Setting the Table for Food Security

Symposium unites research and communities to tackle hunger in the U.S.

We all think about it every day: what to eat at our next meal. For the millions of American households who experience food insecurity, the question is not what to eat, but if they’ll eat.

Addressing that issue was on the table at a recent symposium hosted at MU: Food Insecurity: Assessing Disparities, Consequences, and Policies. The symposium, sponsored by Mizzou Advantage and the Chancellor’s Fund for Excellence, brought together nationwide experts from diverse disciplines including sociologists, economists, community development specialists, anthropologists, social workers, community activists, nutritionists and geographers to assess the state of food insecurity and food justice and unpack a simple question with incredibly complex answers: where do we go from here?

Patricia Allen, chair of the Department of Food Systems and Society, Marylhurst University and one of the symposium’s keynote speakers, and Sandy Rikoon, director of MU’s Interdisciplinary Center for Food Security and coordinator of the symposium.

“The here is complicated, but we go much more blindly into the future if we don’t have a good idea of what we know and how we know it and what we don’t know and what information we need to know and how are we going to find it,” said Sandy Rikoon, professor and Curators’ Distinguished Teaching Professor of Rural Sociology and Director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Food Security, which coordinated the event.

More than 400 people attended the symposium, which began with a presentation by Patricia Allen, chair of the Department of Food Systems and Society at Marylhurst University.

“She’s one of the leading thinkers on sustainable food systems and food justice,” Rikoon said as he introduced Allen to the crowd in MU’s Memorial Union. “She developed and led a social issues research and education program and was director of one of the most innovative and exciting centers in the U.S., The Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems at the University of California, Santa Cruz.”

Allen began her talk, Serving Food Justice, with a definition she helped craft in 2004 in a collaborative effort with academics and activists: “A socially just food system is one in which power and material resources are shared equitably so that people in communities can meet their needs, live with security and dignity now and into the future.”

Achieving that food system requires working within the current food system at multiple leverage points. Allen explained the paradox that workers in the food system are among the lowest paid and work in some of the most difficult and often the most dangerous conditions. “Why do the people who harvest our food often not have enough to eat themselves?” she asked rhetorically.

Allen posited two pathways to impact food justice: embodying justice, and catalyzing justice and incubating change. She shared a story of a student movement at UC Santa Cruz that wanted more local and organic food in their dining halls, but when they learned of the labor conditions there, they redirected their efforts to help workers get regular salaries and health benefits, thus catalyzing food justice.

“When we’re serving food justice I think we have phenomenal opportunities,” she said. “There’s no other public issue that’s as accessible to people in their daily lives as that of food. We all think about food every day; if we’re lucky, we eat food every day. This spans age, gender, ethnicity, social class — we’re all involved and we’re also all implicated.”

It’s a message that resonates with Rikoon, whose research helped create the Missouri Hunger Atlas, a resource that provides comprehensive information about hunger across the state and demonstrates that the face of hunger in Missouri is a multi-faceted one demanding innovative, targeted and localized solutions. Rikoon and his team research and employ those solutions through the Food Pantry Nutrition Project, an integrated research and extension project employing a food systems approach to enhance healthy food options and education in food pantries.

Rikoon discusses some of the tensions and challenges in addressing food insecurity here:

Food availability and access and the health consequences connected to them, were persistent themes throughout the event. David Holben, acting associate dean of the College of Health Sciences and Professions, Ohio University, turned an old health adage on its head in his public address: “an apple a day still leaves you two-three servings short.”

Andrew Fritz, a graduate student in rural sociology in CAFNR, documents ideas from one of the round-table dialogues at the symposium.

According to USDA data, nearly 18 million U.S. households experienced food insecurity in 2011, meaning they worried about being able to provide sufficient food for their household. In a country with incredible agricultural capacity, producing nearly 4,000 calories per day for every American, the scope of food insecurity is often surprising to those who haven’t experienced it. Holben, his students and members of their community in Athens have worked to improve access by planting fruit trees in public, highly trafficked places to help make fruit more readily available in their community.

Improving access to healthy foods was one of myriad strategies attendees discussed, debated and theorized about. On the closing morning of the symposium, Rikoon orchestrated round-table discussions to synthesize ideas, form partnerships and channel the efforts of the group.

Rikoon reflects on some of the lessons learned at the symposium:

Learn more about the work to reduce hunger at the Interdisciplinary Center for Food Security’s site

Text for audio clips available upon request.