A recent trip to baseball’s legendary Fenway Park provided the ideal example of understanding systems and how they can create public health problems like obesity through structural means. Being aware of these systems, their boundaries, and their activities can help us better find the causes of individual activity by looking at what encourages behaviour and not just at what people do.
Take me out to the ballgame… and into systems
I am not an obsessive sports fan, but I do enjoy athletics and watching a variety of sporting events. When it comes to the sport of baseball, I grew up as a Boston Red Sox fan. As a fan of the Red Sox I always dreamt of attending a game at Fenway Park, home of The Green Monster and perhaps the most eclectic and endearing stadium as you’ll find in pro sports anywhere in the world, so when I had the chance to see the Sox face off against their rivals the New York Yankees in Boston I was overjoyed.
When I found out I was going I decided in advance that I would take in the fullest experience possible even down to the food. I am generally a mindful eater, preferring ethical, local and healthy options whenever possible so opting for an evening of beer, steamed hot dogs and ice cream was something as out of the ordinary as touring a legendary ballpark. But then, Fenway Park is not your your ordinary ballpark.
Thus began a look at systems thinking through the lens of food, design and culture. While this started being about a night at a baseball game it ended up being about so much more.
On the menu:
- Fenway ‘Monster Dog’
- Samuel Adams Draught Beer
- Ice cream* served in a Boston Red Sox mini baseball helmet with Oreo cookie sprinkles (*soft serve – I have no idea if there is any real cream in it, or what is in it at all)
An Anthropologist at Fenway
While I was at Fenway Park to enjoy America’s pastime, I couldn’t shut down the systems thinker, design thinker and psychologist parts of me. Add to the fact that I was attending it with a journalist with a health science and anthropology focus (who was seeing her first baseball game ever) and the experience quickly became a cultural study.
So what did we find? Entering the stadium via Yawkey Way one is immediately surrounded by souvenir and food vendors that, despite initial appearances, are nearly identical and plentiful. The same hats, shirts and banners are available at nearly every souvenir kiosk and nearly the identical foods related at most of the food vendors. Even though Fenway Park’s menu on the web suggests a variety of food options, the reality is that most vendors sell the same things, or near variants of them. Hot dogs, burgers, fries and pretzels are dominant. Sometimes there’s ice cream.
You are enveloped in sales for products everywhere. It is nearly impossible to go anywhere in that ballpark save for the stairwells that some product isn’t in your face — for sale or advertisement.
Food is everywhere. I don’t think I’ve ever seen more food vendors anywhere per square feet in my life.
One of the things you notice quickly — by design — are the myriad ads lining the outfield fence. My companion was quick to note that Coca Cola had among the most noticeable of these ads (see photo above), which is far less ominous than the giant Coca Cola ad/bottle at San Francisco’s AT&T Park. A look to the other side will find a Budweiser sign prominently displayed (see photo below). Along the outfield wall one finds ads for other purveyors of foods laden with fat, excessive calories, salt and sugar.
None of this would come as any surprise to someone like Yoni Freedhoff, a bariatric medical professional** and prolific blogger on the relationship between (mostly fast, unhealthy) food and health (problems) and its marketing to the public. Dr. Freedhoff has made a social media career of pointing out how our food system is skewed towards particular types of products, quantities and how it is all pushed covertly and not-so-subtlely to all of us — including children — throughout our daily lives. I don’t know if Yoni’s a baseball fan, but he would certainly boo the visual team at Fenway.
The hidden and not-so-hidden effects of systems
If one views the environment within and around the stadium and the game as a system, there is much that can be taken away from the experience I had at Fenway.
The availability of products is what is the explicit manifestation of the system on food choices. Fenway is a closed system so unless you smuggled some food from home, the only options for what to eat is determined by the management of the stadium. That substantially limits what you have available. While there are dozens of vendors throughout the stadium, I was shocked at how much of it was repeated as if to say: “You said no the first time; how about now? And now? And now?”. It wears you down, particularly if you spent a day walking through the city and up and down the stairs at the stadium with thousands of others.
Hot Dogs were available at nearly every second or third vendor; so was beer and nearly everyone sold pop. Salted peanuts, popcorn and pretzels were also highly available. Hamburgers? Maybe every 4th or 5th vendor. Ice cream? Maybe about every 7th vendor. Apparently there are some healthy options available at a single location on Yawkey Way, outside the stadium proper. I didn’t see them, but I am told they are there.
The option is to spend thousands and get yourself a private luxury box or admittance to the private club where there is better quality food…at a price. For the common fan, these are simply too inaccessible.
These are the more obvious manifestations of the food system. But then there are the more insidious, subtle effects that influence food choices that are built into the experience. A professional baseball game is about 4 hours long if you consider the pre and post event ceremonies that take place. This can be longer if the game itself goes into extra innings or is high scoring . In a town like Boston, you can reasonably add another hour to the beginning and end of that due to transit time. It’s not unreasonable to want to eat during all of this.
While the options for eating are not that healthy (or rather, are positively UNhealthy) the effect of these choices go beyond any guilt for having consumed a lot of empty calories. The foods themselves are designed to create more desire.
I’m not just speaking of the neurobiological impact of fat and salts on the brain (which is sufficient enough), but the actual feelings that these foods create. Hot dogs are served on white bread and actually make you feel hungry not long after you’ve eaten it, not full. The popcorn is so salty you need something to drink and the absence of any visible water fountains (a design choice) you reach for something like beer or soda/pop. More calories, more sugar and more profit.
Just imagine sitting there watching the game, hungry and thirsty and seeing a gigantic Coke or Budweiser sign lit up like a firework over a bland green wall? No ads for tap water that I could see (or means of getting it save for bringing your emptied beer cup into the bathrooms to fill it up in the bathroom sink). And the bathrooms themselves? They are down a long corridor, down the stairs and along another corridor. So at least you get some exercise in place of the convenience.
Making design visible
Some have claimed that great design is invisible; implying that it is so useful that no one even notices it (see the latest issue of Wired for this argument writ out as the ‘Age of Invisible Design’). In the case of Fenway Park — and the many hundreds of stadiums like it around North America – the design choices are both obvious and invisible and in both case influence our health. What struck me when watching what was going around me was that this same situation plays out (pun intended) every night across the major leagues (and all major professional sports), but also at shopping malls and food courts across North America.
In most of these venues the volume of people is high, traffic is congested, and the ability to literally see all the choices before you is difficult. What you visually rely on are things that light up — to help us navigate our way — and those are not shaped like broccoli florets, bananas, or bowls of Quinoa. When you are designing fast food you are also bound by very limited preparation space, while refrigeration and disposal capacity is limited. It’s hard to make wholesome, interesting food that isn’t whole on its own — like fruit — without the space to do it. Frozen weenies don’t require a lot of work to prepare. Creating the space for this in the first place is critical.
And if there was space to prepare the food, where will people wait? The concourses of most arenas are not designed for you to wait for your sandwich or salad to be prepared unless you get ready-made (which can be done to high quality, nutritional and taste standards, but often is not).
And space costs money. I can assure you that at every mall, stadium and food pavilion there is a cost-per-square-foot calculation done that makes the cheap-and-easy solution much more profitable than slow food. Yet, there is a real health cost to these decisions and one we fail to add to the calculus of our wellbeing.
Next time you are out at the ballgame pay attention to what is around you, how you are being shaped by advertising, design and time. We all have choices in the matter, but over time they stop feeling like it and become more challenging to make. Consciously choosing to have a hot dog at the game knowing all you know about what the food is, why it is served, who it serves as well as how it is served is a decision open to those who are aware and have the means to absorb all of the costs. Sadly, this represents too few of us.
So will our designs and health hit a grand slam or strikeout?
(As for the game? The Red Sox won with a grand slam home run in the 8th inning, unlike my stomach)
** the original post mistakenly referred to Dr. Freedhoff as a surgeon. See comments below or find out more about his work by clicking here.