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Chelsea Singleton

A Few Minutes With Chelsea Singleton

AHS media relations specialist Vince Lara spends a few minutes with Chelsea Singleton, assistant professor in Kinesiology and Community health, to talk about her research on the influence on food purchasing behavior on chronic disease risk in low income and minority populations.

Click here to see the full transcript.

VINCE LARA: This is Vince Lara in the College of Applied Health Sciences at the University of Illinois. Today I spend a few minutes with CHELSEA SINGLETON, assistant professor in kinesiology and community health, to talk about her research on the influence of food purchasing and behavior on chronic disease risk in low income and minority populations.

Chelsea, I always ask this, this is the first question I ask when I do these podcasts, is did you always want to teach?

CHELSEA SINGLETON: I was curious when I saw this question like whether or not-- you know, well how many people said yes? Because my answer was definitely going to be no. So no, I definitely did not ever think I was going to be a professor. When I was a kid, I thought I was going to be a doctor mostly because my family said, you're going to be a doctor.

You know, they're like you're smart and I feel like whenever you have a smart kid, you're like, you're smart enough to be a doctor. That's like the job that you should aspire to be.


CHELSEA SINGLETON: But no, and then I got to undergrad and I was pre-med. And I was doing well, it's just that it was not my interest. But I did have a strong interest in health and a very strong interest in health sciences, so I had to just kind of break out of that box like, what else could you do in health?

And I kind of stumbled upon public health, stumbled upon epidemiology. But I did notice that I always had the ability to deliver, I guess like, very quant-heavy topics easy to people. So I did a lot of tutoring in undergrad. Like I tutored chemistry, I tutored biochem, I tutored organic chemistry, and people like oh you can deliver this material very well so it kind of just made me passionate about teaching people about things.

So now I teach epidemiology, I teach biostatistics but no, never thought I would ever be a professor. But I'm very happy with the choice that I made.

VINCE LARA: Now, where did you do your undergrad?

CHELSEA SINGLETON: Oh, well, you can't see me. The people on the mic can't see me. It's a podcast. But I'm wearing my Xavier sweatshirt so I went to a small, historically black college in Louisiana, in New Orleans. They have a fantastic undergraduate premed program, pharmacy program.

And now they're building in programs like public health, biomedical sciences for their undergrads. And they actually put more African-American students in med school. The students who do the pre-med program and pre-pharm program they end up going to pharmacy school, going to med school more than any university in the country.

They have very strong students come out so I've been definitely trying to make connections between Illinois and Xavier because we actually had a lot of students when I was there that are from Illinois. So it makes sense if they want to come back and be closer to family, they can do grad school here. So I've been talking to (Wojtek Chodzko Zajko) and the grad school about making those connections with Xavier. But yeah, that's where I did my undergrad.

VINCE LARA: Why did you pick Xavier? Are you from Louisiana originally?

CHELSEA SINGLETON: No, so funny story. So, I never knew the school existed. You're going to be noticing that a lot of things in my life is going to be me just stumbling upon things.

VINCE LARA: Interesting.

CHELSEA SINGLETON: But I never knew the school existed until my senior year of high school. I always wanted to go to Howard. So, I was dead set on going to Howard, I went to a college fair just randomly, just got on the bus and went to this college fair. And they had all of the schools in alphabetical order and Xavier was the last one. And the recruiter was just sitting there at the table.

Nobody was around so I just went and pulled up a chair next to the recruiter for Xavier and just started talking because I was so tired because we were about to leave. And he started telling me about the program. He was like, you know, we have a fantastic pre-med program. You said you want to be a doctor. We put more African-American students in med schools than any university in the country.

He waived my application fee, I applied, they gave me a scholarship, and so I ended up in New Orleans rather than D.C. And it was the best decision I ever made in my life.

VINCE LARA: Was it important to you to go to a historically black college? Like is that something that your family--



CHELSEA SINGLETON: So yeah, it was definitely something that I wanted to do. My parents went to a historically black college. They went to South Carolina State and they met there. And they just told me all about their experience, not just the partying and the fun, but also just like developing that camaraderie.

Like I definitely see how going to Xavier benefited my career because I now have a network of colleagues around the country who are researchers, doctors, pharmacists and they're all African-American. So whenever I meet young African-American students, even students here at Illinois who are like, oh, I really want to work with you because you look like me-- and that was also my experience.

Both my post-doc and my pre-doc mentor are African-American women so I see how important that is. I now have connections. I've been able to connect students with some of my best friends from undergrad who are in medicine, who are in pharmacy, to mentor them as well. So it's definitely been very beneficial to my career.

VINCE LARA: Now, Illinois has a really diverse campus. Is that one of the reasons why you ended up here, you think, is the diversity? Did you like that it had that reputation?

CHELSEA SINGLETON: Yeah, that was that was definitely something I was very interested in. So when I applied for my job at KCH, the one thing I noticed was that the department was large and very diverse. You know, men and women of different types of backgrounds, different life experiences, some international.

So that was very important to me because I definitely applied at other universities where it wasn't as diverse. So you know, it's kind of challenging coming in when you're a junior faculty and you're going to be the only minority faculty in the department.

So when I came in and I noticed that there was so much diversity, I said, OK. And then I noticed the diversity among the students, which is also very important to me as well. That was actually a selling point for KCH for me.

VINCE LARA: Now I always ask this question as well. What inspired your research?

CHELSEA SINGLETON: OK, so I definitely have some stories. I do research on the retail food environment and I look at the food environment as a risk factor for chronic disease and poor diet. So, I think what really got me into it at first was, when I was a kid I grew up in a food desert. I grew up in southwest Atlanta and up until me getting ready to go to high school, we didn't even have a nice full service supermarket within, I want to say like a four or five mile radius around my neighborhood.

And there was a small mom and pop type of store but the store had really poor quality fresh fruits. I mean fruits and vegetables like their fresh produce as well as meat, so on and so forth. And I remember one night-- so I grew up in a single parent household. My dad raised me, my sister, my brother after my mother passed when I was really, really young.

But my dad had to do a lot. So he was also a teacher, he taught high school in Atlanta for Atlanta public schools. But he would have to get off of work and then pick me, and my sister, and my brother up and then come home and cook. And he would always stop at this small mom and pop store and I remember one night he stopped there, he got raw chicken because he was going to bake some chicken for us.

And he brought the chicken home and he opened the chicken and was getting ready to prep it, and I came in the kitchen and the kitchen smelled terrible. And I was just like, what is this smell? And I walked over to the sink and I looked at the chicken, and I felt the chicken like I touched it, and it had that slimy film, which lets me know it was rancid.

I was probably 12 and I told my dad, I said daddy, this chicken is bad. It's rancid. And he was like, are you sure? And my dad kept looking at it. He was like, now I have to get in the car and go all the way back, get my money back, and then go somewhere else and find chicken.

And the nearest supermarket was probably like, I want to say, it was like over seven miles away from where we lived. But yeah, so definitely just thinking about how communities are designed and how that plays. That's so important to our health. But yeah, definitely. That was definitely one thing that inspired me.

And then I was living in New Orleans at the time of Hurricane Katrina. I was a freshman and undergrad the year in New Orleans that Hurricane Katrina hit. So I'm a member of Xavier's Katrina class. And just looking at how the food landscape of New Orleans was completely changed after Xavier, some changed for the good, some changed for the better.

Saw a lot of gentrification that happened. Companies come in, taking businesses and spaces from people where a lot of it was family-owned or black-owned or just owned by locals. And just coming in and just completely changing the food landscape. So that made me really interested in it as well.

VINCE LARA: That's interesting. You mentioned food retail and food purchasing and how and the effects that it has on diet and disease risk, and that's your focus. Talk a little bit about that if you would. : Like how food purchasing has such an effect on diet, especially in low income communities.

CHELSEA SINGLETON: Yeah, so I look at a lot of-- I look at a lot of retail. So I look at in particular and there's so much to retail that affects our food purchasing and our diet that you might not even notice. It's so funny, because I was in Washington D.C. this week at a meeting where we're trying to develop a national research agenda for healthy food retail and marketing.

And it has so much to do with what's going on with these large corporations, not just the supermarkets but the companies that make these products. And us as scientists, we're trying to understand food purchasing, like what influences in people's food purchasing that you're conscious of and not even conscious of, and then how that translates to your diet, and then ultimately, your risk for various different chronic diseases.

But there's so much that goes into deciding what is put into your neighborhood in terms of grocery stores, and a lot of it is at the city level or even at the state level. Sometimes even at the federal level. And then with the marketing component, we as low level scientist-- you know, we're scientists and we're trying to help people be healthy, but then we're looking at corporations who spend trillions of dollars a year on advertising.

I mean the Super Bowl is on Sunday, you're probably going to see tons of ads about food.

VINCE LARA: Oh yeah.

CHELSEA SINGLETON: So, how your neighborhood is designed, there's a lot more that goes into it besides just popping a supermarket there. There were so many decisions that were made behind that. But yes. So looking at what you have access to not only just like driving distance, but also density of different types of stores.

Whether you have stores that sell healthy food or lots of stores that sell unhealthy food, we tend to call those foods swamps. But a lot of that, if you're low income and you don't have access to a car, and you just shop at the places in your neighborhood, that may result in you buying a lot of prepackaged goods, highly processed foods. And ultimately, that's what you're preparing and serving to your family.

And all these types of foods they have high fat content, salt content, cholesterol, just all of that stuff that leads to you developing metabolic disease or developing obesity, high blood pressure, ultimately diabetes and that might result in loss of life or disability. You're not having a great quality of life long-term, or premature mortality.

VINCE LARA: In the research you've done, how much do you find that the food purchasing-- and when you talk about food purchasing, you're talking about what the stores are buying from companies rather than what consumers are buying from the stores? Or are you talking about both?

CHELSEA SINGLETON: It's mostly what consumers are buying from the store and what influences consumer purchasing behaviors.

VINCE LARA: Interesting.

CHELSEA SINGLETON: So I've done some work in Chicago when we were looking at marketing, like what type of marketing people mostly see, and there's a lot to marketing. And it's crazy because the way we study it is very different than the way than the grocery stores study it. They put a lot of money into this.

They are supermarket chains who develop like virtual grocery stores and have people come in and they literally study how people move around grocery stores to see what they're more likely to pick. And then they kind of segment of the population based off of you, your life, your profile. Where you are in life, do you have small kids? Do you have teenagers? Are you an empty-nester?

But then also, even the stuff you see at check out. What's available on the end caps? What's available in the middle of the aisle? What's available on the walls? And then all of these special floor displays, all of this is like prime space that these companies like Lay's Coca Cola-- they pay for this space and they put a lot of money into their advertising.

So we take a look at all of that and people making decisions about what they're going to purchase. But yeah, there's a lot that goes into food purchasing.

VINCE LARA: How much of it comes down to pure economics and how much of it comes down to maybe people aren't informed the way they should be about what they're eating.

CHELSEA SINGLETON: We're starting to see that a lot of it does have to do with your preferences, your education, your interest, or just you know, your family dynamic. Or your culture, just what you're used to buying.

And then also what you trust, like the brands you trust and your life in general, because we have seen-- there's research that has come out over the last 10 years that shows that if I live in a food desert and I just put a grocery store in a food desert, it really doesn't change much.

I mean, it fix the social justice issue, that we have a community that doesn't have a supermarket. So yeah, there's a social justice, food justice component to that that has now been solved. But it's not changing people's behavior.

It's not changing what they're eating. They're not eating any healthier just by solely putting the store there. So that doesn't really solve many things. But we do have to make better connections. There is like an educational component that we have to incorporate as well.

VINCE LARA: And that leads into my next question. So how do you better equip families that are lower income and minority populations, that maybe aren't as well informed about what they should be eating. How do you go about showing them hey, there are places where you can get these foods that are better for you and your family?

CHELSEA SINGLETON: Yeah, I definitely think-- I'm going to use this Whole Foods on the south side of Chicago as an example. So that Whole Foods is in part funded by the Healthy Food Financing Initiative. This was a huge initiative to end food deserts in the United States, that was funded by the Obama administration.

So that was like one of Michelle Obama's-- it was part of her Let's Move campaign. So it was like multimillion dollar initiative around the country and it led to like over 1,000 projects nationally. And that Whole Foods on the south side of Chicago is one of them.

But just putting that Whole Foods there, they knew probably wasn't just going to solve the issue in the Inglewood neighborhood, which is a low income black neighborhood. But they did a lot of other things too. So one of the things they did was develop a whole outreach team and this outreach team was made of a lot of not just community workers, but also nutritionists, for them to do some community outreach and do some education.

But then they also made this Whole Foods part of just a neighborhood revitalization project because they want to bring opportunities for people to work. If we're bringing in jobs into the neighborhood, people have money, and then they have more resources to potentially purchase healthy food as well.

So there's a lot that goes into it like the education, but also giving people the resources they need to even achieve this diet. Because I mean, purchasing healthy food is expensive, especially.

VINCE LARA: Absolutely.

CHELSEA SINGLETON: You have to track it seasonally throughout the year, depending on where you live like looking at different prices and different sources of where you can get fresh produce and healthy food. But is ultimately, expensive than buying like frozen prepackaged items or shelf-stable food. So yeah, it's a challenge. It's an ongoing issue.

VINCE LARA: Now what defines a food desert? A fresh food desert, I should say. Is it like, do you define it by how far something is in terms of miles, or how does that work?

CHELSEA SINGLETON: Different agencies have different definitions but oftentimes people kind of go with the USDA definition. They do base it off distance, but they have different definitions depending on the population density of the area.

So if you live in an urban area, the definition of a food desert is very different. So they consider it to be about one to two miles. So if you don't have any grocery store within that area, then they would consider it to be a food desert. But in a rural area, it's a little bit different because you have spent your amenities to be spread out more in a rural area. So they might go up to 10 miles in that area.

Or a suburban area might be somewhere in between. It just depends. They base it off of usually like whether or not they have any type of like, full service store. So that would be a grocery store supermarket or maybe a super center by Walmart or Target because they have a full grocery store section in them.

And then sometimes they might use the definition of a swamp. Like a swamp would be like you just have a lot of unhealthy, different types of stores. So fast food restaurants, liquor stores, so on and so forth. So if that's abundant, you're a swamp. And you could be both.

And a lot of times in places like Chicago, like on the south and west sides of Chicago, you have both. You know, your neighborhood might be considered a swamp and a desert. But I know for that healthy Food Financing Initiative, they were only giving funding for healthy food retail projects.

So either building a new grocery store, or bringing in farmer's markets, or doing some corner store initiatives where they were making the corner stores healthy. You had to be a USDA designated food desert so based off their definition.

VINCE LARA: Now the life of a professor at an R1 university involves a lot of research, right? You're always working on new things. What are you working on now that you're really excited that you'd like to talk about?

CHELSEA SINGLETON: Yeah, so I can talk about a line of research that I'm trying to get off the ground and get funded. I have some grants under review right now. But one thing that I know is-- so I did my post-doc in Chicago, so I was on the Chicago campus doing my fellowship, and then when I became a professor I moved down here.

And I had a USDA grant to study the farmers markets in Chicago, particularly the ones in black communities. Just looking at what are their challenges of operation, looking at racial ethnic differences in shopping behaviors in fruit and vegetable consumption. But one thing that came out of that research that inspired my, hopefully, my new line of research is violence.

I definitely had that come up a lot in my research, both my qualitative and my quantitative research. Just looking at how violence impacts people's decision making about where they're going to shop and what they're going to buy. And just how they navigate around their neighborhood, period. Their whole built environment, just safety.

I had farmers market managers tell me we had to move the location of our market. We had to change the time because farmers market season kind of overlaps with gun violence season, I mean in Chicago. Chicago definitely has a very clear gun violence season.

VINCE LARA: Oh, is that right? Is it summer?

CHELSEA SINGLETON: It's summer, yeah. It's usually the highest in the summertime just because you know, it's the winter time and people are not out and about as much. They tend to have the most shootings like in May-June, when things start to warm up.

And that's when farmers market season is kicking off. So people are out and about and farmers markets are open public gatherings of people and a lot of times people are now fearful in the United States to even go to open public gatherings for anything just because our gun violence issue.

So I am definitely trying to get a lot of projects off the ground where I study-- I'm looking at the city of Chicago data but also trying to collect my own data. Just looking at people who live in communities that have a large, like a really high violent crime rate, particularly gun violence rates and seeing how that impacts their food purchasing behaviors and decision making around food purchasing.

Because that ultimately might impact their health especially when you're dealing with a population that-- unfortunately, a lot of the communities with high violence crime rates are also lower income and mostly minorities. So they are dealing with other economic challenges or low educational opportunities or whatever the case might be, but then they also have to deal with this other issue.

So I'm trying to see if there is a connection between violence and food purchasing because there is extensive literature on violence and physical activity. I mean, there are studies that show that if you live in a community with a lot of violence, you're less likely to be physically active. You're less likely to go outside, utilize the sidewalks, or even use the public recreation centers.

So revitalizing the trails and the parks and the green space might not impact physical activity if it's a high violent area. So I'm trying to see how it affects nutrition.

VINCE LARA: My thanks to Chelsea Singleton. To hear more about Illinois and the College of Applied Health Sciences, find our podcasts on iTunes, Spotify, and I Heart Radio by searching 'A Few Minutes With'. See you next time.

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