Posted on February 13, 2019

The Link Between Segregation and Obesity

Pilar Pedraza, KAKE-TV, February 7, 2019


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


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


Making changes


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.


“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.”


[Editor’s Note: The original story contains maps of Wichita showing who lives where and the incidence of obesity.]