Speaker discusses food deserts, future of food environment


Lauren Duquette/Daily Senior Staffer

Mari Gallagher speaks to an audience of about 40 people about food deserts, or areas where people might have access to food but are not close to healthy options. Gallagher also spoke about the potential of young people to impact the future of the food environment.

Kelli Nguyen, Reporter

If colleges students take the initiative to learn more about the food industry, they can influence food policy, researcher Mari Gallagher said Thursday night.

Gallagher said her national firm — which produces compiled information that can be used to inform decisions and help improve communities — works with food deserts, or areas where people might have access to food but have to go a relatively long way to find healthy options. In 2006, her firm released a report examining the impacts of food deserts on public health in Chicago and was able to determine that about 640,000 Chicagoans live in food deserts.

“That’s what I’ve been trying to do my whole career: improve communities, community health, food access, food systems,” Gallagher told an audience of about 40 people in University Hall.

At the event, Gallagher discussed the food environment as as whole, identifying key factors that influence people’s decisions regarding food, including proximity, class and culture. She said she hopes students understand the importance of the food environment and how they can impact it.

Students should think about the broader food system and view it workable and able to be improved upon, she said.

“Young adults in general are really the drivers now of grocery trends, and all of you have the opportunity to really shape some of the decisions that are on the horizon now about our food landscape,” Gallagher told The Daily.

Weinberg sophomore Diana Fu organized the event, which was sponsored by Dance Marathon, as an assignment for her internship with food and agriculture cooperative Land O’Lakes. She said she hopes the event got students thinking about the importance of food in their lives.

“I feel like a lot of people don’t even realize that food deserts are much of a problem until they affect people’s health,” Fu said. “Pretty much everyone here eats three meals a day; it’s such a presence in our lives yet I don’t think a lot of people think about where their food comes from.

The speaker event served as a stop on Dance Marathon’s Tour de DM week, a week of DM programming that rewards teams for attending events and participating in challenges related to this year’s primary beneficiary, Blessings in a Backpack, a nonprofit that provides weekend meals for food insecure elementary school students. The winning team will be awarded $2,000 toward their team total.

Jacob Greenberg, a Medill senior and DM’s special events co-chair, said Gallagher’s presentation opened his eyes to food deserts.

“I’m really fascinated to hear and research more now that I have my foot in the door on the issue,” Greenberg said. “I am hopefully going to be more aware of it moving forward.”

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