More than a year ago, we received a grant from the National Geographic Foundation to help high school students study the “geographical causes of obesity.” There is an obesity epidemic that’s costing lives and that’s especially concentrated among adolescents of color; and our students at Northwestern High School were concerned about it. Our idea was to look for causes in the local landscape–in addition to more familiar factors like corporate advertising. This focus seemed promising for two reasons. First, young people might be able to do something about local land-use (and learn political skills in the process), whereas fast-food advertising campaigns are fairly intractable. Second, the literature suggests that local factors do matter. Having connected and well-lit sidewalks encourages walking. Having affordable, convenient sources of fresh produce encourages healthier eating; and so on. We happen to work in an area that is consistently low- to moderate-income, but the development pattern differs dramatically from block to block. Some places are suburban subdivisions; others look like part of a traditional city. So we hoped to explain the variation in food consumption and exercise patterns as a function of street layouts and other land-use patterns. And we hoped to do that as youth-led research, with high school students in charge.
This was too hard. The students did collect some data, but it was very equivocal, incomplete, and imperfect. Therefore, after several changes of course, we focused on a different intersection between geography and nutrition. Northwestern High School has a very large immigrant population, along with African American students who have typically migrated to Maryland from the South via DC. We thought we would investigate the way that food and exercise changed as families moved here from far away.
After many months of work, our student team has created a flash movie to capture their main findings. (They left much information on the cutting-room floor, but culled some highlights for a short video.) Their product is exciting for me, because I was present when all the audio and other data were collected, but I had nothing to do with creating the movie itself. I see some mistakes that need to be corrected sooner or later, but overall, I like it a lot.