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Researchers Explore Link Between Obesity And Environment

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Aired 2/15/10

Where you live can determine whether you become overweight. Researchers say that's why poor people and poor neighborhoods are at the center of the obesity epidemic. Researchers at San Diego State are studying kids in a number of local neighborhoods to see how their environments affect their access to healthy food and exercise.

— Where you live can determine whether you become overweight. Researchers say that's why poor people and poor neighborhoods are at the center of the obesity epidemic. Researchers at San Diego State University are studying kids in a number of local neighborhoods to see how their environments affect their access to healthy food and exercise.

Last week, academics from around the country came to the Active Living Research conference at the US Grant Hotel. They came to talk about the latest research into the causes of obesity. Angela Glover Blackwell is the founder the Oakland-based group, PolicyLink whose mission is to promote social and financial equality. She was keynote speaker at the conference, and she said there's a direct link between poor neighborhoods and poor health.

"In America, where you live is a proxy for opportunity and well-being," she said. "And neighborhoods that have poor schools, toxic waste, no grocery stores, do not produce health".

And one of the primary health problems of this country is obesity. Jim Sallis is a professor of psychology at San Diego State, and he's the program director for Active Living Research.

"Obesity is high in every group," he said. "But it's higher in lower income kids. It's higher in African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans."

The National Institutes of Health are now funding a SDSU study of weight gain in children in several San Diego neighborhoods. Many studies have made the link between obesity and urban environment. One, by the Center for Public Health Advocacy, linked obesity levels to food availability. It concluded that low income neighborhoods with lots of fast food and convenience stores, but few grocery stores, had much higher rates of obesity and diabetes. Those neighborhoods tended to be low income.

Sallis said the character of neighborhood also has a lot to do with how much outdoor exercise people get. You'd think that poor neighborhoods would be walkable, since they're often in the inner city where stores and homes are closer together. But Sallis said you may not want to take a walk in a poor neighborhood.

"Their sidewalks are not in as good shape. Probably their parks are not as high a quality. They're not going to have the aesthetics. They're not going to have the street trees. And we see less safe street crossings in lower-income neighborhoods. "

At the Active Living Research conference, an eighth grader named D'Angelo Burton addressed the group. He attends Monarch School in downtown San Diego, which is geared toward the needs of kids affected by homelessness. He presented evidence of a "walk audit" that he did downtown.

"As we were walking around San Diego we saw certain things like cracks in the sidewalks, uneven streets and signs that should be changed or signs that needed to be put in certain places," said Burton. "So we just wanted to seek them out and let San Diego know about them."

The results of the walk audit have been presented to city engineers, in hope that they'll result in change. Evidence of environmental links to obesity have brought change. In Pennsylvania, the Fresh Food Financing Initiative has created a $120 million fund. The fund has helped establish nearly 78 new grocery stores in low and moderate income areas. Researchers say their goal is to to have a real effect on urban design, the location of grocery stores and, ultimately, the health of Americans.

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