Archive for the ‘ Health and Safety ’ Category

Ties Between Obesity and Neo-Liberalism

This blog has been badly neglected the past two months… but here is a short post with some information I found interesting…

Last week, I attended a symposium on migrant rights at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration, where I am a student. The first presenter, Gerardo Otero (a professor of sociology at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver) spoke about  the relationship between migration and food production.  During his lecture, Otero described a research finding that captured my interest (and relates to some of my earlier posts about food justice ).

The finding was this: countries that have embraced neo-liberalism the most have the highest rates of obesity.

If you look at a recent list of countries with the highest percentages of obesity you will find that nations with strong neo-liberal tendencies (the U.S., U.K., Australia, Mexico, Canada) top the list. In contrast, developed nations that endorse other models of capitalism have much lower rates of obesity. For example, in Japan (a state-led capitalist model) only 3% of the population is obese (compare to 34% of the population in the U.S.) . In northern European countries such as Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands (where socially conscious forms of capitalism dominate), rates of obesity hover around 10%.

While Otero admits that more research needs to be done in order to fully understand the relationship between Neo-liberalism and capitalism, there is a clear correlation between the two. Otero hypothesizes that Neo-liberal practices (primarily cutting labor costs through any means possible) have the effect of reducing the quality of our food.

Otero’s hypothesis reminded me of Michael Pollan’s book Ominvore’s Dilemma (which I’ve also referenced in earlier posts). Pollan talks about the way that food companies  have sought to maximize profits by increasing portion sizes (i.e. selling only larger bags of chips and charging more for them) and by using cheaper ingredients (Pollan provides examples of how many packaged food items contain ingredients derived from corn, our cheapest and most abundant food source). Put simply, the food industry is profiting at the expense of our health. I think one could make the argument that the government is subsidizing this process when you consider how many tax dollars are spent treating heart disease and other obesity-related diseases.

The history of American corporations is loaded with examples of poor moral decision making. Unfortunately, it seems that maximizing profits and “doing the right thing” don’t always go together. Personally, I find it worrisome that the (presumably) decent people working in the food industry can make decisions which expand profits at the cost of human health. The obesity epidemic isn’t here simply because Americans spend too much time watching TV or eating fast food. I believe there is a real link between our society’s health and our society’s capacity for moral decision making.

A classmate recently told me that the Harvard Business School has decided to place a new emphasis on ethics– as a result of the recent economic downfall. I think this is a good start– business students should be trained to consider the real (if distant) effects their companies will have on both workers and consumers.


Obama Signs Child Nutrition Act

I thought I would post a quick update after my last blog. This morning Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The includes a 4.5 billion dollar plan to expand the free lunch program for needy kids and to make school lunches healthier! This is a huge victory for preventative healthcare!

GOP Blocks Bill Designed to Prevent Childhood Obesity

A few months ago, I posted a blog regarding my thoughts on childhood obesity. In that post, I shared my view that although America’s obesity epidemic is often portrayed as a consequence of personal choice, structural and political factors are largely responsible for this problem  (for example: grocery “deserts” in inner-cities,  unhealthy school lunch programs, etc). Predictably, obesity is often reflection of poverty and inequality. I was surprised by how many friends and readers responded to this post, many with stories of their own related to this topic. I realized that many of you are concerned about the obesity epidemic and passionate about preventative healthcare.

As a follow up to that post, I thought I would share a link to this article, which my boyfriend passed on to me: Republicans Block Child Nutrition Bill. If you don’t have time to read the article, there are two key pieces of information you should know. 1) House Republicans have just blocked a bill, which would provide free school lunches to thousands of more needy kids and make those meals healthier 2) Republicans (especially media-magnet Sarah Palin) have begun attacking Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign which aims to promote exercise and nutrition among America’s children. As usual, Palin has no shame, apparently calling the campaign a “school cookie ban debate”. The catch-phrase sounds a lot like other recent GOP scare-tactics (i.e. “death panels”).

The irony is that Michelle Obama’s campaign focuses on the structural aspects that cause obesity, not personal choice. For example, the Let’s Move Campaign advocates for healthier school lunches, recreational programs for children, and more sidewalks to encourage walking. Furthermore, Obama openly acknowledges that there “is a time for cookies and ice-cream”. The recent child nutrition bill (which the First Lady has supported) might prevent obesity and qualify more Americans to serve in the armed forces. Hardly a “cookie ban debate”, this is a bi-partisan issue that both Democrats and Republicans should be mobilizing to support.

Note: If you would like to learn more about the structural causes of obesity, Omnivore’s Dilemma by Micheal Pollan is a wonderful, eye-opening book. Pollan exposes the way in which the food industry has manipulated American consumers (for example: enlarging portion sizes in order to jack up prices).

No Trauma Centers on the South Side?

In late August, Damian Turner an 18 year old resident of Woodlawn was killed by a stray bullet. The corner where Damian was shot (61st street and Cottage Grove) is one I know well. As a  graduate student at the University of Chicago I often drive by that intersection while looking for a parking spot on the mornings before class.

The Grov Parc apartment complex where Damian lived is only four blocks (perhaps a 15 second drive) from the University of Chicago Hospital. However, Damian could not be rushed to the University of Chicago Hospital because it does not have an adult trauma unit. For this reason, Damian was taken to the nearest adult trauma unit at Northwestern Hospital. The trip took about 10 minutes.

Did those extra ten minutes cost Damian his life?

We’ll never know, but it is an injustice that we are left  wondering this question.

Trauma units are designed to treat emergencies caused by shootings, stabbings, and other acts of violence. Currently, that are no trauma units on the South Side of Chicago–despite the fact that incidences of violence are alarmingly high in this region. Trauma victims must be transported to either Northwestern Hospital in the Loop, or to a hospital in the Western Suburbs.

This morning at 11 am, residents of the Woodlawn community and members of the South Side organizing group STOP gathered for the second time outside the University of Chicago Hospital to voice their demand that a new adult trauma unit be built.

Although the University Hospital used to have a trauma unit– that program was discontinued. Hospital officials remarked that the program was simply too expensive to run, and that the hospital was swamped with trauma victims from the entire South Side of the city. (It is worth noting here the Hospital’s concerns about costs. Victims of violence are disproportionately young, minority males. These patients are more likely to be Medicaid patients or to be uninsured).

Last fall, I worked as a social work intern at the University of Chicago Hospital. I can say with confidence that the hospital operates a number of costly and impressive programs. There is a first class treatment center for patients with cystic fibrosis. The hospital is the only in the city to perform lung transplants. One of the doctors in the transplant unit is qualified to do bloodless transplant surgery– one of only a handful of doctors to possess this qualification in the entire country. While I was working at the University Hospital I noted that it drew patients (especially in the transplant and oncology units) from all over the state and all over the Midwest.

Needless to say, the hospital makes choices about what kind of research it will conduct, which diseases it will treat, and how it will spend its money. A recent article in the New York Times reports that the University of Chicago Hospital is in the process of building a new 700 million dollar pavilion.

All of this invokes the question–who do hospitals have a responsibility to serve? Do hospitals have a responsibility to serve the communities where they are situated?  Or, do hospitals choose which types of diseases they will provide treatment for–and expect that patients with these conditions (regardless of where they are located) will come seek their services out of necessity?  Clearly, the University of Chicago Hospital has made a choice to provide certain kinds of treatments (and to privilege certain populations) over others.

Undoubtedly, no hospital can specialize in every type of care. However, I worry that hospitals will frequently avoid specializing in the treatment of conditions that disproportionately affect the poor and uninsured. Trauma units are just one example.

Is equal access to healthcare a human right in America? If so, we need to find a way incentivize (or require) hospitals to provide services for the poor. The way things are, hospitals (such as U of C) can strategically choose not to offer services that are likely to be used by high number of Medicaid or uninsured patients.

Note: This post draws heavily from the following NYT article for factual information:

Thoughts on Childhood Obesity and Poverty

Between working as research assistant on a cancer-risk study and a social work intern at the University of Chicago Hospital—I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the intersection between poverty and obesity-related diseases.

While America’s obesity problem is often blamed on a cultural addiction to television and fast food—I believe firmly that our eating habits are not shaped by culture and individual proclivities alone. This is especially true for America’s poor.

From my experiences teaching in urban neighborhoods and serving poor clients at the University of Chicago Hospital—I have deduced a few major problems that increase the likelihood that poor, urban children will suffer from obesity-related diseases.

Safety & Exercise.

One respondent I interviewed as a part of a cancer study, informed me that she did not exercise because it was not safe to walk around her neighborhood and she could not afford to join a health club. I realized afterward that my students in Englewood had often commented that the number of shootings in their communities forced them to stay inside the house as much as possible. When neighborhood streets and parks are not safe places for children to play —it is only logical to assume that they will not receive regular exercise.

Children in poor neighborhoods may also be pressured to work or to care for younger siblings after school. This makes it less likely that poor children will participate in after school sports programs. Furthermore, due to the demands of the No Child Left Behind Act, many schools have slashed recess and elective courses (such as gym class) in order to accommodate for extra test preparation.

School Lunches.

School lunches across the country are notoriously unhealthy. A recent Chicago Tribune article revealed that nachos submerged in a puddle of cheese are regularly served for lunch in Chicago Public Schools. Since that article’s publication CPS pledged to make their menu healthier by using whole wheat tortilla chips. (I’m sorry but whole wheat or not any meal drowned in fake cheese does not qualify as nutritious).

While most middle class children have the option of packing a healthier lunch from home, the majorities of poor children qualify for free or reduced price lunch and breakfast. Poor parents cannot afford to buy breakfast and lunch for their children—so poor children have no choice but to eat the high fat, low-nutrient meals at school. Is it any wonder that poor children suffer disproportionately from diabetes?

Grocery Deserts.

There are no grocery stores in the vast majority of inner-city neighborhoods. This means families who do not own cars will most likely be forced to buy their food at gas stations or fast food establishments. This means that many poor families are subsisting almost entirely on highly processed packaged foods with little nutritional value.


Between the French fries and pizza served at school and the packaged foods that stock the shelves at gas stations—most inner city children are likely to go through the day without ever consuming a fruit or vegetable item. As I consider the realities  discussed above, the issue of poor nutrition among America’s low-income children strikes me not only as a serious public health concern but also as a human rights issue.

It is proven fact that poor diet and the lack of exercise can lead to obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer. If this is true—shouldn’t all citizens have access to healthy foods and safe places to exercise? It seems to me that all Americans should have the right to practice good health. For poor, inner-city residents this choice is non-existent.

Currently many preventative health care programs in schools focus on educating students about the value of exercise and eating healthy. Such educational programs are valuable, but only when children have access healthy foods and safe places to play, walk, or ride bicycles. As long as structural inequalities that deny poor children the option of choosing healthy foods persist, preventative health care education will never accomplish much change.

Our government pumps billions of dollars into expensive medical procedures to treat obesity related diseases and has invested billions in medical research to discover more effective treatments. Why not invest more money in preventative care? There are a few steps I believe our government could take to greatly reduce the prevalence of obesity related diseases among our nation’s poor.

  • Give subsidies and other monetary incentives to low-income families in order that they can afford to buy produce and other healthy food items.
  • Invest money in improving school lunches
  • Provide incentives for grocery stores to move into low-income neighborhoods
  • Make parks and other public spaces safer places for children to play
  • More funding urban gardening programs and non-profit organizations (such as Girls on the Run) that bring exercise programming to schools
  • Mount an intensive public health campaign against the food served at fast food chains (similar to public health campaigns waged against smoking)

I am convinced that leading a healthy lifestyle is as important as access to good doctors and high quality medical care. If our government undertook some of the simple and relatively cheap suggestions above  (compare the cost of a heart transplant to the yearly cost of a healthier school lunch for one pupil)I believe we could radically improve the health outcomes of  many children. The real question is whether our nation will ever decide with sincerity that the health and well-being of poor, minority children matters.

I Care Movement Hosts Peace Walk Saturday, October 2nd

In 2009, 213 people under the age of 25 were murdered in Chicago. The vast majority of these victims were young, African-American males. I have to imagine that if a violent outbreak of similar magnitude occurred among white, middle-class children it would elicit national hysteria and become the subject of endless media coverage (just look back to the Columbine shootings a few years ago).

While the gruesome death of Fenger High School student Derrion Albert garnered the attention of the New York Times this fall, Chicago’s violence problem has hardly been given the consideration it deserves. Just think—in 2008 314 soldiers were slain in Iraq, while 509 people were murdered in Chicago.

It is no exaggeration to describe Chicago’s South and West Sides as war-zones. These are places where innocent and healthy children live with the very real possibility of death each day.

As a teacher in West Englewood I often witnessed the ways in which gun violence impacted the safety and emotional well being of my students. To share just a few examples:

  • During one staff meeting a school social worker shared with me that one of her students was experiencing trauma after a stray bullet pierced his thigh during the walk home from school.
  • Two of my own students entered my classroom with bandages covering bullet wounds on their arms.
  • Another student of mine disappeared from school after a gang fight sent him into a coma and left him with debilitating brain injuries.
  • One afternoon my lesson was interrupted by a volley of gunshots outside our window.
  • During the first six weeks of school last year– three students were murdered at the school where I taught.

When an inspirational speaker visited our school during “Peace Day”—he asked the student audience how many of them knew someone who had died from gun violence. Slowly, students began to lift their arms. After a few moments there was a sea of raised hands—too many to count.

Community violence not only imperils the safety of young people. It also fills their lives with grief, fear and uncertainty. Children living in a toxic environment are more likely to have difficulty concentrating on school work, pursing goals and planning for their future. Exposure to violence can also cause stress, anxiety and more serious mood disorders. Furthermore, community violence depletes the energy and optimism of community leaders, teachers, social workers and other professionals who serve inner-city children.

I’m sharing my thoughts on this topic today because on Saturday, October 2nd, the ‘I Care Movement”  ( will be hosting a 5K “Peace Walk” to raise money for anti-violence programming. (In order to register to participate or learn more follow the link above). I believe this event is a great opportunity for concerned Chicagoans to generate awareness around the youth violence epidemic. It is an outrage that poor children in the world’s wealthiest nation experience higher mortality rates than children living in some of the world’s poorest, and most turbulent nations. If this issue moves you, then please consider walking, volunteering, or making a donation to the I Care Movement  Peace Walk.