Researchers all across the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus are working toward advancing knowledge and creating solutions to critical health disparities on both local and global scales. These researchers evaluate health disparities from a variety of interdisciplinary perspectives, and work to find ways to address the discrepancies within medicine, child development, law, food access, education, and health communication. Each Researcher Spotlight features a health disparities researcher doing important work right here at Illinois.
Chelsea Singleton, PhD
Assistant Professor, Department of Kinesiology and Community Health
Chelsea Singleton, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology & Community Health in the College of Applied Health Sciences. Her work focuses on disparities in access to quality, affordable, and healthy food, and its subsequent effects on health.
What is your research in health disparities about?
I research disparities in access to quality, affordable, healthy food in Illinois. Healthy food access disparities are associated with food insecurity, poor diet quality, and risk for chronic diseases such as obesity, hypertension, and Type 2 diabetes. I examine disparities in access across communities in regards to racial/ethnic and socioeconomic composition. A lot of my work thus far has been on farmers’ markets and other types of alternative retail outlets that facilitate the procurement of fresh foods (e.g., urban farms, community gardens, and farm stands). I aim to determine if low-income populations are utilizing these retail outlets, and if these outlets are having any type of impact on their diet and health.
How are you conducting your research?
I conduct community based participatory research (CBPR) as well as epidemiological research. I work with several community organizations in Illinois to conduct my research. My primary community partner is Experimental Station, a non-profit organization based on the south side of Chicago. They operate the largest farmers’ market incentive program in the state (LINK Match). This program offers those receiving LINK (i.e., food stamps) a monetary incentive if they use their benefits to purchase fresh foods from a participating farmers’ markets. To date, we have evaluated the demographics, barriers, attitudes, obesity status, and fruit and vegetable consumption of people who use this program. Currently, we are doing a project to evaluate three hospitals in Cook County, IL that have set up farmers’ markets on-site. These markets are offering a veggie prescription program to hospital patients. We have staff members who collect our survey data, do blood pressure screenings, and measure composition. Most of these people are community members who work at the market.
How does being a part of the Illinois community support and enhance your research?
After moving to Illinois, I started networking across the state so I could meet as many organizations as possible to build academic-community partnerships. I have met a lot of people who are working in the space of public health nutrition, food systems, and food equity. Making that my focus has given me access to spaces and resources that I may not have access to otherwise.
How will your research or work improve society or reach people?
My prior research has given me better insight into the people who actually utilize healthy food incentive programs such as LINK Match. Moving forward, I want to focus my research on people who have geographic access to these programs but choose not to utilize them. I want to understand how they compare to the people who actually use the programs. I want to see how these two groups compare demographically and in regards to their attitudes, beliefs, diets, and food preferences. There are several reasons why someone who has geographic access to these programs may not use them: lack of awareness, lack of interest, diet restrictions, nutrition literacy, etc. Gaining insight into these reasons would prove beneficial as it can guide us into ways we can increase or redirect our outreach efforts to get more people to utilize these program.
Do you have a personal story to share or path that led to your interest in this area of study?
As a child, I wanted to be a doctor because I wanted to help people and prevent disease. Instead, I ended up finding epidemiology and public health as a way to achieve this goal. I grew up in southwest Atlanta in mostly a low income and African-American community. When I was younger, I was fascinated with our community landscape because our community virtually had no place to buy healthy food. There was only a mom-and-pop grocery store but their produce was always rotten. The first large chain supermarket opened when I was getting ready to graduate high school. My dad would often take the long way home when he picked us up from school so that we could go a store that was far from where we lived. Furthermore, I was a college student living in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina happened in 2005. As you can imagine, the city’s landscape completely changed after that event. I developed an interest in examining the new food stores opening in low-income area of New Orleans after the hurricane and how these stores were affecting the economy and where people were shopping. I often tell people that I have an interest in healthy food accessibility from a public health AND economic point of view. I plan to do more research on the economic impact of health food incentive programs as faculty at Illinois.