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Center for a Livable Future


October 24, 2016

Citizen Science on Food Environments: Photovoice Villaverde, Madrid



On October 11, 2016, at the Bloomberg School, Manuel Franco presented Photovoice Villaverde, a participatory action research project.


People’s diets—good and bad—are deeply influenced by where they live. While this is not a radical concept, it has certainly stirred controversy in the last decade. Epidemiologist Manuel Franco, PhD, has spent more than ten years studying cardiovascular health and how it’s affected by where people live.

“It all started with Manuel,” says Anne Palmer, a program director at Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF). Eleven years ago Franco used funds from an Innovation Grant* awarded by CLF to conduct a food environment study in Baltimore neighborhoods. The study was one of the first of its kind at the Bloomberg School. It looked at a few specific low-income neighborhoods and quantified a few things related to food environment: What were the most common types of food stores? What types of food did they offer? Where were different stores located in relation to where people lived? Franco then merged that dataset with another well-known dataset (the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis, or MESA) about cardiovascular health.

“His study showed that Black and low-income people in Baltimore live in areas with less healthful food due to the types of stores and what those stores sell,” says Palmer. “In addition, he found that those residents have lower quality diets.,” Franco’s PhD thesis findings earned him an unexpected call from the Baltimore City Health Commissioner, and then the ball was rolling.

“His study led to the formation of the Baltimore City Food Policy Task Force, the funding of the Food Policy director, and so much more,” says Palmer.

Last week Franco returned to the Bloomberg School from the University of Alcalá, Spain, to share some of the findings from his latest project—Photovoice Villaverde, a participatory action research project. In short, the project recruited residents of two neighborhoods in the district of Villaverde in Madrid, to photojournal food environments and reflect on them. Participants became citizen scientists: gathering data in the form of photos, meeting over months to discuss them, collaborating with policymakers and more. A bilingual photobook was produced to present the final photographs and discussions.

“We have a lot to learn in Spain,” said Franco. “We don’t want to believe that we have anything but the best food and the best diets. But that is a myth.”

The goal was to use these voices to learn more about the positive and negative features of the Villaverde food environments and to name some of their causes—as well as to make several food policy recommendations. The top three recommendations for improving diets in the neighborhoods of Los Rosales and San Cristobal are to reactivate traditional food markets (i.e., small retailers), to improve the management of food banks, and to offer leisure time activities other than unhealthy eating and drinking.

Photovoice Villaverde is a project of Health Healthy Hoods and the Madrid City Government, in connection with the University of Alcalá.

- Christine Grillo

*From 1999 to 2009 the CLF Innovation Grants program supported research projects to help CLF in its mission to address the complex interactions among diet, human health, food production, food security, equity, and the environment.