You Are What You Eat

Posted by on September 21st, 2011

We’re taking a break from our usual blog contributors to present a blog post from Mari Gallagher, Keynote Speaker for our first Hunger Symposium and expert on food deserts. It’s a little longer than our usual blogs but well worth the read.

In 1923, long before the rise of McDonald’s golden arches, an advertisement for beef made this proclamation in the Bridgeport Telegraph: “Ninety percent of the diseases known to man are caused by cheap foodstuffs. You are what you eat.”

The phrase “you are what you eat” actually dates back to the 17th century. Over time, science has repeatedly demonstrated that nutritional intake directly affects health outcomes. That we are what we eat is a medical fact. But to what degree does what we eat and, thus, our health, depend on where we live and the types of food to which we have access?

The short answer: a lot! We popularized the phrase “Food Desert” five years ago with a study in Chicago demonstrating that poor access to healthful food has a statistically significant relationship to more diet-related death after controlling for income, race, education, and age. We conduct this research all around the country and have found similar results elsewhere. Our current project? Washington, D.C.  In fact, I’m in our nation’s capitol right now, writing this blog to all of you Philabundance fans as part of a short break from fieldwork, which consists of driving and walking neighborhoods and inspecting food options. I’m not in the tourist locations but in the real part of the city where people actually live, work, shop, spend time with their families, and eat most of their meals. You would think that after so many studies in a variety of places big and small, rural and urban, I would cease to be surprised by the sorry state of some of these so-called food stores. Not true. Just today I walked a winding stretch of Good Hope Road in the still-hot September sun, visiting venues where the specialty is exclusively donuts, chips, soda, cigarettes, lottery tickets, and alcohol. Several separate the customer and the product with bullet-proof glass and a small rotating window to make exchanges. When I peep through to inquire about yogurt, fresh fruit, and a bottle of cold water, they look at me like I just landed from Mars.

So some of the fieldwork is dispiriting, but aspects of these very neighborhoods are a source of inspiration, too.  Mothers cheerfully walking their children to school. Fathers playing catch with sons and daughters in the early evening.  Community leaders developing innovative solutions for fresh, affordable food. There is also new focus on effective public policy and on fresh food financing to develop healthy food offerings and improve existing ones. Of course, once we have access, factors such as education and cost come into play. We can’t just plop down a grocery store and expect habits to change overnight, although access is the first step. And we need to think about access before we get on a soapbox of personal responsibility. Just eat five, six, or seven – whatever the current number is – fruits and vegetables a day! In some neighborhoods, it’s hard to find one or two fruits and vegetables, and when you do, they come in a can loaded with salt or sugar.

Our block-by-block approach focuses on Food Deserts and a term we coined called Food Balance. We also developed a body of work called the Convenience Food Factor, which means that people generally buy food closest to them even though they might prefer or require for medical reasons more distant but healthier food. Additionally, we have designed a set of shopper experiments to identify how to best help consumers “crossover” to healthy food once it becomes available. If you want to know more about our research and, more importantly, solutions, come to the Philabundance Hunger Symposium, where I will present a keynote address; it is pretty close to being sold-out but there might be a few tickets left. You can also check out our website where we have a long list of studies ready for fast, free download. Just go to the projects page at and be sure to read the download instructions on the left.

I look forward to my time in Philadelphia, meeting with the Philabundance team and other leaders. And perhaps I will meet you! You are also a source of inspiration in this work. The fact that you are on this very website suggests an interest in being part of the solution. And this is good news, as it will take all of us to improve the quality of life, the quality of health, and the quality of food in our most troubled neighborhoods.

One in six in our nation live in poverty. Many go to sleep hungry. Yet a new side of hunger is not an empty belly, but a belly full of cheap but empty calories, a belly hungry for nutritious food. Diet and health go together. It’s a fact. We are what we eat, but we also are what we have access to, what we can afford, and what we have information about. Personal responsibility plays a role, bit so do personal circumstances, some beyond our control.

Let’s all work together to make good food a realistic possibility for everyone in Philadelphia and across the land, and renew our call to collective action…because we can, and because we must.

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