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Traveling away from food deserts to oases of healthy food

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Mari Gallagher

People who live in food deserts don’t have access to a mainstream grocery store, UIC grad Mari Gallagher says.

Photo: Roberta Dupuis-Devlin

Mari Gallagher is a trusty guide leading us through food deserts in search of oases bursting with tasty nourishment.

Gallagher, a UIC grad who heads an eponymous research and consulting group, brought her message to the Re-Thinking Soup lunch series at Jane Addams Hull-House Museum last week.

She was introduced by Chancellor Paula Allen-Meares, who recalled her own efforts to fight food deserts in Detroit while at the University of Michigan.

Defining a food desert as a large area without mainstream grocery stores, Gallagher asked: “Is it as easy to buy skinless chicken as it is to buy fried chicken? Can you choose an apple as easily as a candy bar?”

She’s met children who’ve never seen grapes or strawberries, added Gallagher, who received a master’s in urban planning and policy from UIC in 2000.

Her research identified three major food deserts in Chicago in 2006. Located on the West and South sides, the deserts encompassed more than 600,000 people.

Body mass index, a measure of obesity, corresponds to the deserts, Gallagher found. So does the concentration of single women with children.

But the numbers are improving, she said. Chicago’s three deserts shrank to 383,954 people by 2011 and Mayor Rahm Emanuel has pledged to cut that number to 200,000 by 2015 and zero by 2020.

Gallagher showed a photo taken in the Roseland neighborhood, where she handed out 10,000 pink pearl apples in 2008 with former Chicago Health Commissioner Terry Mason and representatives from the National Center for Public Research and organic food supplier Goodness Greeness.

A mainstream grocery store established at 115th Street and Michigan Avenue in Roseland would serve 24,000 people, she said.

As a result, the community would see a decrease in liver disease, diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease, added Gallagher, who received the UIC Alumni Association’s City Partner Award in 2009.

Her study in Detroit found that liquor and party stores accounted for the greatest number of businesses enrolled in the food stamp program, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Gallagher’s analysis showed that gas stations, dollar stores and pharmacies were ahead of supermarkets in 2006-2010 for redemptions from the assistance program.

Bakeries play a part, too.

“I like a yummy birthday cake as much as the next girl,” she said.

“And I’m not demonizing bakeries or talking about death by cupcake. But ‘let them eat cake’ is not the right message to send.”


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