Feature Stories

Dr. David Himmelgreen's Research that Matters grant with Feeding Tampa Bay is studying the impact of school back packs on childhood hunger

by Bonnie Silvestri, OCEP Director of Strategic Communications

One in four children locally are hungry. Half of local children receive a free lunch at school but may not have enough food at night, on the weekends, and during the long summers, according to Feeding Tampa Bay. In fact, 16 million children nationwide are "food insecure," which means they have "inadequate access to sufficient, nutritious and safe food." What have become known as "school backpack programs," referring to subsidized food supplements given to young people to put into their backpacks and eat at home, have been sprouting up around the country in an attempt to respond to the growing problem of childhood hunger.



                                     Dr. David Himmelgreen, a recipient of an OCEP Research that Matters grant.

To date, very little research has been done to determine the effectiveness of these programs. However, Dr. David Himmelgreen, one of this year's recipients of an Office of Community Engagement and Partnerships Research that Matters grant, together with his community partner Feeding Tampa Bay, where he also serves as a board member, will be evaluating one such program for the next several months. This year's OCEP Research that Matters grants have provided four anthropologists, the department of which Himmelgreen is chair, with $8,000 grants to conduct community-based research.

David Himmelgreen Interview

 Click here to watch an interview with Dr. David Himmelgreen about the Research that Matters grant and partnership with Feeding Tampa Bay

"If people aren't eating enough, this affects their ability to function and to grow and develop as they should," said Himmelgreen. "There is good evidence that chronic food insecurity affects kids' health, and their ability to function as productive adults. This is not just about short-term needs; this is about long-term consequences," he continued. He expressed his very real concerns that half of all Feeding Tampa Bay recipients report eating food beyond the expiration date and more than half dilute their food to make it last longer.

Thomas Interview

Click here to watch an interview with community partner Thomas Mantz, Executive Director of Feeding Tampa Bay, about the Research that Matters grant and other ways in which Feeding Tampa Bay is partnering with USF.

Himmelgreen and a small team of researchers have been interviewing recipients of the backpacks at the Boys and Girls Club of Dover, Florida, which distributes food supplied by Feeding Tampa Bay. Many of the families are migrant farm workers, who play an important role in the food production process, yet often earn such low wages that they and their children must rely on food stabilization programs.


                            Sylvia Kapous of Feeding Tampa Bay holding a package of food for a back pack.

The team is working with forty Dover based families, distributing surveys and conducting small focus groups about their eating habits and the challenges they face in maintaining a stable food source. They are also interviewing personnel responsible for distributing the backpacks.

Himmelgreen's work is multi-dimensional, because in addition to examining the physical consequences of long-term hunger, he delves deeply into the "symbolic meaning of food" and our emotional connection with food and the lack thereof. He plans to address some of the cultural issues at stake when young people are given food subsidies, such as whether the food is, as he says, "culturally appropriate" and how close-knit families cope with sharing food that is designed to bridge the gap only for the child receiving the backpack.

Himmelgreen discussed the very real "psychic stress" that can occur when the "ritual of everyday life" of eating at least three times a day is disrupted. He also talked about the common American phenomenon of eating on the run, "something quick and easy because our lives are so harried," and the impact that a breakdown of the traditional family dinner can have on the dynamics and the structure of parent–child relationships as well as youth thriving.


A young child opens a Feeding America back pack.

At the conclusion of the study, as stated in their research application, "The results will be included in a federal grant proposal for a longitudinal study of local school-based food assistance programs and to develop recommendations for improving their dietary quality." Himmelgreen hopes that through this pilot study they will be able to "scale up" the program and develop more standardized protocol for the distribution of food through school backpacks. The team, including Himmelgreen; Jacqueline Siven, doctoral student in Anthropology; Karen Griffin, Feeding Tampa Bay Director of Development; Ann Tezak, USF MA/MPH student and Project Director; and Sylvia Kapous, Feeding Tampa Bay Agency Relations and Program Director who serves as the school liaison, further stated, "Considering the long-term consequences of food insecurity on health, academic performance, and work productivity, studies like this one are sorely needed."

Early in the process of developing the study, Himmelgreen and Thomas Mantz, Feeding Tampa Bay Executive Director, contacted numerous funders who were not interested in providing the necessary money to conduct an evaluation of an existing program, which Himmelgreen said is because "research is not as sexy." He continued, "It's hard to convince people to give you money to see if something is working or is not particularly effective." He said because there is scant research and only anecdotal evidence, "the jury is still out" about the effectiveness of backpack programs.

Most donors want to feel good knowing that a young child who is hungry is getting something to eat; however, it is difficult to move beyond "band-aid" solutions without research on the effectiveness of food stabilization programs. Himmelgreen explained, "This is why OCEP (which funds research) is so important."                                                   

Himmelgreen also shared that researchers often "go get data and then run for the hills," but it is absolutely crucial to develop a strong partnership with a community organization that he said can "vouch" for the researchers. Both Himmelgreen and Mantz find his board membership and active participation with the organization to be mutually beneficial.

The relationship between Himmelgreen and Feeding Tampa Bay began with a short op-ed that Himmelgreen wrote on April 7, 2013 in the Tampa Bay Times. Spotting an ally in his fight against hunger in the Tampa Bay area, Mantz immediately contacted Himmelgreen and told him, "Your thoughts and words really resonate with us." He continued, "Scholarship is very critical to food relief," therefore, he said, "from a board perspective, David was a home run for us." Mantz wanted to go beyond asking donors to help feed young people because it feels right to actually demonstrating what will happen when children receive the proper nutrition and perhaps even more importantly, the dire consequences when they don't.

The fact that the two have forged such a strong partnership as a result of Himmelgreen taking the time to write the opinion piece for public media demonstrates why public scholarship is so important for researchers, particularly those at large land grant universities like USF. Himmelgreen weighed in about the impact a cut to a school lunch program would have on young children, and he shared his research from over twenty years of studying food insecurity and hunger locally and globally. The connection Himmelgreen and Feeding Tampa Bay have forged will have long-range impacts on the organization and Himmelgreen's own research.

Mantz said about his participation at a recent conference with the other leaders of food banks nationwide, "There was not a food bank that I talked to that did not want the results of this study." He said his colleagues were clamoring for the results to be able to prove the long-term effects of investing in food banks.

Feeding Tampa Bay serves 10 counties in the Tampa Bay area, where Mantz said, "700,000 people are dealing with hunger on a daily basis." He continued, "Hunger is at epidemic proportions." He said the backpack study is a great first step, but on his wish list is a major study to follow families for five years to help donors see how their investment in food stabilization will impact all families using their services in both the short- and long-term. He said, "If we invest now, we save later."