Journal of Urban Health

, Volume 87, Issue 3, pp 381–393 | Cite as

The Contribution of Urban Foodways to Health Disparities

  • Carolyn C. CannuscioEmail author
  • Eve E. Weiss
  • David A. Asch


How do urban food environments produce health disparities? The literature currently emphasizes the etiologic relevance of urban food deserts and their nutritional shortcomings. This paper instead examines the health relevance of foodways—the social dynamics surrounding the production, purchase, and consumption of food. We report on data from 32 photo-elicitation interviews conducted with adult residents of Philadelphia, examining distinct foodways and health concerns that play out in the most commonly discussed retail establishments: corner stores, “Stop and Go’s” (delis that also sell beer), and Chinese takeout restaurants. Corner store visits, described as a routinized element of children’s school day, were implicated in early life patterning of unsound nutritional choices. Stop and Go’s were described as a health threat because of their alcohol sales and tacit promotion of public drunkenness, coupled with accessibility to youth. Stop and Go’s and Chinese takeouts both were perceived as generators of violence in part because of on-site sales of alcohol, drug paraphernalia, and illicit drugs. Chinese takeouts also were described as symbolic reminders of African Americans’ economic exclusion and as places infused with race/ethnic tension and hostile merchant–customer interactions. Instead of viewing the food environment simply as a source of calories and nutrients, participants discussed the complex social dynamics that play out therein, raising a range of important considerations for (especially disadvantaged) urban residents’ safety, physical well-being, and mental health.


Food environment Foodways Food deserts Nutrition Health disparities Violence Race–ethnic tension Segregation Alcohol Mental health Youth Corner stores Fast food Economic exclusion 


Funding and acknowledgments

This project was supported by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholars Program at the University of Pennsylvania. We thank the project’s participants and the following staff photographers and research assistants: Nora Becker, Elias Friedman, Hannah Fruchtman, Rachel X. Han, Michelle Holshue, Jeremy Kaplan, Amina Massey, Jeannette Schroeder, Liz Sullivan, Aaron Walker, Ahmed Whitt, and Janet Weiner. We also thank the reviewers for their insightful comments.


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Copyright information

© The New York Academy of Medicine 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Carolyn C. Cannuscio
    • 1
    • 2
    • 3
    Email author
  • Eve E. Weiss
    • 3
  • David A. Asch
    • 2
    • 4
    • 5
    • 6
  1. 1.Section on Public Health, Department of Family Medicine and Community Health, School of MedicineUniversity of PennsylvaniaPhiladelphiaUSA
  2. 2.Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics, School of MedicineUniversity of PennsylvaniaPhiladelphiaUSA
  3. 3.Center for Public Health Initiatives, School of MedicineUniversity of PennsylvaniaPhiladelphiaUSA
  4. 4.Philadelphia VA Medical CenterPhiladelphiaUSA
  5. 5.Department of Medicine, School of MedicineUniversity of PennsylvaniaPhiladelphiaUSA
  6. 6.Health Care Management Department, The Wharton SchoolUniversity of PennsylvaniaPhiladelphiaUSA

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