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Long Live Some of Us

Long Live Some of Us

Life expectancy in Cook County is a function of geography; access to grocery stores

By Terri Yablonsky Stat

The health and longevity of Cook County residents varies dramatically, based on where they live, according to a report by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies and Cook County Place Matters.

The study titled, Place Matters for Health in Cook County: Ensuring Opportunities for Good Health for All found that a life-expectancy gap of 18 years separates populations, depending on neighborhood conditions, the quality of public schools, housing conditions, access to medical care and healthy foods, levels of violence, availability of exercise options and exposure to environmental degradation.

The study also determined that racial and financial segregation plays a role in the health inequities, ultimately resulting in shorter life spans for people in the poorer and more segregated neighborhoods. Additionally, the study says that there is inadequate access to healthy foods in the Chicago metropolitan area as a whole.

All of these social determinants of health cluster in geographical areas, so in addition to access to food, other factors to consider include access to public transportation, good jobs, working conditions, and pay and career advancement, the study reports.

“We’re interested in raising awareness that medical care is not enough,” says Jim Bloyd of the Cook County Department of Public Health and team leader with Cook County Place Matters, which is part of a national initiative to address health inequities. “Also, focusing on personal lifestyle alone is deceptive and will not address the large gaps in life expectancy,” he says.

“We also want to build power among low-income communities of color and neighborhoods where people live shorter lives, so people can have a voice about things that affect their health,” Bloyd says. “We want to get the word out, so folks in neighborhoods can have a voice in finding solutions to hunger and poor nutrition through a policy agenda ranging from local to federal levels.”

An important aspect of inequity results from racial residential segregation, says Bloyd. Poor white kids are likely to live in neighborhoods with low poverty levels, but poor black children tend to live in neighborhoods with high poverty. These stratifications by race ultimately predict geographic disparity. “It’s going to take time to see change,” he says. “These things didn’t happen overnight, but they are reversible, and we are perfectly able to turn them around.”

This isn’t just an issue for people in poverty and in poor neighborhoods; [it’s] for the middle class, too. “There’s a social gradient to health and longevity,” says Bloyd. “Middle-income communities have a lot to gain by reaching their full potential for health and longevity.”

The report makes several recommendations to address the gap including implementing a public financing program to provide seed money to stimulate healthy-food retail in neighborhoods with less access to healthier foods. “We want to make sure there’s enough funding for promoting neighborhood grocery stores and healthy-food stores in communities around Chicago,” says Bloyd.

Jesus (“Chuy”) Garcia, 7th District Cook County Commissioner, is working on the issue of fair housing. In suburban Cook County it’s perfectly legal to discriminate against people with a Section 8 housing voucher. This means that low-income families with a legitimate housing voucher who want to move to another—maybe more-affluent— community, can be denied. This is not the case, however, within Chicago city limits.

“It [should be] a matter of equal opportunity, not special treatment,” says Bloyd.

There are also efforts to increase the minimum wage for workers with low-income jobs in the restaurant industry. The Restaurant Opportunity Center in Chicago focuses on benefits, job safety and career advancement.

“These factors are really important so that those in the restaurant industry have enough money to feed their families,” Bloyd says. “Many who work in the food-service industry sometimes don’t earn enough to put food on the table for their [families].

“Healthy food costs more. Fresh fruits and vegetables cost more than high-sugar foods. That goes to the need to address federal policy through the farm bill. We need to make it so that folks can have enough money to purchase nutrient-dense foods and high-energy foods.”

Having quality grocery stores in the neighborhood is important, but it’s not enough to close the gap, Bloyd says. “We need jobs that pay enough money so that people can afford to feed themselves and their families. It’s really about lifestyle.”

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