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UK professor passionate about providing access to healthy foods

UK professor passionate about providing access to healthy foods

UK professor passionate about providing access to healthy foods

Alison Gustafson studies food access in rural communities.


 Most of us view a trip to the grocery store as a chore, but for one University of Kentucky professor, it’s all in a day’s work.

Alison Gustafson, an assistant professor in UK’s Department of Dietetics and Human Nutrition, has always been interested in people, what they eat and why they make the choices they make when it comes to food. 

“One of my favorite things to do is to walk the aisles of a grocery store or a gas station,” Gustafson said. “So the food stores out in the counties are my labs.”

But the path from an undergraduate degree from Bradley University in dietetics to a career as a scholar at UK did not happen overnight.

Gustafson spent time in Washington, D.C. working on nutrition policy, earned a master’s degree in public health at Boston University and even worked with AIDS orphans and HIV-positive mothers in Zimbabwe.  The common theme in each of these roles was access to food. 

But she really tapped into her passion for research while working for a small health department in Illinois.  There, Gustafson received a grant from the Susan G. Komen Foundation to conduct research on weight loss among breast cancer survivors. At the same time, she was invited to teach a class at a local community college.

"I loved doing research, which involved reaching out to people and helping them to improve their lives," said Gustafson. "And I found teaching to be fascinating. The combination of interacting with students in the classroom while also working on a research project was stimulating. It tripped my trigger. It was then I decided to pursue my Ph.D."

Gustafson, now in her fifth year as a faculty member in the University of Kentucky's Department of Dietetics and Human Nutrition, part of the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, earned her doctorate at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, where her dissertation focused on nutrition epidemiology.

She worked with minority women in rural populations as they tried to lose weight.  That was her “aha” moment.

“They were talking about how there was nowhere to shop to buy the food we were telling them to buy,” Gustafson said.  “So, you can tell people all this food to buy and you should buy more apples and even if culturally that fits with someone’s culture, if they don’t have access to that type of food and it’s not affordable, they’re not buying it.” 

Her research at UK examines how the food environment impacts obesity among rural populations. Gustafson conducts community-based behavioral interventions focused on chronic disease prevention.

For the entire UKNow story and video, click here.

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