Planning for Food Health?
Russell Degnan

There have been a couple of interesting articles in the Age in the last few days. On first reading, both this comparison of Vancouver and Melbourne transport planning, and this discussion on the role of planning in healthy eating are interesting demonstrations of the broader role of planning in shaping the city.

On a second reading they are tendentious nonsense. A cobbling together of correlations without an underlying causal mechanism. A probable misrepresentation of plausible academic research. And a series of barrows being shouldered forward by the weight of a prejudical shoulder carrying a chip on it.

I will return to the Vancouver article at a later date; it is broadly correct, if politically and culturally naive, and deserves a proper treatment. The article on health deserves no such praise.

In essence, it tries to claim that planning is responsible for the unhealthy eating of residents in outer suburbs. For a number of reasons this is a very large claim to make. Let's break them down one by one:

"experts are concerned many families who don't have cars have difficulty getting to their local supermarket to buy fruit and vegetables because public transport is poor."

A total non sequitur. Getting transport to the supermarket can be very problematic. Getting money to buy fruit and vegetables can be probematic. However, people need to eat something. A claim that they are eating takeaway instead of going to the supermarket because of accessibility needs to show that takeaway food is vastly more accessible than a supermarket. I highly doubt that is the case. Local pizza, fish and chip shops and milk bars can be closer, when they still exist, but are still largely inaccessible without a car.

"on average, there is one fast-food shop in the highest-income areas, compared with three or four in low and middle-income areas."

No doubt true, but again, a non sequitur. As I just noted, the supermarket is no more inaccessible than take-away outlets. People eating takeaway food do it for different reasons: time, culture, or choice (even if the choice is poor, one should not be surprised if people are stupid). There are probably many more than three times as many restaurants in high income areas, many of which would serve rich and fattening food. The difference in type is one of income and again, the culture of an inner urban region.

"up to 50,000 Victorians go without food at least once a month and once a year the dinner plate is empty for about 1 in 20 adult Victorians, simply because they cannot afford it."

And then a complete change of tack. How this relates to obesity in poor areas is beyond me. I can only assume people without food are not obese, and if they are, then the issue is budgeting, not food accessibility. The reasoning however, leads the author to this:

"Calorie for calorie, foods that are high in energy and low in nutrients are much cheaper.

The bottom line is, if you have a minimum amount of money and kids to feed, you are going to buy a packet of biscuits for $1.50, you aren't going to buy a kilo of apples for $4."

Since when has a $1.50 packet of biscuits had a comparable caloric level to a kilogram of apples? Even at their cheapest, $4 of biscuits is only 500g. Furthermore, take-away food -- a few paragraphs earlier the cause of health problems -- is more expensive than fruit and vegetables. As any student can tell you, the cheapest food is rice, dried pasta, potatoes, tomatoes and basic greens. You can even grow some of them [1], thus saving those transport hassles.

The reality is people could buy better food, and they don't. It may be ignorance or it may be for much the same reasons that Orwell cited in The Road to Wigan Pier:

"Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread or if they even, like the writer of the letter to the New Statesman, saved on fuel and ate their carrots raw? Yes, it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn't. Here the tendency of which I spoke at the end of the last chapter comes into play. When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don't want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit 'tasty'. There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you. Let's have three pennorth of chips! Run out and buy us a twopenny ice-cream! Put the kettle on and we'll all have a nice cup of tea! That is how your mind works when you are at the P.A.C. level. White bread-and-marg and sugared tea don't nourish you to any extent, but they are nicer (at least most people think so) than brown bread-and-dripping and cold water. Unemployment is an endless misery that has got to be constantly palliated, and especially with tea, the English-man's opium. A cup of tea or even an aspirin is much better as a temporary stimulant than a crust of brown bread."

Conditions aren't so bad in Melbourne as that, except for the unlucky few. But the attitude remains the same. A fair number of people -- particularly young people -- eat unhealthily because eating unhealthily tastes better.

None of this has anything to do with planning. Outer suburbs can be bad for health: by dint of being practically unwalkable and unrideable, despite the relative proximity [2] of many services, and because basic and regular exercise is the first and best way to avoid health issues. But not because there is some bizarre lack of decent food in the suburban hinterland. To the extent that there is, it is because the residents don't eat it, and won't eat it. There isn't much a planner can do about that.

[1] I had spinach from the garden tonight. I am terrible proud. It cost a dollar for seeds and takes up about 0.5sq.m.
[2] Proximate despite what people claim, most of whom obviously don't realise how short a distance 2km (the average car trip) is, nor how refreshing a walk it can be in the right circumstances

Sterner Matters 12th September, 2006 04:40:52   [#] 


Planning for Food Health?
I had the same reaction to this - but then, I'm finding myself increasingly having this kind of reaction to a whole range of things. Doing the Methods class really kills my ability to read the newspaper with any semblance of pleasure... Either that, or I'm just getting old...

There is a rational core to this argument in some US cities, where, for historical reasons, some inner urban areas are actually served only by the equivalent of milk bars (or bottle shops...), and where it can take a reasonable amount of collective organisation to put together a trip to a supermarket.

In Chicago, for example, there is (or was, when I was still living there - I'm unfortunately no longer current on the city) a kind of inner urban wasteland between the city centre and the university. When the city was still legally segregated, this area was mixed income by necessity. One unintended consequence of desegregation was the flight of more prosperous families to other neighbourhoods, leaving behind a selectively disadvantaged population, which was then further hurt by the collapse of the inner urban manufacturing sector. Combine this with a city administration that, for decades, neglected the area, and with more recent pressures for basic infrastructure like public transport to be cost-effective, and you get a quite desolate urban space with no access to public transport and - I mean this quite literally - no local shopping other than convenience stores.

Some families in these circumstances will always be able to band together - organising collective shopping trips, etc. But this requires a level of self-organisation and initiative that's simply not required if, for example, you live a bit further south, near the university neighbourhood of Hyde Park.

Local NIMBYism can exacerbate the issue: some years back, for example, the university itself opposed the opening of a supermarket in the disadvantaged area adjacent to Hyde Park, because the university was persuaded that this could hurt the finanical interests of a food co-op currently serving the university neighbourhood... Co-ops have authenticity and all that, you know... ;-P

There was a very interesting private initiative mediated by some local churches, who were banding together, buying some of the remaining housing stock (what the city hadn't bulldozed in its ongoing effort to prevent squatters - and snipers - from taking over abandoned housing), and trying to lure middle class families back into the area, with the hope of making a financial base that would attract proper businesses back into the area. I haven't followed this initiative in some time, but it was an interesting process of private urban reclamation while I was there...

At any rate: I sometimes wonder, when I see stories like this, if people simply assume that because a line of argument might have some genuine plausibility for some places in the US, it therefore necessarily has some kind of broad applicability... By "people", I don't mean the person who wrote the news article, who, given what else they seem not to be thinking about, is probably also not thinking that there is a somewhat more justified discussion about this issue in some parts of the US...

But academics from outside the US, to me, sometimes seem to seize on a research concept picked up from the US, without an appreciation of how very bizarre the history of some US cities is, and therefore without asking whether, given that distinctive history, it's plausible that similar situations would hold in other places... Or, to put the same thing a different way: if we believe that a similar situation does hold in other places, we should probably direct our search for causes toward factors that many different regions might plausibly share...
N. Pepperell  12th September, 2006 11:20:16  

Planning for Food Health?
N Pepperell, very interesting to hear about things in the US.

Public transport in Melbourne is only ever given lip service. A new freeway temporarily relieves congestion and makes for a happy voter.

While I don't say my diet is fantastic, I despair at the local supermarket when queued behind a customer who is obviously from the local housing commission high rise. Chocolates, crisps, lots of fizzy drinks and packaged food. I suppose they may go to the green grocer to buy their fruit and vegetables, but I doubt it. I think Orwell had it pretty right.
Andrew  12th September, 2006 23:05:34  

Planning for Food Health?
I think this rehash of the inner suburbs vs the rest argument has a lot to do with the 'means of production', or in this case distribution.

In this structure of esteem, fresh markets are top-ranked, with independent fruiterers coming second. At the bottom are the supermarkets and the multinational fast-food chains.

The outer suburbs do have more chain fast food places and the inner suburbs more swank restaurants. And as you say the latter are considered healthier (see next para for a possible reason).

One aspect of the geography of food that fascinates me is portion sizes. The inner suburbs really seem to be heavily into 'portion control'. (Or maybe it's just to pay the rent!)

The further out you go from the CBD, I find the larger the servings you get. And not only eating places but also pastries from bakeries, too. A big apple strudel costs $1.50 from a bakery in Carrum, whereas you'd be paying two or three times that in an inner-suburb bakery.

As for greengrocers, these aren't evenly spread.

For instance a mining town like Kalgoorlie/Boulder (pop 30 000) has none. 100% of fresh fruit & vegies there comes from either Coles or Woolworths. Geraldton (pop 30 000) is only slightly better off, with one greengrocer (plus three major supermarkets).

Kalgoorlie has higher average incomes (but a time-poorer population) than Geraldton so the 'eat out' scene in the former is much better.

Whereas inner suburbs of Melbourne might have supermarkets but they're smaller and there's lots of independent fruiterers as well. So a house in an inner suburb might be 15 minutes walk from two or three independents and a supermarket, whereas the same house in an outer suburb might be about 20 min walk from a large supermarket, which is their sole vegetable outlet.

And fresh food needs fresh air - it doesn't always work well in big shopping centres (as the stench of Box Hill and Oakleigh Shopping Centres proves).

So it does seem that good food is further from people in outer areas and they have fewer (but larger) outlets. But it is still accessible in most suburban areas, though less so in (say) remote country communities.

Peter  13th September, 2006 22:08:58  

Planning for Food Health?
thanks Nicole, urban decline make sense as a situation where this is an issue, partly because (as Glaeser showed) population decline is slow, so you can lose all your services/businesses and still have a residential population. Of course, we've never had any urban decline to speak of in Melbourne, and with centralised state-run services, public transport tends towards bad, rather than non-existent... as you say, different.

I wouldn't be surprised if many academics here didn't realise how different US cities are. They are portrayed in the media as a downtown surrounded by suburbs much like Australian cities are. I found the US quite a culture shock when I visited. It is easy enough to miss that the governance structures, racial history, and marked inequalities that make US cities unique also make the paper that supports your research thesis irrelevant.

Peter, you are right, there are degrees of difference between the inner and outer suburbs. Outer suburban supermarkets are generally cheaper, as are fresh food markets in the inner suburbs. Economics would suggest that people will therefore buy more processed food vs. fresh food (or the supermarket equivalent) and eat more take-away food vs. pub/restaurant food in the outer suburbs. As we have both said, fresh food is still accessible. I would be very surprised if (everything else being equal) the relatively small differences in cost produced a substantial and measurable effect on people's health.
Russ  13th September, 2006 23:59:36