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August 14, 2003

a class on geography & obesity

This is the latest plan for a grant proposal that would allow us to work with high school kids, doing research in the community and generating public products for the website that they have been building at www.princegeorges.org.

It is important for people to consume healthy food: products that are low-fat, high-fiber, varied, and cooked with fresh ingredients. It is also important for people to walk to work or to school and to complete routine errands such as food shopping on foot—if the local streets are safe. This is because regular activity plus healthy nutrition decreases the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes and may relieve depression and obesity.

Promoting healthy nutrition and walking is especially important today, since obesity is increasing at an alarming rate, above all among adolescents. Also, physical activity is lower among minorities and people with lower education levels and less income.

A standard approach is to educate people to live more active lifestyles, but such efforts tend to be disappointing. Changes in the environment are more promising. To find out what environmental factors influence whether people walk, consume healthy food, and (specifically) walk to purchase healthy food, we will first survey a large sample of students about their own nutrition and exercise within the preceding 24 hours. They will be asked exactly where they walked during that period (i.e., the addresses or names of the places they visited). The respondents’ home addresses will also be collected, along with some demographic information. This survey will allow us to estimate the distance that each student walked using GIS methods, without relying on their own approximations.

Under our direction, a smaller group of high school and college students will then collect data on the walkability of local streets; the danger of crime on those streets; and the availability, cultural characteristics, and price of healthy food in the community. To collect some of these data, students will walk around the neighborhood with Palm Pilots, filling in a field survey. The data that they collect will be layered onto a GIS map. The most useful parts of this map (for example, the locations of healthy food sources) will be made public on the website.

By combining these two sets of data—on student behaviors and home addresses; and on local physical features—we hope to develop a mathematical model that shows the relationships between active lifestyles and specific aspects of the local environment

We hypothesize that it is not only the proximity of healthy food sources that increases the chance that people will walk to these sources and consume healthy food. It also matters how safe the streets are between the person’s home and the store or restaurant; the price and cultural attractiveness of food at that establishment; the concentration of stores near the destination; and other variables that have never been studied together in projects of this kind.

Posted by peterlevine at August 14, 2003 12:20 PM

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