MU team makes reality of Missouri food insecurity ‘easy to digest’

Researchers hope the data presented in the book will be a tool for policymakers.
Former chancellor Brady Deaton speaks at the “Universities Fighting World Hunger” forum Monday, Feb. 23, 2015 at Memorial Union in Columbia, Mo.

Though he tried, associate professor of geography Matthew Foulkes was unable to summarize the stories of his work on the Missouri Hunger Atlas. There’s a lot to tell.

“I know, I know, I can't do this succinctly,” Foulkes said, laughing.

The Missouri Hunger Atlas breaks down data on hunger throughout Missouri by county in the form of a 144-page softcover book. The book is the brainchild of Foulkes and professor Sandy Rikoon, Curators’ distinguished professor of rural sociology and the director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Food Security since 2004.

Research for the atlas began in 2004 and now the pair has three editions of the book to show for their work. Foulkes and Rikoon originally teamed up with two other professors for the research, but the project now requires a combined effort from a team of MU professors and graduate students from multiple areas of study. The most recent edition of the book was published in 2013, and an updated version is due out in 2016.

The goal of the atlas, as stated on its first page, is to assess “the extent of food insecurity in the state of Missouri,” as well as begin to “gauge how well public programs are doing in meeting the needs of those of our fellow citizens who have difficulty acquiring sufficient amounts and qualities of food.”

The Hunger Atlas distinguishes between those who are worried about having enough food and those who actually experienced hunger. Rikoon said someone who is food insecure often worries about acquiring sufficient food, whereas someone who is food secure doesn’t have to.

“Then the third category is either called ‘very low food security’ or, what we like to call it, ‘food insecure with hunger,’” Rikoon said. “Meaning that slightly more than half of the people that worry about getting enough food manage to do it because of the federal programs, because of food pantries, sharing with neighbors … and then other families actually experience hunger in terms of having to skip meals, reduce intake, things like that.”

Foulkes and Rikoon originally worked alongside Joan Hermsen, associate professor of sociology and chairwoman of women’s and gender studies, and Nikki Raedeke, an assistant teaching professor and director of dietetics, nutrition and exercise physiology.

“We had been asked, and got some funding to do a survey of households that participated in the food pantries,” Rikoon said.

The Food Bank for Central and Northeast Missouri in Columbia asked the team to do a systematic survey of pantries and households. This survey was conducted during the summer of 2005 with 1,300 households participating.

“At the end they said, ‘Well, where are we missing people?’” Rikoon said. “‘So you know where our pantries are, how many people are using them. So now, sort of in the context of where hunger is in Missouri, are there geographic gaps in our coverage?’”

A great question, the team thought, but almost impossible to answer.

At the time, there was no one in the state collecting information on the amount of hungry people, the amount of people participating in food programs or where food insecure people were located throughout the state of Missouri.

Although they now have extensive information about the people using food pantries in Missouri, they had only surveyed those who used food pantry services, meaning they didn’t know anything about people that had little to eat but did not have access to a food pantry.

“Then a light bulb went off and we're like, ‘Wouldn't it be cool if we could somehow estimate where there's need?’ which is kind of a different question than what we were doing with them,” Foulkes said. “So, Sandy ran with this idea, and building on the momentum of this client survey in 2005, we started working on (the Hunger Atlas).”

From the original survey of food pantries came a comprehensive, county-by-county breakdown of food insecurity in Missouri, with the first edition published in 2008. Using statistics collected from several public agencies, the team was able to come up with a way to estimate some of the data that is impossible to survey.

“Some of the data we have is actual real counts, and some of it we model based on our best expectations of what we know are the demographics of the area and then we know their likelihood, say, of being food insecure and things like that,” Rikoon said. “But if you had a million dollars or something, we could go out and actually survey people, but we don’t have the resources to do that.”

It was a much larger undertaking than the original project, but one that would end up becoming an important tool for policymakers because of its easy-to-use format.

“We felt that (making the atlas) would be much more effective than us rambling on and on about it or writing papers in academic journals because … policymakers don't really read academic journals,” Foulkes said. “We could have published this stuff in Rural Sociology maybe, but who's gonna read Rural Sociology and how's that gonna help the state of Missouri? Rural Sociology is a great journal, but the outreach part of the Hunger Atlas was always at the forefront in our minds.”

Putting all of the collected information about hunger in one place and presenting it in a series of easy-to-read maps and charts allowed them to use it as a new tool to help in enacting social and political change.

“The main mission is, I think, to raise awareness of the severity of hunger in Missouri,” Foulkes said. “We want to do that by providing information to academics and policymakers in a way that's easy to digest and makes clear the scope of the problem.”

Foulkes also said that the maps included in the atlas help to explain the relationship between geography and food insecurity.

“There's a spatiality to poverty, and so, by extension, there's a spatiality to food insecurity,” Foulkes said. “There’s pockets of higher employment, there’s pockets of lower employment, there's different jobs that are available certain places than others, a lot of places where there are not many jobs, and so, that's where it's really tied into geography. And that’s why we have the maps.”

Foulkes said the maps show that where someone lives can play a role in the probability of food insecurity.

“It's not the only thing, but certainly your personal characteristics, your skills … a lot of things go into determining whether you're food insecure or not, but where you live actually plays a role for job opportunities, how much your housing costs are, whether there's a food pantry nearby, you know, all those things,” Foulkes said.

To construct the Missouri Hunger Atlas, the team of researchers collects secondary data and uses their modeling method to estimate statistics.

However, Foulkes said working with data concerning people who are unable to acquire a sufficient amount of food is still hard, especially when they are required to personally survey people in the field.

“It is actually a very emotional thing to see these numbers,” Foulkes said. “I'm a population geographer and demographer, so I'm used to seeing maps and I've worked with a lot of poverty and it's pretty horrifying. When you think about the Hunger Atlas, it makes me upset thinking that we have this level.”

Foulkes said that emotionally, there is a tendency for people to be removed from the reality of poverty.

“That's why the surveys have been so good, because then you go out to the pantries and talk with people who are actually at the pantries and obviously that moves the needle,” Foulkes said. “That changes things because you're face-to-face with people's lives and you don't walk away from them unchanged. I know our students we've worked with on the project, they're very emotional. It takes a toll on them, our students that did the surveys.”

Rikoon said that although working with data on hunger can affect anyone involved with the projects emotionally, what results from the data collected is change.

“(The students) come back totally changed by the experience because they’re actually talking to the folks that actually use the food pantries and hearing their stories — and it has to have an impact on you because most of us don’t experience food insecurity if we’re, you know, graduate students or professors,” Rikoon said. “And so, it does take a toll, but it also is a sort of jolt to taking action.”

He said the Hunger Atlas can act as a call to action for some people.

“The good thing about the University of Missouri is we’re not just researchers, we’re also people who are interested in working with communities and trying to improve the situation,” Rikoon said. “It’s one of our missions as well: service. So, it’s a good jolt. It results, I think, for students and faculty, in positive social action.”

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