By Brooks Johnson

April 21, 2022

Queen Frye started questioning her local food landscape at a young age.

Growing up in north Minneapolis, she concluded the choices available were “conditioning us to eat a certain way, which is predisposing us to health risks.”

Looking at the dozen fast-food restaurants on West Broadway today, she still wonders: “Is that what we want because that’s how we eat, or do we eat it because it’s here and those are our options?”

Her question is now the focus of a University of Minnesota research project that seeks to “challenge the legacy of fast-food outlets in north Minneapolis.”

U professor and researcher Fernando Burga’s work will explore historical policies and planning documents to explain how and why the area has attracted so may fast-food outlets and so few other choices.

Whatever the causes, researchers say the result is a neighborhood that is less of a “food desert” lacking any choices and more of a “food swamp” with plenty of unhealthy food options.

“Research on food swamps is relatively new, but driving around north Minneapolis, the phrase makes intuitive sense, as there seems to be an abundance of cheap and convenient food sellers offering items loaded with empty calories,” according to a report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.

The negative health implications of concentrating fast food have been documented — food swamps are a clear predictor of higher obesity rates, said Kristen Cooksey Stowers, a professor at the University of Connecticut and a leading researcher on food environments.

“This is something we should think about, especially if we care about health inequities, health disparities,” she said. “Over time, our neighborhoods and built environments are designed for disease.”

This kind of environment is more often found in low-income areas with higher percentages of nonwhite residents. But Cooksey Stowers said she has found that “regardless of the level of income inequality, the food swamp effect persisted” — meaning that having an abundance of fast food in an area is, all by itself, a predictor of negative health outcomes.