September 11, 2019
How might we educate (and empower?) lower income parents to make healthy food purchases for their families?
My research group focused on researching the available food options in Northwest Arkansas based on urban planning and possible gentrification. We employed three research methods — literature reviews, stakeholder maps and fly-on-the-wall observation — in order to gain perspective into correlations between income level, health, food purchasing patterns, and city layouts.
To begin our research with the literature review, we searched for information targeted towards food insecurity in Northwest Arkansas. Along with statistics such as food insecurity rates, obesity rates, nutrition assistance programs, and income levels in Northwest Arkansas, we came across a study performed by the University of Arkansas. This study consisted of face-to-face interviews with 20 individuals who had faced food insecurity in the past, who were currently facing it, or were at risk for it. The study found that the majority of individuals didn’t recognize a lack of food as being the main issue. What stood out as one of the biggest challenges for them was finding access to a wide variety of fresh foods. Some of the participants who received food from food banks noted that although they were grateful for the meals provided for them, the assortment of food they received lacked variety and also contained many packaged items rather than fresh, nutritious options.
Another significant issue that stood out in the study was learning how to correctly define what “healthy” means. Some participants measured healthy food based on portion size, whereas others based it on the type of food. Another observation that was made was that unhealthy, processed foods usually lasted longer and satisfied hunger more than healthy foods. One of the last issues that arose from the data was the desire for the community element of food. These participants who were suffering from food insecurity or were on the cusp of it often felt isolated and embarrassed about their financial state. Rather than craving food, these individuals were craving relationships and connections with others in their communities. With our literature review and the data gathered from the study performed by the University of Arkansas, our team has been able to identify some of the leading challenges faced by victims of food insecurity. Along with the information gathered from the following research methods, we’ll continue to define and narrow our scope of research to solve problems relating to nutritious choices for these low-income families.
Our eating habits are a function of our location — both in terms of socio-economics and geography. Whether someone has access to nutritious food depends greatly on where they live. For people at lower income levels, this intersection creates an exceptional impact on diet. Wage-earners are more likely to work long or unusual hours and more likely to rely on public transit, severely limiting the options available to feed them and their families. In certain areas, working class families without reliable access to a car can be stuck choosing from what food options are affordable and within walking distance.
Working in reference to a map of household income, we chose a sample of addresses throughout Fayetteville and Springdale, Arkansas, and mapped out each residence’s closest restaurants and grocery stores. We found that low-income households are often close to restaurants, but those restaurants are generally unhealthy fast food establishments like McDonald’s and Taco Bell. Worse, many low-income residences are considerably farther from grocery stores, making it more difficult for working-class parents to buy ingredients and cook at home. This effect is compounded for people living west of Interstate 49, which cuts through Northwest Arkansas. While areas west of I49 have higher median incomes than the neighborhoods of particular concern to its east, people must travel farther — and more often than not cross the freeway — to get to a grocery store. Given that Northwest Arkansas’ small public transit system serves Springdale only sparsely, it’s likely that transportation is a particularly limiting factor for low-income families in need of nutritious food here.
Finally, we conducted our final research method: fly-on-the-wall observation. As students who are not responsible for any dependents, our perspectives are far-removed from the experiences we are trying to improve. Fly-on-the-wall observation allowed us to observe the real people that will be our users and understand their habits without making assumptions. We set out to observe the way that adults in Springdale, AR were interacting with fast-food restaurants and grocery stores. However, our observation revealed an unintentional assumption that we had made: that lower-income parents resorted to fast-food as a quick and affordable dinner solution. After rush-hour, when we expected tired and overworked parents to stop and grab fast-food meals, the parking lots and drive-thru lanes were virtually empty. Even the roads were unexpectedly vacant. Our grocery store observations, on the other hand, revealed interesting insight into shopping habits of Springdale residents. While it was difficult to identify patterns of customer aisle navigation, there was a connection between the common items seen in their carts: packed lunches. Chips, candy, packs of Gatorade, water bottles, and many packs of soda were common themes, and many shoppers had multiple kids throwing things into their carts as well. From this observation, we learned that packed lunches — especially school lunches — are a grocery priority, lunch choices tended to lean towards “junk food”, and kids are often actively involved in these grocery choices.
This post exists within a series of reflections on topics and coursework from my Human-Centered Design class, taught by Marty Maxwell Lane at the University of Arkansas.