Efforts to bring a supermarket into an underserved St. Paul neighborhood shine a light on a often overlooked fact: where we live has a direct effect on how we eat, exercise and ultimately, how healthy we are.
At the corner of Maryland Avenue and Clarence Street, just south of Lake Phalen in St. Paul, there's a Cub Foods store. A year ago, there was no supermarket here. There was a bar, an express lube, and a car wash.
Back then, people in this neighborhood had to travel at least a mile to get to a supermarket. Now, the grocery store is filled with fresh fruits and vegetables, ethnic foods of all kinds, and lots of choices.
Chuck Repke, executive director of the North East Neighborhoods Development Corporation, says it's just what he pictured.
"You come in and you're immediately into the fresh produce, and that's what people in the community were looking for. So it's pretty nice."
Repke's non-profit group worked with neighbors for years to bring a store here. The development group helped buy the land for the supermarket. And the city of St. Paul paid for extra foundation work needed because the site was marshy.
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The store wouldn't be here without that help. Most full-service grocery stores locate in the suburbs, where land is cheap. About 26,000 people live in this neighborhood--many of them low-income, many without cars.
Families from different backgrounds are trolling the aisles. There are Asian immigrants here, Somali families, a large Hmong population in this neighborhood.
One customer, Bee Vang, lives a couple of blocks away.
"Before, there wasn't anything here, but now that they built this store it's closer to home, and when I need something I just run to the store," Vang says. "All the food and fruits and everything here is fresh."
Studies show poor people, and people of color, often live in neighborhoods without full-service grocery stores. One study in New Orleans found nearly twice as many fast-food restaurants in black neighborhoods as in white areas.
Fast food tends to be fatty and salty -- bad for health. But if no healthier options are around, people will eat poorly. African-Americans and Latinos are more likely to be obese than whites. In fact, people of color suffer a lot more from health problems than do whites.
And kids are especially vulnerable, according to Dr. David Wallinga, who runs the Food and Health Program at the non-profit Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis.
Children who have poor diets are more likely to become obese as adults, or to get cancer or heart problems. Wallinga says science has shown pregnant women with poor diets may be setting their unborn children up for developmental disabilities.
"The fetus for example is really quite vulnerable, when the brain is developing, when other organ systems are developing," says Wallinga. "That's when we need not only to reduce our exposure to pollution but also to have good access to good diets and healthy eating."
Exercise is another important part of health; sometimes it's hard to find appropriate places to exercise, but here in the Twin Cities we're lucky to have a lot of lakes. Just north of the Cub Food store is Lake Phalen. It's ringed with a walking and biking path; there's a beach for swimming, and a golf course nearby. The park provides a lot of good ways to get outdoor exercise here in the neighborhood.
Not every neighborhood is blessed with a lake. But parks and sidewalks encourage walking. And walking improves health. Planning cities with health in mind can make a difference.
"This does work but you've got to have a vision and a long view of the promotion of health in a community," says Dr. Richard Jackson, chair of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of California-Los Angeles.
Public health officials are starting to address the problems of obesity and lack of fitness at the neighborhood level. Jackson says in California and some other states, public health workers have been going to planning meetings to argue, for example, that schools should be put in neighborhoods so kids can walk or bike every day -- not on the edge of town where there happens to be a lot of land.
"In the beginning, the planning commissioners were saying, 'What are you doing here? You people are not planning experts,'" notes Jackson. "But over time, a lot of these are common-sense ideas. Everyone knows old people, young people ought to be able to go about their lives without being completely dependent on cars. Everybody knows that people ought to have access to healthy fresh fruits and vegetables and a diverse diet."
People are working on these issues in St. Paul. They're not counting on new grocery stores in every neighborhood; instead, one group is trying to make it easier to set up small farmers' markets in neighborhoods around the city. That would provide access to fresh fruits and vegetables during at least part of the year.
Other projects to improve environmental health are ongoing. Back in the Lake Phalen neighborhood, the Roosevelt Public Housing project and other housing units have been rehabbed -- which means no more exposure to lead paint, and cleaner indoor air.
Of course it costs money to re-hab an apartment building. But it can mean saving money if people don't need to go to the emergency room for an asthma attack.
Planners are learning that building with health in mind can bring other benefits: our cities could be cleaner with fewer cars, they could be cooler with more trees, cheaper to run with well-insulated buildings.
When it comes right down to it, a city is like a human being -- to be healthy, all its parts have to work together.