Addressing Food Insecurity at Home and Abroad
By Amy Harroun, '05
In the wake of Hurricane Irma, many Florida residents faced food insecurity concerns, wondering if they would have enough to feed their families. Although these challenges were new to many, a surprising 17 percent of Tampa Bay families face food insecurity on a daily basis. That's 204,240 individuals in Hillsborough County alone. "Many people don't realize that hunger is such an issue right here at home," says Sarah Bradley, a USF PhD student in applied anthropology and public health. A diverse mix of circumstances leads people of all walks of life to experience food insecurity. Just as there is no one face of hunger, there is also no one solution to the problem. Access to food pantries, opportunities for low-cost healthy foods, improvements in distribution, procurement of the proper tools for meal preparation, and a decrease in food waste can all impact the 815 million hungry people around the world.
Bradley works with Feeding Tampa Bay to research local communities and identify where additional resources are needed. "The organization does an excellent job of bringing food to community members who need it. Our objective is to find places where challenges still exist and create strategies to address them," she says.
As a farmer herself, Bradley has a rare perspective on food. She's managed food distribution and quality at Gorman Farm in Maryland for the past four years. "About one third of all food globally goes to waste somewhere between farm and table," says Bradley. "That number rises to 40 percent of all food in America. This lost food is the low-hanging fruit in the fight to address hunger."
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), after decreasing steadily for a decade, world hunger has increased during the past two years, rising from 777 million chronically undernourished people in 2015 to 815 million people last year.
Also according to FAO, if only 25 percent of the total food lost or wasted globally each year were saved (roughly 1.2 billion tons), it could feed 870 million people. That's enough food for everyone who is currently hungry.
"At Gorman Farm, nothing gets wasted. All of our extra produce gets donated to local churches and food banks," says Bradley. "I've learned through this work that addressing food insecurity is a community project. It takes the coordination of many different groups and people all working toward the same goal. It is because of our customers who can afford to purchase our food that we are able to give back to those in the community who can't."
Many community members who need assistance are college students. David Himmelgreen, chair of the USF Anthropology Department, notes that 10 percent of college students are food insecure. "Back in 2005 there were just a handful of universities in the U.S. that had food pantries," he says. "Now there are about 400."
Himmelgreen sits on the board of Feeding Tampa Bay and has been studying food insecurity at home and abroad for more than 20 years. He notes the good work being done by the Feed-A-Bull Food Pantry on USF's Tampa campus which provides supplemental food and nutrition resources for students in need.
The focus on the nutritional value of available foods is a very important aspect of fighting hunger. Kayla Rykiel, an Honors College junior majoring in biomedical sciences and minoring in both public health and dance, sees firsthand the value of providing not just food, but healthy food, to those in need. She volunteers at Sweetwater Farms, a nonprofit organic community farm and environmental education center in Tampa. The farm was founded in 1993 by Rick Martinez.
Rykiel serves as the farm's ambassador for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), a government-funded program that provides nutrition assistance to millions of low-income Americans. Sweetwater Farms allows SNAP recipients to use their benefits for half-off fresh produce grown on the farm and throughout Florida. "It's a really great opportunity to get access to high-quality fruits and vegetables fresh off the farm," says Rykiel.
Sweetwater also allows SNAP recipients to participate in a cooperative program that lets them pay a flat amount and pick up boxes of freshly harvested produce weekly. "It's a decreased price for guaranteed and healthy fruits and vegetables on a regular basis," says Rykiel.
The university's nominee for the Harry S. Truman Scholarship (a competitive and prestigious award for "change agents" committed to public service), Rykiel says that there is still much work to be done. "I'd like to focus on strengthening the assistance programs that already exist in our country," she says. "We've seen that they are providing for the caloric needs of these families, but a stronger focus needs to be put on the nutritional value of available foods." She notes that we could spend much less money treating chronic disease if we proactively invest in access to healthier foods.
Rykiel is furthering her study of food access by also researching food insecurity among Pinellas County teens and volunteering at Trinity Cafe, a Tampa nonprofit that provides meals with respect and care in a restaurant-style environment.
Food access and quality are not the only issues that affect hunger however, as Honors College instructor Lindy Davidson, PhD '16 and her students observed up-close during a recent service trip to the Dominican Republic. The students volunteered at a school in Madre Vieja and were surprised to learn that while the government supplied the school with food for the students, the school did not have a kitchen to prepare and cook the food.
"They were relying on a neighbor who prepared the food in her home," says Davidson. "But on days when the woman was not available to cook, the students had nothing to eat."
Amber Pirson, an Honors College sophomore on the trip, teamed up with fellow classmate Lauren George to propose a project to build a kitchen for the school. The Honors College has provided funding for the project, and Davidson will lead a group of students back to the Dominican Republic this winter to build the kitchen and create a healthy ecogarden on the property. This will both enhance food quantity and promote nutritious eating.
"This project will have a tangible impact on the health and quality of life of these children," says Honors College dean Charles Adams. "I am very proud of our students for seeing a global need and finding a solution."
Also seeking to address a global food access issue, Bradley has set her sights across the Atlantic on Uganda. She has applied for a Fulbright grant to study food insecurity in the country. Although Uganda's economy has seen a significant improvement during the past decade, food insecurity is still a major issue.
"Africa has some of the highest rates of food insecurity in the world," says Bradley. "I see this as a chance to do the most good." If funded, she will work with the Sociology and Anthropology Department at Makerere University in the country's capital city, Kampala, to increase food security by improving the handling and processing of starchy tubers like the potato.
For many people in the Tampa Bay area, the topic of food insecurity might seem as foreign as studying tubers in Uganda. Peter Nkhoma, PhD '16, who teaches a global food security course in the USF Honors College, notes that the topic of hunger is an abstract idea to many people. "We are blissfully unaware that even within our neighborhoods there are people experiencing food insecurity and suffering from hunger, mostly due to economic hardship," he says. "My hope is that after taking this course, students will become lifelong food security activists."
There are many ways for community members to help. Options include donating needed items to food pantries, contributing financially to projects like Feed-A-Bull, volunteering with non-profit farms like Sweetwater, or just decreasing the volume of wasted food.
"Every little bit helps," says Adams. "I am so honored to work at a university where faculty, staff and students not only research problems but also identify ways to help and then set initiatives in motion. It's a wonderful thing to see."
How You Can Help
In 2016 USF and Feeding Tampa Bay founded the Hunger Action Alliance to study the long-term health effects of food insecurity and improve local relief efforts. Additional Alliance members include Humana, Florida Hospital, Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital, Bank of America, Community Foundation of Tampa Bay, and Mosaic.
This group is working to address the issue of hunger and food insecurity in Tampa Bay through projects like mobile food pantries and backpack programs that supply schoolchildren in need with meals at home. To learn more about their work and how you can help, visit feedingtampabay.org/hunger-action-alliance.