Obesity, Green Space and Social Justice


The Los Angeles Times recently ran a feature article on the topic of child obesity in two cities in southern California [December 28, 2011]. In the coastal town of Manhattan Beach, only 4.7% of its children were obese. Fifteen miles inland, in the town of Walnut Park, 37.0% of its children were obese. Why the difference between the two cities?

One big difference is in the ethnic composition of the children. In Manhattan Beach, the healthy city, there are very few Latinos: in fact, only 7.6% of the residents are Latino. By contrast, the population in Walnut Park is almost entirely Latino: 95.6%. So why are Latinos more likely to be obese than non-Latinos?

Some analysts immediately leap to a conclusion: Latino parents must not be doing a good job of managing their children’s weight. Certainly, part of parental responsibility is to ensure children are on the road to wellness. But parents are not alone in managing child obesity. Latino children supply their own answer to the obesity epidemic: they love to run, jump and play. Whether playing tag, engaging in “la víbora de la mar” or kicking a soccer ball, young Latino children seem to be constantly on the move. Parents usually want to see their children actively moving. So why the obesity epidemic?

As Cantinflas would have said, “Allí está el detalle!” [But here’s the catch.] Do these children have access to properly maintained green space to burn off their stored-up energy?

The communities that these families call home have an important role to play. A local community can provide and maintain green space for children to exercise on as part of its own obesity prevention program. And this is where the Los Angeles Times pointed out a very important “detalle.” Far more important than the ethnicity of the children, it is clear that access to---or lack of access to---properly maintained green space is what shapes or limits a community’s ability to help children control their obesity.

Children in affluent Manhattan Beach, and similar largely non-Hispanic white areas of Los Angeles County, enjoy the full support of their community: Each child has, on average, access to 8,402 square feet of green space. This is the equivalent of ten Los Angeles county minimum sized building lots (800 square feet), a tremendous amount of space for a child to run and play. However children in other communities like Walnut Park , with a population that is largely Latino, have access to much less green space – in fact, only 69 square feet, which is less than one-tenth of a minimum size building lot or about the size of a clothes closet in the more affluent areas.

As a result, children in largely non-Hispanic white areas of the county have 100 times the green space available to burn off calories compared to children in a largely Latino areas. Then, we wonder: Why are Latino children more obese than non-Hispanic white children? The disparity in properly maintained green space plays a central role in the child obesity problem. Thankfully, this disparity has a solution – it can be solved by communities and the business community acting together in public-private partnerships to create and maintain green space using the best practices and products available. It is also important to note that planting green space this year, but then not properly maintaining it, means (for all practical purposes) that it won’t be there the next year. We must work to make sure that those who create and care for green space do so in a manner that works.

The good news is that our community has the training and know-how to accomplish this task. In fact, in many parts of the country, the creation and maintenance of green space provides an additional benefit – the creation of entrepreneurial opportunity and jobs for the Latinos who largely are largely responsible for maintaining America’s green space. In California, Florida and Texas, Latinos constitute the vast majority of green space industry workers and, according to a 2011 report by the Inter-University Program for Latino Research conducted for the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, eighty percent of these workers are immigrants (http://iuplr.nd.edu/pubs/landscaping2011.pdf). The green space industry is one that the Latino community knows better than anyone else and we must make sure that the professionals in our community take a leading role in creating and maintaining the green space our children need.

Going forward, it’s critical to link these concepts. The green space disparity is an issue of social justice. It is also a major contributor to the Latino child obesity epidemic. A physician cannot simply prescribe “8,402 square feet of green space,” and green space is not for sale in a local pharmacy. Rather, elected officials, the business community and local communities must work together to ensure that green space is created and properly maintained.

Providing children in one community 1/100th of the green space that children in another community enjoy is a case of social injustice that also has significant long-term health consequences. By addressing the social injustice of the green space disparity, we are also creating an environment that will help support our children’s health.

David E. Hayes-Bautista, PhD. is a Professor of Medicine and the Director, Center for the Study of Latino health and Cultureat the David Geffen school of Medicine at UCLA.