KAKE NEWS INVESTIGATES: The link between segregation and obesity

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WICHITA, Kan. (KAKE) -

"You have to look at the bigger picture.  And unless you address the inequalities of it, you're going to continue to have a problem such as obesity," said Dr. Yelando Johnson, Director of Newman University's Social Work program. 

Inequalities that date back to the segregation era are having an impact on the ever-expanding waistlines of Wichitans.  

The State of Kansas and the entire nation are marshaling their forces to fight the Battle of the Bulge at an ever-increasing cost to you.  Nationwide, Americans pay an estimated $147 to $200 billion a year in medical bills and lost production due to absenteeism caused by obesity.  

KAKE On Your Side took a look at the patterns of obesity here in Kansas and found a direct correlation between obesity rates and Wichita's history as one of the most segregated cities in the country.  All it takes is a look at a handful of maps to see the effect.

The question we had, though, was segregation really part of the cause of so many obesity related health problems here in Wichita?  Let's be clear, this is not a Black vs White story.  This is a historical poverty issue.

THE HISTORY

"We really can't leave out the history," said Dr. Natalie Grant, Field Education Director at Newman University's Social Work program.

The home of the first sit-in to desegregate a business, Wichita was highly segregated both geographically and economically.  According to a 1977 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report on segregation in Wichita, by 1900 six percent of the city's residents, about 6,000 people, were active members of the KKK.   African Americans and Hispanics, all but banned from high paying jobs by discrimination and lack of educational opportunities, earned, on average, about two-thirds what white Wichitans brought home.

"Poverty robs people of their lives and it's not that they choose to be in poverty," said Dr. Johnson.

The federal government helped make sure it stayed that way.  New Deal era maps showing areas the federal government thought were good and bad home loan options show a large swath of central Wichita outlined in red.  The accompanying explanations say the residents were too poor and and the homes too full of African Americans, or the area bordered African American neighborhoods.  They were labeled a bad bet for banks, an action sometimes referred to as red-lining for the distinctive color coding on the map.

Under the New Deal FHA  program only 2% of home loans went to minority families, even though they made up more than 12% of the city's population.  The 1977 report also called out real estate agents for refusing to sell, or even show, homes in better neighborhoods to minorities.  

That meant most of the homes available to African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, and Asians in Wichita remained over-priced rentals, often poorly maintained by absentee landlords who knew their tenants couldn't find better housing elsewhere even as the minority population boomed.  This kept the neighborhoods from improving.  

"There remains some misinformation about who occupies the northeast community these days," said Dr. Grant.  "It's a very multicultural environment.  It is not (just) an African American community anymore."

MAPPING IT OUT

You can still see the legacy of that segregation in those neighborhoods, today, by looking at maps like these.

This is the old redlining map.  

This is a map showing the current racial breakdown in Wichita, with minorities, the oranges, greens, and reds, still squeezed mainly into those same neighborhoods.

If we look at income levels, the lowest incomes are also in the same parts of town.

What does all this have to do with obesity?  If we look at health outcomes generally attributed to obesity, like arthritis, diabetes, high cholesterol, and heart disease, they're all in the same neighborhoods.

THE COST OF POVERTY

Those neighborhoods are desperately short of grocery stores, 44 square miles of food desert, right in the middle of the city.  There use to be one grocery store at 13th and Oliver, but now it's an empty lot. 

"I mean, I thought it was booming," said Dr. Johnson.  "Next thing you know they closed it down and what's there now?"

Residents left to shop at nearby convenience stores.  Stores that may be convenient, but also more expensive.

"Soda is cheaper than water," said Dr. Grant.

And then there are the fast food restaurants lining the major roads through those neighborhoods.

"And when you're looking at how to feed your family, then McDonald's or fast food is going to get those tummies full," said Adrienne Byrne, Director of the Sedgwick County Health Department.

Byrne and Doctors Johnson and Grant all say they've seen the health consequences of fewer, more expensive food options in Wichita communities.  At the top of the list. is obesity.

According to the State of Obesity's most recent data, 32.4% of Kansans are clinically obese.  But, 36.8% of Latinos and 41.2% of African Americans fit that definition.  The biggest differences among these three groups is the poverty and history of where they  live.

"In the lower income areas the obesity rate is approximately 1.6 times greater than in those areas with moderate and higher income," said Byrne of obesity in Sedgwick County.

MAKING CHANGES

Byrne  is working to change those statistics.  But it's not easy when economics work against her.

Poverty plays into the lack of profits that chase away full sized grocery stores.  The resulting lack of competition allows convenience stores to hike their prices and leaves residents with some tough choices. 

"These convenience stores may have two options of fruits and vegetables.  Or, it's like 9% carry vegetables, 40 some percent carry fruits, maybe two," Byrne said.  "Even if I do have access to some fruits and vegetables, if I'm looking at my budget and know that if I spend it on fruits and vegetables, I won't be able to pay my electric bill?  I'm going to pay my electric bill."

"It's pretty clear that it's expensive to be poor and you can't afford the things that are healthy," said Wichita City Councilman Brandon Johnson.  "And people look down on folks for that."

Johnson grew up in the neighborhoods we've been talking about.  He now represents them on the Wichita City Council, after years of activism designed to help his childhood neighbors get healthier options.  That includes the community gardens he's helped spearhead through his organization CORE - Community Operations Recovery Empowerment, Inc.  He knows just how hard it is to get fresh, healthy food.  With this garden, residents learn how to grow their own.  Once ripe, the vegetables grown here are available to anyone who needs them.

"Now, you can get some meat, some eggs and some milk at some of the dollar type stores," Johnson said.  "But that's not fresh produce.  That's not healthy eating.  Often times it's sugary drinks, chips, and cakes and things like that that might taste good, but they're not good for you."

Val Jean just moved in across the street from the CORE gardens.  He's looking forward to picking fresh vegetables next summer, but for now he walks to the nearest store, more than a mile away.

"Every other day, probably," he said.  

He remembers it wasn't always that way in this neighborhood.

"Back in the days we had Safeways, Carvilles.... It was a lot easier to get the food that you need instead of having to go clear across town to somewhere else," he said.  Thinking some more, he adds a wish for the future.  "Bring back the WalMart.!"

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