Published October 31, 2017
As an undergraduate student pursuing a public health degree at the University of California, Irvine, Yeeli Mui had not yet heard about the field of urban planning, much less considered the relationship between urban planning and public health.
Committed to furthering her knowledge about equitable food access in neighborhoods around the United States, she pursued master’s and doctoral degrees in public health, the former concentrating on health policy and the latter on nutrition. Her public health training exposed the ways in which neighborhood contexts, and the policies that shape those environments, can have significant implications for population health. This, ironically, led her to the field of planning at the University at Buffalo, as a postdoctoral associate with the Community for Global Health Equity and the UB Food Systems Planning and Healthy Communities Lab.
Her entrée to food access research occurred at the undergraduate level with obesity prevention and nutrition education in elementary schools. Working with the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, Dr. Mui deepened her commitment to strengthening healthy food access in underserved communities as a graduate student at Yale University. She further cultivated this interest professionally, at Family Health International 360, a nonprofit human development organization in Washington, DC. There, Dr. Mui supported the National Collaborative on Childhood Obesity Research, with an aim to curb the obesity epidemic and improve population health through health communications. Through this work and interactions with lead researchers in the obesity field, Dr. Mui was inspired to seek advanced training that could lead to greater influence and long-lasting impact.
To this end, Dr. Mui pursued her PhD at Johns Hopkins University where she led the policy arm of B’More Healthy Communities for Kids, a multi-level obesity-prevention intervention. This five-year project, aimed at increasing the affordability, availability and consumption of healthy food in low-income neighborhoods of Baltimore, opened Dr. Mui’s eyes to the contextual factors affecting food choices in city neighborhoods. Instead of focusing on what was in food stores, Dr. Mui researched some components of the lived experiences in neighborhoods that created significant barriers to healthy-eating. This work led to her dissertation on how characteristics of place affect the urban food system and individual food choice. She specifically investigated the relationships between neighborhood-level risk factors and food swamps, areas with an overabundance of unhealthy food relative to healthy food.
Today, with the Community for Global Health Equity, Dr. Mui brings to life the gains that spring forth when the fields of planning and public health converge. Dr. Mui has started work on Plan-REFUGE, a study supported by the Community for Global Health Equity, that aims to understand the decisions and trade-offs made by smallholder farmers in the Global South who are facing climate change, a globalizing economy, and food insecurity.
Additionally, Dr. Mui is collaborating with the Urban Institute in DC and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, laying the groundwork for a future health impact assessment, to uncover the connections between Baltimore’s Vacants to Value program and community health.
Ultimately, the comprehensive nature of the planning field encourages collaboration with and an appreciation of other sectors. Dr. Mui looks forward to expanding partnerships to strengthen research and understanding of how the built and social environments impact health, food access and food equity in our neighborhoods in Buffalo and the Global South.