Your neighborhood could say a lot about your health.
People living on the South Side of Chicago are as much as 14 times more likely to have diabetes than residents near Wrigley Field. Fifty percent of the residents of Gary, Indiana, are living with high blood pressure compared to 25.9 percent of residents in Naperville. In Waukegan, the median obesity rate is 35.4 percent compared to 24.1 percent in Schaumburg.
That’s according to the 500 Cities Project, a joint effort of the U. S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. 500 Cities provides a close-up view of the health of 100 million Americans living in 27,000 neighborhoods in all 50 states, including hundreds of census tracts in Greater Chicago.
500 Cities assesses each neighborhood’s health by measuring unhealthy behaviors such as smoking, conditions like high blood pressure and preventive services like annual checkups.
According to medical experts, residents who live in areas without easily accessible fruits and vegetables tend to buy calorie-dense, nutrient-poor foods. Those high-salt and starchy foods can lead to obesity and high blood pressure.
“It’s not enough to just tell a patient to go eat healthy and exercise if the neighborhoods are not safe or they’re in a food desert,” said Dr. Monica Peek of the South Side Diabetes Project.
Sheila Clay said she is living with diabetes and needs to closely monitor what she eats. But she said it’s recently become more difficult to find affordable fresh produce in her South Side neighborhood since the departure of a major grocery store.
“I have to really manage and catch sales,” Clay said. “My life is sales.”
However, Clay is able to put food stamps toward purchasing fruits and vegetables from farmers markets and grocery stores that partner with the South Side Diabetes Project.
“What we are trying to do is have a large foot print here on the South Side of Chicago that helps people that are living, working, playing in this community to try and combat their chronic disease,” Peek said.
Peek said Chicago’s current health disparities were shaped by policies put in place years ago.
“We have to think about undoing those policies and reshaping communities if we really want to see improvements in health, as well as treating people proactively, preventatively and treating existing chronic conditions that they come to the hospital with in a way that’s fair, equitable and just,” Peek said.
According to Peek, community health improves when residents have access to better housing, better education and fair criminal justice.
The 500 Cities Project shows the country’s five least healthy cities are all in the Midwest: Flint and Detroit, Michigan, followed by Gary, Indiana and Youngstown and Cleveland, Ohio.
Chicago city leaders have recently attracted new grocery stores to areas considered food deserts. However, the city declined to provide answers when asked to provide examples of any policy changes that have taken place to address health disparities.