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by Allie Nicodemo
June 04, 2010
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The political economy of food

Experts estimate that the United States could feed more than 800 million people with the grain that is currently used to feed our livestock. With world hunger affecting about one billion people and claiming more than 25,000 lives per day, the idea that our nation’s farm animals are so well fed can be hard for some to stomach.

Cows, pigs and chickens aren’t the only ones getting fat. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that more than 30 percent of Americans are overweight or obese, and there is growing evidence to support a connection between meat consumption and the prevalence of obesity. Meanwhile, Sub-Saharan Africa is home to more than 265 million hungry people, and that number climbs to 642 million in Asia and the Pacific.

How could one country be fighting an obesity epidemic while another is struggling to feed its people? The imbalance of food distribution throughout the world is what inspired Jaron Reed to study the environmental and socioeconomic implications of the fast-food industry, which is the largest buyer of meat in the United States. Reed, an ASU honors student majoring in political science, said she initially wanted to focus on trends in global hunger after studying the work of David Pimentel, a professor emeritus at Cornell University. Pimentel is an ecologist who has long criticized the farming of grain-fed livestock as unsustainable and expensive compared to that of grass-fed livestock.

Reed used land-surveying software called GIS (Geographical Information System) and SPSS (Statistical Package for the Social Sciences) to determine where major fast-food outlets in the Phoenix area are located. She then examined the associations between prevalence of fast-food restaurants and the surrounding area’s population, using census tract data to measure variables such as income, race and the number of people living in a household. A method of locating geographic coordinates, called geocoding, allowed Reed to produce something similar to a Google map, with data points indicating the locations of fast-food restaurants and shading to distinguish differences in demographic variables.

“Income was the most descriptive variable within the model,” Reed says, explaining that there were far more fast-food outlets in low-income areas. There was also a significant difference in the placement of restaurants based on resident’s income levels. In higher-income neighborhoods, fast-food outlets were found primarily within strip malls and among clusters of other restaurants and retail stores. But in the lower-income areas, fast-food was found closer to the residential streets.

“It could provide an explanation for consumer behavior,” Reed says. Studies have shown that lower-income families often rely on convenient and inexpensive fast-food for the majority of their meals. Unfortunately, convenience comes with a price, and living off the Dollar Menu almost certainly makes for a diet high in sugar and saturated fat, which are known to increase the odds of a customer becoming obese or developing type 2 diabetes.

To make matters worse, “Phoenix has nationally high numbers of fast-food outlets,” says Reed. With more than 68 percent of Arizona’s population considered overweight or obese, Reed’s research could provide important insight as changes are made to get Americans on track toward a healthier lifestyle.

Reed’s adviser throughout the project was ASU professor Okechukwu Iheduru of the School of Politics and Global Studies. They met in the fall of 2008 while Reed was taking Iheduru’s class in international political economy, and worked together again during a study abroad project in Ireland that Iheduru supervised. Iheduru attributes Reed’s success in these courses to an innate curiosity about the politics behind world hunger and the problem of unequal access to food.

“Her brain is bubbling with all kinds of questions, and she wants to find answers,” he says. “She’s on a perpetual quest for knowledge.”

In addition to wanting answers, Reed took advantage of the resources available to her as an ASU student, Iheduru explains.

“There are a tremendous amount of opportunities, but students don’t always seek them out,” he says, adding that in the process of writing her thesis, Reed was able to work with scientists from different departments who each had a new perspective to share.

Reed presented her research at the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Undergraduate Research Symposium in April before graduating in May. Come August, she will leave for a tour with the Peace Corps before continuing her education at graduate school.