Roughly 530,000 Chicagoans live in “food deserts,” areas with little or no access to major grocery stores.
Mari Gallagher is on a mission to change that.
While she didn’t invent the term, Gallagher, 46, continues to raise awareness of food deserts and document the health hazards they cause. In 2006, her research firm published “Examining the Impact Of Food Deserts On Public Health In Chicago.”
The pioneering study analyzed the relationship between food access and community health. Now she’s documenting Cincinnati food deserts. And back home in Chicago, she’s helped launch a Peapod program to bring fresh fruit to underserved areas at discounted prices.
“How do you count the uncounted, how do you figure out the true numbers when there aren’t any?” Gallagher said.
Her answer? Go get some.
Gallagher founded Mari Gallagher Research and Consulting Group in 2006 to collect and analyze data on her own.
“There’s no such thing as a typical day,” she said.
Gallagher could be out in the field, doing analysis by car or on foot, talking to residents on each city block, crunching numbers in the office or at a public speaking engagement anywhere in the country. Her firm pursues more than just food desert work. It also analyzes economic development, immigration, and quality of life concerns. She and her team have updated the studies of Chicago food deserts in 2008, 2010 and have another update on the way. She’s taken her work to other cities, such as Washington, D.C. and Detroit.
“She really pushed this to the point where she’s made it a more national debate,” said Robert Grossinger, formerly of LaSalle Bank, who commissioned the original study. “She’s engaged in a number of these discussions around the country. And it was just sheer force of her personality…she’s just relentless.”
Street-by-street, Gallagher measured the distance to the nearest stores and fast food establishments. She compared residents’ level of food access to “food balance scores,” a means by which available food choice could be numerically translated. The results were grim, but not unforeseen. Gallagher found a statistically significant link between geographic location and personal health-individuals in unbalanced food neighborhoods were consistently dying earlier from food-related illnesses, like diabetes. Community development groups have been fighting for food equality rights and urban food policy ever since.
Gallagher grew up in the Northwest Side neighborhood of Forest Glen, and nursed an interest in community differences from a young age. She attended the University of Illinois at Chicago, earning a master’s degree in urban planning and policy in 2000. The UIC grad worked on various community development projects for nonprofit research firms, revitalizing local business districts on the South Side.
Although she found her work fulfilling, she couldn’t help but want better data. Working with undercounted population, minorities and immigrant populations, Gallagher noticed the sheer lack of numbers to back up her research. That’s when she dug in with her own research firm.
While she spends much of her time analyzing the food desert problem in Chicago and other cities, she believes that the contributing factors are as myriad as the people it affects.
“There’s no single problem, and there’s no single solution,” she said.