Studying and measuring food insecurity in the United States was as important as ever during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The National Food Access and COVID Research Team was part of the effort to understand how the pandemic was affecting people to help inform governmental policies. Anna Josephson, assistant professor at the University of Arizona Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, was part of this team to help accomplish this objective for the state of Arizona. The Daily Wildcat sat down with Josephson to talk about myths surrounding food insecurity, how studying food insecurity in other countries informs studies done in the U.S. and what makes college food insecurity a difficult topic to approach.
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Daily Wildcat: What made you want to get involved with topics like this?
Anna Josephson: Well, when I was in undergrad I was like, "what do I really like doing?" I just kept thinking, "I like eating and I like thinking about food." So, I started reading about food economics, which is sort of a thing but then that brought me to agricultural economics. It's kind of an old name now, I don't think it really represents the fields, because we do environment, we do water, food, natural resources. And we do do agriculture, too. But, I really couldn't tell you [much about] agriculture itself, so I started looking into that … but everything sort of centered back around food. Most of my work happened to be outside the U.S., that's sort of where my interests were, and I like traveling. I like the context in which those problems are because we have institutions, you're sort of looking at a different set of circumstances, when the rules are different, things applying differently. I thought that was interesting, but then COVID-19 happened and I realized, I have all these tools that assess food security. Things were getting much, much worse very quickly and we should just apply all these tools here in Arizona that I have.
Thankfully, there was a team at ASU who … are nutritionists. And I know a little bit about nutrition, but not a lot, so we kind of teamed [up]. They know about all those food assistance programs that one of those [NFACT] briefs is about, which I confess to know nothing about – I know they exist and that's the end of my knowledge. It just seems like such an important problem. We all need food, we all need enough food and when you don't have it, everything just starts falling apart. I think it's interesting, and I think it's important. I also think it is really accessible to everybody; it's something that we all can interact with and think about and understand.
DW: How might [global research] inform things that we can do here?
AJ: I think that one of the things that I find really interesting in the context of COVID-19 is if you're growing all your own food, if you live in Zimbabwe, Sub-Saharan Africa or [many parts] of Asia and you are someone who produces and consumes your food – so you're going to grow it and then you're going to eat what you grow – that's a really inherently risky way of life because, if it doesn't rain enough, and your crop fails, you still need to eat. People who live in these countries inherently deal with a lot of risks and in the U.S., I think we have a bunch more padding mechanisms, and other parts of Europe, parts of Canada, all of that. We have a little more social insurance that protects us.
But, with COVID-19, so much of that went away. The things that buoyed us just weren't there anymore, because everyone was impacted — you couldn't necessarily go to a family member because they probably may have lost their job, too. It put us all in this really risky situation.
People in low-income countries are often just inherently dealing with this risky situation. Now we are too. And what can we learn from how people have adapted in other countries [and how can we] apply those tools here? I think we're sort of on the way for that.
I'll give you an example. So there's a question that you would ask in the U.S. to assess if someone's food insecure and it's, "Were you worried about food? Were you worried about having food?" Usually, people say no to that unless they are food insecure but during COVID-19, since there were so many runs on the stores, and so much hoarding of food, lots and lots of people said, "Yeah, I'm worried about getting enough food," including people like me, who were never food insecure. So we're not responding to the actual intent behind the question.
In developing countries, that question is phrased differently and you would ask it differently, because you're always kind of a little worried about food, because you're maybe growing everything that you're going to eat. One of the things that I've been learning and thinking about is, how can we better contextualize the questions that we're asking for when we're asking them, and that what works in normal times maybe doesn't work in a global pandemic when millions of people have lost their jobs and we're all now living in our houses all the time, whether we want to or not.
DW: What would be a really easy mistake to make when researching food insecurity or writing about it, reporting on it, just something that's really little but also really big?
AJ: I think one of the easiest mistakes to make is the difference between food insecurity and hunger. Being hungry is not the same as being food insecure. Obviously, if you're food insecure, you're probably hungry at different points, but just because you're hungry doesn't mean you're food insecure.
DW: Is there anything that differentiates college food insecurity from other types of food insecurity? Is that a fair question to ask?
AJ: I think that we often [think of] students as privileged, and so I think that we actually tend to underestimate how they could be food insecure. Until recently, I think we didn't do nearly enough. Now, like on our [UA] campus, we have a food [pantry] that faculty, staff, students [can use]. If you've got a CatCard, you can go to the food bank, which is incredible, but a lot of places don't have that at all. College is really, really expensive and if you're paying for courses, and then you're working and potentially you're also providing for your family, it could be very easy to just not have enough food.
The other thing that I think differentiates college students sometimes from the rest of the population is a lot of the time we're talking about households when we’re talked about food security. So we're talking about like, mom, dad, kids or mom, dad, grandpa, grandma and kids, but college students are often kind of an independent unit and that makes it a bit more difficult to assess because maybe you eat all your meals by yourself because you live alone, but maybe you and your roommate eat most of your meals together or maybe you go to the dining hall. I think there's more complexity in the in the college student experience.
DW: How can universities help reduce food insecurity and have there been any especially harmful policies that have been introduced or passed regarding food insecurity?
AJ: I think our role as universities is we can provide the data. That’s what I see as one of my big roles. I don’t have enough experience in Arizona – I’ve only lived here for a few years. I think I don’t have enough experience to say that this is the policy that will fix this problem, but what I can do is I can collect the data, I can distill it and I can provide it to the people who can make policy and have spent their whole careers making policy.
To learn more about NFACT and it's findings, visit their website at https://www.nfactresearch.org/.
Editor's Note: Original article switched the college and department of Josephson.
This conversation was produced as part of the "Confronting Scarcity Project" – a collection of reporting, commentary, maps, audio and more aimed at destigmatizing and amplifying the conversation around food and basic needs insecurity. This project was produced with students and the university community in mind as part of a collaboration between the Daily Wildcat and the UA School of Journalism's student media apprenticeship program.
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