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Mapping the dangers of “food deserts”

Photo by Michael Mazzanti

Mari Gallagher’s food and health studies are rooted in one sobering question: Is the nutritional quality of the food people eat related to where they live?

In her pioneering research, which has drawn national acclaim, Gallagher examines the location of various food stores in cities and counties around the United States, and determines how healthy their food options are.

Collecting data about residents’ access to “mainstream” food stores (such as supermarkets with multiple healthy options) and “fringe” food stores (such as fast-food restaurants) allows Gallagher to assess the potential health outcomes these residents may face.

The data could also indicate health disparities that exist along racial lines.

“Do you have a choice [of foods you can buy]?” Gallagher said during a lecture Tuesday at Northeastern University, sponsored by Bouvé College of Health Science’s Institute on Urban Health Research (IUHR). “If you can’t choose, it’s very hard to be good [about what you eat].”

Gallagher runs the Mari Gallagher Research and Consulting Group, a nationally recognized firm with expertise in quantitative and qualitative research projects, and community development and health. She is also the president of the National Center for Public Research, a nonprofit headquartered in Chicago.

The lecture by Gallagher, who serves as an adjunct associate professor at IUHR, underscores Northeastern’s commitment to use-inspired research, particularly along the themes of health, sustainability and security.

In 2006, Gallagher authored a breakthrough study, “Examining the Impact of Food Deserts on Public Health in Chicago.” Her work popularized the term “food desert,” or a large geographic area where residents have little or no access to healthy food options. It also developed a block-by-block metric that links food options with health measures.

IUHR director Hortensia Amaro lauds Gallagher’s research, calling her methodology “innovative and refreshing.”

In addition to Chicago, Gallagher has led similar studies in Detroit, Louisville and New York City’s Harlem. On Tuesday, she presented data from her latest research, in Ohio’s Hamilton County.

Many factors influence health in specific communities, Gallagher said. And many factors influence the food options available in different areas.

“There is not one reason why we have food deserts, and there’s not one solution to them,” she explained.

Gallagher expects emerging technologies, such as new smartphone applications, will soon help her expand the impact of her work—for instance, by improving the ways she collects, stores and rapidly reports critical data while she’s in the field.

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