Summit Speaker: Access to Nutritious Food Will Improve Health

When Mari Gallagher projected what the addition of a grocery store selling nutritious food to 25,000 Chicagoans did for their life expectancy, the years collectively gained from improved access to fresh produce and other healthy items was remarkable.

The residents, for example, would collectively live 58 years longer by evading diet-related cancers – and 112 years longer from improved cardiovascular health – because they could more easily get healthy food, estimated the president of Mari Gallagher Research & Consulting Group.

Granted, Gallagher said, being able to buy nutritious food without taking multiple bus routes or clearing other hurdles is not the only solution for health problems. But for diet-related diseases that can be prevented and improved by proper eating, being able to have healthy food options instead of just processed food is important, she said.

“It’s a complicated dynamic,” Gallagher said. “But you can’t choose healthy food if you don’t have access to it.”

Gallagher is one of the speakers for Come to the Table, a half-day summit about addressing hunger as a health issue in Chicago on May 14, 2014. Following a national summit on Capitol Hill in February, ProMedica and the Alliance to End Hunger are holding a series of regional summits to continue encouraging other healthcare providers nationwide to join the effort and work with various community, business and government partners.

Food Deserts

Gallagher’s study, “Examining the Impact of Food Deserts on Public Health in Chicago,” popularized the term “food desert” nationwide in 2006. Food deserts are areas designated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture where it is hard to buy produce and other healthy food without traveling long distances.

ProMedica has done a good job of improving access to food in areas of food deserts within its service area, Gallagher said.

As part of its collaborative Come to the Table initiative to address hunger as a health issue, for example, ProMedica Bixby Hospital and the Lenawee Health Network debuted a Veggie Mobile that makes stops at senior centers and other locations throughout Lenawee County in southeast Michigan. ProMedica also added a section of healthy food to The Flower Market, its gift and flower store near ProMedica Toledo Hospital, the system’s largest.

Come to the Table

Healthcare organizations – which have influence and trust in their communities – certainly have an interest in helping with economic development, including the location of full-service grocery stores in neighborhoods where healthy food is scarce, Gallagher said. In every study Gallagher has done, she said, there is a correlation between the quality of food available to residents and their health.

Ending hunger and improving nutrition will lead to better lives for residents, fewer healthcare costs, fewer unpaid medical bills, and many other benefits, Gallagher said.

“The food environment does matter,” Gallagher said.  “Hospitals definitely can step up and do something.”

Join the ongoing discussion about hunger and health in the comments below or on Twitter using #CTTT2014.