A study in North Minneapolis asks the question: do we eat more fast food because we want it or because it is there?
Queen Frye started questioning her local food landscape from a young age.
Growing up in North Minneapolis, she concluded that the choices available “conditioned us to eat in certain ways, which predisposed us to health risks.”
Looking at the dozen or so fast food joints on West Broadway today, she still wonders, “Do we want it because that’s how we eat, or do we eat it because it’s here. and what are our options?”
His question is now at the center of a University of Minnesota research project that seeks to “challenge the legacy of fast food outlets in North Minneapolis.”
The work of the Fernando Burga University professor and researcher will explore historical policies and planning documents to explain how and why the area attracted so many fast food outlets and so few other choices.
Whatever the causes, the researchers say the result is a neighborhood that’s less of a “food desert” with no choices and more of a “food swamp” with many unhealthy food options.
“Food swamp research is relatively new, but traveling through North Minneapolis, the phrase makes intuitive sense, as there seems to be an abundance of cheap and convenient food vendors offering items laden with empty calories. “, according to a Federal Reserve report. Bank of Minneapolis.
The negative health consequences of fast food concentration have been documented – food swamps are a clear predictor of higher obesity ratessaid Kristen Cooksey Stowers, a professor at the University of Connecticut and a leading food environments researcher.
“It’s something we should think about, especially if we care about health inequities, health disparities,” she said. “Over time, our neighborhoods and built environments are designed for disease.”
This type of environment is more often found in low-income areas with higher percentages of non-white residents. But Cooksey Stowers said she found that “regardless of the level of income inequality, the food swamp effect persists” – meaning having an abundance of fast food in an area is, to him alone, a predictor of negative health outcomes.
The historic red line, white flight, transportation inequalities, barriers to lending and entrepreneurship for local residents, concentrated poverty, outdated zoning rules and other factors have led to food swamps in d other cities, according to research.
But understanding why North Minneapolis became so populated with fast food restaurants — and who made those decisions — remains unexamined.
Burga said her research goal is “more than just asking the question, finding the answer, and moving on.” It will involve public awareness and input from residents.
“I aim to make it a process that fits the community and makes it useful for them,” he said. “It involves more than just being an academic at university looking into the archives and actually engaging people on their story.”
Frye, co-founder of the R. Roots Urban Gardening Association, said there is a proven demand for a more diverse set of food options found in abundance in other parts of the metro.
“We’ve been talking to young people and they want to see a tropical smoothie or a chipotle or a crisp and green,” she said. “Why don’t we help them have this for their future?”
Frye said she doesn’t want to close restaurants, but rather encourage developers — and residents — to try their luck with alternative options.
“I don’t want it to be, ‘You have to change that now,'” she said. “I want it to be this progressive thing and people don’t even know their lifestyle has changed.”
Appetite For Change has been supporting neighborhood slow food for a decade. The non-profit organization runs the Breaking Bread Cafe and the West Broadway Farmers Market and is keenly interested in what the U study reveals.
“I think there’s a lot of perceptions and misalignments around food values,” said Michelle Horovitz, co-founder and vice president of innovation at Appetite For Change. “People are so used to leaving their community to get what they need and want.”
Horovitz wonders why other parts of Minneapolis and the metro don’t have the same problem.
“You don’t see Edina being inundated with fast food options,” she said.
Frye said the biggest benefit research can bring is knowledge – how the food landscape has been shaped by outside interests and how that may change.
“When you think about your options, you have to think about the history of this neighborhood,” she said. “When people feel like they don’t have power or choice, now I really understand how far it goes – it’s layered and built into the policies.”