quality of food available to people. The result has been an appreciable growth in communities such as farmers’ markets and Community Supported Agriculture.[17]

However, there are inherent race and class issues inherent in farmers’ markets. Historically, farmers’ markets and other forms of alternate food are most available to white, middle class people. This race and class divide is left unsolved by some farmers’ market managers. While most managers believe their markets are universal spaces that appeal to universal values, some managers use that belief to reject reaching out to communities of color.[18] This mentality is nothing new among generally well-meaning white people who wish everyone to have a fair chance in life, regardless of their skin color, but shirk to explicitly identify racial disparities and combat them. Unfortunately for the racial minorities involved, such an attitude does not help anyone. Professing “colorblindness” while refusing to acknowledge racism sweeps very ugly racist realities under the rug while allowing white privilege to exist unchallenged.[19]

As stated many times, urban sprawl drains capital and food away from the inner city and into the suburbs, and farmers’ markets are no exception. New urban space is attractive to farmers because business in the inner city is hard-pressed while the suburbs present a large number of customers who are more able to afford their products. The whole process can be described as the “Greenwich effect”. When affluent housewives organize farmers’ markets in upscale neighborhoods, farmers in the inner city seize the opportunity and set up their markets elsewhere. While the move benefits the farmers it has dire consequences for the inner city. Keith Collins, USDA’s chief economist, documented that the prices of fruits and vegetables rose in the inner city from 2001 to 2006 by 4% a year, and predicted their price would increase by the same amount per year in the future. While farmers’ markets can be and are often beneficial to inner cities they often have an obvious race and class problem. Alternate food is least available to the people who need it most.[20]

The third proposal, urban gardens, is the most effective and the least problematic. Like farmers’ markets, urban gardens are the result of people banding together in a community to provide themselves with good quality food. Urban gardens also hold the potential to avoid the race and class problems in farmers’ markets. Urban gardens do not rely too much on large-scale organization or reliance on institutions. Individuals and small groups can make a huge change in their eating habits and their lives by planting their own gardens.[21] Taking control of what you eat is one of the most profound ways to change your life and what better way than growing your own food?

However, one must not become too idealistic. Urban gardens have the potential to gentrify a neighborhood and cast out lower class people as much as they have the potential to unite them. For example, the NOBE urban garden in Oakland, Berkley, and Emeryville lumps together neighborhoods of lower and middle class blacks and advertises it as an “authentic” new home for young, upper class people from San Francisco. In the process, the lower and middle class blacks are forced out of the neighborhood.[22] In essence, one community that needs the urban garden is destroyed and replaced by another community that uses the urban garden merely as an aesthetic. Ultimately, alternate food sources like farmers’ markets and food gardens are tools to achieve a certain end. Like any other tool, their effectiveness depends on who uses them and how they are used for what purpose.


Obesity is one of many America problems caused by extreme class division and racial discrimination. The main causes of obesity are a combination of supermarket locations effecting the distribution of healthy food in particular and the larger consequences of urban sprawl draining capital from the inner city. The unfortunate inner city people are left with little options on how to live, their lack of options of what food to eat being only one of many examples. Food is one of the most fundamental necessities of life. Almost nothing can effect people’s lives in such a basic way as the food they are allowed to eat and almost nothing can take away people’s rights and freedoms to live more than restricting what they can eat. America’s inner city obesity should remind us how American society stratifies its people, almost to their point where they inhabit different worlds, and motivate us to solve the deeply set problems within its causes.

[1] Agricultural Marketing Service, pg. 1
[2] Winne, pg. 87
[3] Winn, pg. 114
[4] Winn, preface pg. iii
[5] Winn, pg. 64
[6] Alkon and Agyeman, location 2296
[7] Alkon and Agyeman, location 2383
[8] Alkon and Agyeman, location 2124
[9] Alkon and Agyeman, location 2229
[10] Lopez and Hynes, pg. 4
[11] Lopez and Hynes, pg. 2
[12] Rodrick and Deborah Wallace, pgs. 364-371
[13] Whitacre, Tsai, and Mulligan, pgs. 27-30
[14] Winn, pgs. 23-24
[15] Winn, pgs. 13-14
[16] Winn, pg. 155
[17] Winn, pgs. 168-169
[18] Alkon and Agyeman, location 5646
[19] Alkon and Agyeman, location 5603
[20] Winn, pg. 177
[21] Winn, pg. 192
[22] Markham, pg. 1

Works Cited

Agricultural Marketing Service – Creating Access to Healthy, Affordable Food. United States Department of Agriculture, n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2015.

Alkon, Alison H., and Julian Agyeman. Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class, and Sustainability. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2011. Print.

Clark, Clifford Edward. The American Family Home, 1800-1960. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina, 1986. Print.

Fairbanks, Robert B. The War on Slums in the Southwest. N.p.: Temple UP, 2014. Robert B. Fairbanks. Web. 23 Mar. 2015.

Flegal, K. M., M. D. Carroll, R. J. Kuczmarski, and C. L. Johnson. “Overweight and Obesity in the United States: Prevalence and Trends, 1960–1994.” Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord International Journal of Obesity 22.1 (1997): 39-47. Web.

Fogelson, Robert M. Downtown: Its Rise and Fall, 1880-1950. New Haven: Yale UP, 2001. Print.

Lopez, Russel P., and Patricia H. Hynes. “Obesity, Physical Activity, and the Urban Environment: Public Health Research Needs.” Environmental Health Journal, 18 Sept. 2006. Web.

Markham, Lauren. “Gentrification and the Urban Garden – The New Yorker.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, 21 May 2014. Web. 12 Nov. 2015.

Moses, Robert. “What’s the Matter With New York.” The New York Times (1943): n. pag. Web.

Norris, Darrell A. “Unreal Estate: Words, Names and Allusions in Suburban Home Advertising.” Names 47.4 (1999): 365-80. Web.

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth: An Urban History. Dir. Chad Freidrichs. First Run Features, 2012. Internet Movie Database.

Wang, Y., and M. A. Beydoun. “The Obesity Epidemic in the United States Gender, Age, Socioeconomic, Racial/Ethnic, and Geographic Characteristics: A Systematic Review and Meta-Regression Analysis.” Epidemiologic Reviews 29.1 (2007): 6-28. Web.

Wallace, Rodrick, and Deborah N. Wallace. “Structured Psychosocial Stress And The Us Obesity Epidemic.” J. Biol. Syst. Journal of Biological Systems 13.04 (2005): 363-84. Web.

Whitacre, Paula, Peggy Tsai, and Janet Mulligan. The Public Health Effects of Food Deserts: Workshop Summary. Washington, D.C.: National Academies, 2009. Print.

Winne, Mark. Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty. Boston: Beacon, 2008. Print.


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