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Race and Place Do Matter: Economic Hardship, Obesity, and Equal Justice

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county obesity map fig 1.jpg

Child obesity is intolerably high even for children in the best neighborhoods, but children of color suffer first and worst. In Los Angeles County, children who are of color and low income disproportionately live in the areas with the highest levels of obesity and the worst access to parks and schools fields. It is vital to address race, color, and national origin in any analyses of disparities in health and green access.

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health published an otherwise excellent 2007 report analyzing obesity and green access compared to economic hardship -- but the report did not consider race, color or national origin.

The county mapped the prevalence of childhood obesity (see image above) for 128 cities and communities in L.A. County, with obesity rates varying widely from a low of 4% in Manhattan Beach to a high of 40.9% in Irwindale. The percentage of overweight and obese children tended to be higher in communities that provide fewer acres of parks, recreational areas, or wilderness areas. The report found a correlation between obesity and economic hardship. Cities or communities with a high economic burden -- measured as higher poverty, unemployment, median income, lower educational attainment, more dependents, crowded housing -- also had higher percentages of overweight and obese children.

We reanalyzed the data to include race, color and national origin, along with obesity and green access, as shown in the map below.

Map EH2 (click to enlarge). This map analyzes multiple variables: economic hardship, obesity, people of color, and park access.

The following are the results of this analysis.

1. The cities and communities of Los Angeles County that have the worst economic hardship index (4th quartile) are all above the county average for childhood obesity. See Table EH1 below, columns 2 and 4.

2. The cities and communities of Los Angeles County that have the worst economic hardship index are all way below the county average for park access. See Table EH1, columns 2 and 8.

3. The cities and communities of Los Angeles County that have the worst economic hardship index, and are below the county average for park access, are disproportionally of color as compared to the county average. See Table EH1, columns 2, 8, and 6.

4. Cities and communities of Los Angeles County that do the best on the hardship index (1st quartile) are disproportionately non-Hispanic white, with childhood obesity below the county average. The only exceptions are the following cities or communities that are disproportionately of color: View Park-Windsor Hills and Ladera Heights in the Baldwin Hills area, which is the historic heart of middle and upper class African American Los Angeles. View Park-Windsor Hills is above the county average for childhood obesity. Diamond Bar, Walnut, and Cerritos are disproportionately Asian, and Asians tend to have lower obesity rates than non-Hispanic whites. See Table EH1, columns 2, 4, and 6.

Implications for Addressing Park and Health Disparities

1. Ensure compliance with equal protection laws and principles that provide for equal access to public resources including parks and recreation. Equal protection laws generally protect against unfair disparities in access to public resources, including parks and recreation, based on race, color, and national origin. These laws include Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its regulations, and California Government Code section 11135 and its regulations. Equal protection laws generally do not protect against disparities based on income. The disparities in green access and health are not an accident of unplanned growth or an efficient free market in land that reflects personal utilities; the disparities are the legacy of a continuing history and pattern of racially restrictive housing covenants, discriminatory mortgage subsidies, and discrimination in education, employment, and other economic policies throughout much of the twentieth century and beyond.

2. Prioritize green space projects based on need in communities that are park poor, income poor, and of color. The California legislative and administrative criteria for investing park funds in park poor (less than three acres of parks per thousand residents) and income poor communities (below $47,331 median household income) are a best practice example for prioritizing investments in parks and green space, for measuring progress, and for holding public officials accountable.

3. Prioritize projects that address public health criteria including physical, psychological, and social health needs. Applying public health criteria to infrastructure investments could improve health and quality of life for all. Green space in parks and schools; complete streets that are walkable and bikeable; and safe routes to schools can provide opportunities for physical activity to reduce obesity, improve academics, bring people together, and provide positive alternatives to gangs, crime and violence. Multi-use public spaces make optimal use of scarce land, money, and public resources, and expand open space opportunities in densely developed communities.

4. Support joint use of parks, pools, and schools, and physical education in schools. The joint use of parks, schools, and pools, and other multi-benefit green spaces can clean the air and water, provide flood control, promote climate justice, and convert toxic sites and brownfields to green fields. Physical education provides physical activity, but half the school districts audited in California did not comply with physical education requirements from 2005 through 2009. Physical education is a right. Parents and students can seek access to justice through the courts to ensure schools comply with physical education requirements.

5. Voters endorse public policies aimed at combating obesity within their communities. Exit polls and other surveys demonstrate that diverse voters support creating more opportunities for residents to be physically active. This includes providing more funds to create park space, improve school athletic fields, physical education facilities, and playgrounds, and keeping such facilities open after school and on weekends. Voters also endorse policies that encourage more healthy eating. Public officials must listen to the will of the people.

Table EH1 (click to enlarge). Childhood obesity, economic hardship, people of color, and park acrage by city and community, Los Angeles County

Table EH2 provides the same information sorted in alphabetical order by community.

Thank you to Amanda Recinos of GreenInfo Network for her insights, interpretation, and cartographic gifts.

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