Mari Gallagher’s food and health studies are rooted in one sobering ques­tion: Is the nutri­tional quality of the food people eat related to where they live?

In her pio­neering research, which has drawn national acclaim, Gal­lagher exam­ines the loca­tion of var­ious food stores in cities and coun­ties around the United States, and deter­mines how healthy their food options are.

Col­lecting data about res­i­dents’ access to “main­stream” food stores (such as super­mar­kets with mul­tiple healthy options) and “fringe” food stores (such as fast-​​food restau­rants) allows Gal­lagher to assess the poten­tial health out­comes these res­i­dents may face.

The data could also indi­cate health dis­par­i­ties that exist along racial lines.

Do you have a choice [of foods you can buy]?” Gal­lagher said during a lec­ture Tuesday at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity, spon­sored by Bouvé Col­lege of Health Science’s Insti­tute on Urban Health Research (IUHR). “If you can’t choose, it’s very hard to be good [about what you eat].”

Gal­lagher runs the Mari Gal­lagher Research and Con­sulting Group, a nation­ally rec­og­nized firm with exper­tise in quan­ti­ta­tive and qual­i­ta­tive research projects, and com­mu­nity devel­op­ment and health. She is also the pres­i­dent of the National Center for Public Research, a non­profit head­quar­tered in Chicago.

The lec­ture by Gal­lagher, who serves as an adjunct asso­ciate pro­fessor at IUHR, under­scores Northeastern’s com­mit­ment to use-​​inspired research, par­tic­u­larly along the themes of health, sus­tain­ability and security.

In 2006, Gal­lagher authored a break­through study, “Exam­ining the Impact of Food Deserts on Public Health in Chicago.” Her work pop­u­lar­ized the term “food desert,” or a large geo­graphic area where res­i­dents have little or no access to healthy food options. It also devel­oped a block-​​by-​​block metric that links food options with health measures.

IUHR director Hort­ensia Amaro lauds Gallagher’s research, calling her method­ology “inno­v­a­tive and refreshing.”

In addi­tion to Chicago, Gal­lagher has led sim­ilar studies in Detroit, Louisville and New York City’s Harlem. On Tuesday, she pre­sented data from her latest research, in Ohio’s Hamilton County.

Many fac­tors influ­ence health in spe­cific com­mu­ni­ties, Gal­lagher said. And many fac­tors influ­ence the food options avail­able in dif­ferent areas.

There is not one reason why we have food deserts, and there’s not one solu­tion to them,” she explained.

Gal­lagher expects emerging tech­nolo­gies, such as new smart­phone appli­ca­tions, will soon help her expand the impact of her work—for instance, by improving the ways she col­lects, stores and rapidly reports crit­ical data while she’s in the field.