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Duke Study Examines Racial Segregation And Obesity Disparities

minority obese
Courtesy of the UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity

New research from Duke University suggests discriminatory housing and development policies that have shaped predominately minority neighborhoods may be contributing to higher obesity rates in those communities.

“Broadly speaking, what we really see is separate and unequal neighborhoods, places where people live, that are very different when we think about blacks and whites within the U.S.,” said Loneke Blackman Carr, one of the co-authors of the study.

Nearly 40 percent of Americans are obese, but black and Latino adults have disproportionately higher rates of obesity than white adults, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

Researchers with the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke found minority neighborhoods are often geographically isolated and lacking in public infrastructure like sidewalks and recreational facilities.

They trace this to historical patterns of racial segregation in housing, when predominantly minority communities were systematically devalued, or targeted for redlining, making it difficult for residents to buy homes. Discriminatory housing practices were criminalized through the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1968, but set the stage for persistent racial wealth gaps.

Economic segregation became more widespread in the 1970s and 80s when white families fled from cities to the suburbs and supermarkets followed suit, leaving behind urban areas with little access to fresh foods.

Today, many predominately black neighborhoods tend to have poor access to healthy food, or an over-abundance of fast food options. Blackman Carr calls these “food deserts” or “food swamps.”

These neighborhood characteristics, rather than genetic or cultural factors, are key drivers in the disproportionately higher obesity rates among black and Latinos residents, according to the study. Black and white women in the same neighborhoods face similar odds of developing obesity, once other factors are taken into account.

Blackman Carr says updating zoning laws could reduce the prevalence of both food deserts and food swamps, and help build healthier communities.

“This is how we decide how land can be used," said Blackman Carr. “Zoning laws can be one great way to dictate where supermarkets and grocers exists, where fast food and other establishments should be. When we think about food deserts and food swamps, this is a fundamental issue.”

The report calls for strategic investment in the quality and safety of recreation facilities and parks in these neighborhoods, along with tax incentives and vouchers to help promote mixed-income housing, and a host of measures to increase economic stability and decrease financial barriers to healthier lifestyles.

Elizabeth Friend grew up in North Carolina listening to public radio in the backseat of the family station wagon. She has been reporting and producing at WUNC since 2016, covering everything from Army history to armadillos. She's also the co-founder of the beloved summer event series Audio Under The Stars. In her spare time she enjoys exploring the outside world with her family, dabbling in esoteric crafts, and cheese.
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