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NIU Professor’s work focuses on food security at home and abroad

April 25, 2017

National Nutrition Month has ended, but NIU professors, students and alumni continue to work to understand and address food insecurity through their research at home and abroad. One of those NIU community members is Courtney Gallaher, an assistant professor in the Department of Geography and the Center for the Study of Women, Gender and Sexuality. Gallaher has partnered with faculty from Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources in Malawi, Africa, and NIU faculty and students to study urban agriculture and food insecurity in southern Africa and in the Rockford and DeKalb areas.

Though the challenges facing urban farmers and community gardeners in southern Africa and northern Illinois vary, in both places urban agriculture has the potential to address food insecurity, lack of access to fresh foods (“food deserts”) and growing economic disparities. However, the benefits of urban farming are often only partially realized. Gallaher and her collaborators hope to address this through research that combines a variety of methods, including focus group discussions, in-depth interviews and household surveys, to “follow the trail of food” from the farm to the dinner table.

Gallaher’s work in Malawi – with professors David Mkwambisi and Wezi Mhango of Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources – examines how poor, urban populations are adapting to the pressures of climate variability and urbanization through urban agriculture. Gallaher says that southern Africa was essentially left out of the Green Revolution of the mid-twentieth century that increased farming yields in much of the world. Low crop yields, lack of infrastructure and an increasing number of poor urban residents have led to high levels of food insecurity. This is made worse by extreme weather conditions, such as droughts and flash floods, caused by climate change. In spite of concerns about growing food in potentially contaminated urban soil, Gallaher finds that urban agriculture is a viable long-term coping strategy for many. Gallaher says, “There are really some positives to urban farming for those who can pull it off.”

Here at home, Gallaher has partnered with NIU students to examine community gardens, which aim to fight food insecurity among poor residents and connect residents to local food sources and the larger community. NIU alumnus Walter Furness (M.S. Geography, 2015) worked with Gallaher to develop a study of food security, food sovereignty and community gardens in Rockford. He found that Rockford’s community gardens worked mainly on a donation basis to supply produce to local food pantries, which did provide food pantry clients greater access to fresh, healthy produce but left them missing out on some of the benefits of gardening itself.

Gallaher says, “The goal of all my research—here and in East Africa—is to find ways of helping the urban poor to be more food secure and to grow food in ways that are environmentally sound. Collaborating with NIU students is incredibly valuable because they’re empowered to learn about the research process as well as to think about these bigger picture issues of global food security and environmental sustainability.”