Applied Cultural Anthropology Health and Medicine Non-Profits

Alejandro Allen, Hays County Food Bank

AN INTERNSHIP WITH HAYS COUNTY FOOD BANK:

EXPERIENCES OF FOOD INSECURITY AND AGENCY

 

Alejandro Allen

 

HAYS COUNTY FOOD BANK: RESCUE, REDISTRIBUTE, AND EDUCATE

Hays County Food Bank (HCFB) was founded in 1984 as a food bank exclusively serving the city of San Marcos. A food bank is defined as “a non-profit organization working to eliminate hunger by providing food, education and other resources to a network of hunger-relief charities and their communities” (Link). As of 2017, HCFB has expanded to serve all of Hays County and work with other food banks around the state of Texas to feed the food insecure. Still headquartered in San Marcos, the food bank employs 7 full-time employees, one part-time employee, and is overseen by a board of directors. Volunteers are an important part of the organization, with most of the labor roles needed by the food bank filled in by these volunteers. Since the food bank operates as a non-profit organization, it is funded primarily by grants from various institutions and organizations, as well as donations. Fundraising is a very big part of the work of the food bank, with fundraisers being held regularly to collect donations from individuals or organizations.

 

RESCUE, REDISTRIBUTE, AND EDUCATE

HCFB seeks to fulfill three goals: rescue, redistribute, and educate. The rescue efforts are aimed at securing food that can be used to feed those who are in need. The primary vehicle for this comprises of donations from local HEB supermarkets. Every morning, volunteers travel to HEBs in the area to collect donated food and bring it back to the food bank for redistribution. Food donations are also made by local restaurants, farms, businesses, food-drives, and individual donations by members of the community. In 2015, the food bank received 226,076 pounds of food (Link).

Redistribution is achieved through food distributions organized by the food bank. There are seven weekly distributions in various locations around Hays County: four in San Marcos (including one on Texas State University’s campus), two in Kyle, and one in Martindale. In addition to the weekly distributions, HCFB collaborates with Central Texas Food Bank to host one mobile distribution every month at Rattler’s Stadium in San Marcos.

HCFB takes an active part in educating the public about food insecurity and nutrition through its programs that serve specific populations. Employees of the food bank regularly perform outreach by visiting schools, youth centers, senior citizen communities, and other organizations in the area to speak about food insecurity and educate the public about the resources available to them. Specialized programs are also organized by the food bank to serve specific populations. First, the Child Nutrition Engagement Program (CNEP) educates children on healthy eating habits to ensure adequate nutrition for the children of Hays County. Senior Nutrition and Wellness (SNAP) focuses on providing senior citizens with the necessary nutritional knowledge to address various ailments and health hazards. Cooking classes are also hosted by the food bank to share healthy recipes with the community that show people how to use the foods provided to them. Finally, the Nutrition and Wellness and the Health Initiatives are also in place at the food distributions in order to share community health resources with the people who attend.

 

CLIENT STORIES

Throughout the 2017 spring semester, my role with the food bank was as their Client Stories Intern. My primary goal focused on using the tools provided by applied anthropology to interview clients about their experiences with food insecurity, the food bank, and other issues that related to their struggles with food insecurity. In order to fulfill this goal, I performed extensive research on qualitative data collection techniques, formulated different approaches to collect client stories, collaborated with different food bank employees, and performed outreach at Texas State University. The end goal of my internship was to create a story bank, which is a collection of the stories I gathered through interviews that can be used by the food bank for funding proposals, outreach campaigns, and program evaluations.

The first half of my internship focused on individual interviews with clients. Every week, I attended two or three of the public distributions organized by the food bank in order to collect these interviews. My questions when interviewing clients focused primarily on how they understood food insecurity, what it looks like in their own lives, what factors have led to their food insecurity, the importance of nutrition in their lives, and how they used the resources that are currently available to them. My goal was to understand the experiences of the client from their point of view. In order to do this, it was important for me to be able to structure interviews in a way that allowed me to be able to collect the data that I was looking for.

Ethnographic interviewing places its focus on the lived experiences of the people who are being interviewed. Interviews that are centered around food insecurity, and are used in story banks, center on two main areas of research: the conditions that led people to seek food assistance, and the results of receiving food assistance. I needed to be able to construct an interview process that could help me understand the answers to these two areas for clients of HCFB. The questions that I used, therefore, had to be able to get answers that related to these two areas, while also allowing for people to share other experiences that could be relevant to their understanding of food insecurity and how it affects their lives.

Good interviews are not only the result of asking the right questions, but also being able to understand the environment you’re in, the interview style, and a lot of self-reflection. First, I really had to think about the places where I was conducting the interviews at. The food distributions provide some complications for interviewing, and I had to work out where the interviews were going to take place, what was the best time to do the interviews, and where would people be most comfortable with answering questions that could have very personal answers. Thinking about how people will react to the interviews because of their environment, and even the time constraints put upon them by the distribution process, allowed me to be able to create specific spaces at the interview sites that would make the person feel the most comfortable. Since the interviews are focusing on their lived experiences, an interviewer wants honest answers. These honest answers will best come about when the person is more comfortable. This is also why interviewing style is so important.

Interviewers need to pay particular attention to how they are interviewing people. Interviewing is best done in a manner that creates an open space where the person interviewed is given the time to respond to whatever they need to. Although the interviewer needs to guide the interview with the questions, and possibly probing questions, it really is all about the person being interviewed during the interview itself, and they need to be allowed to speak for the majority of the time. One tool that is essential in being able to do this is silence. It is not always wise to speak right after a person finishes a statement or thought because they may still have more to say and will be inclined to do so if a period of silence is given. Interviews are not meant to be rushed, and work best when people understand that their experiences can be shared.

Finally, self-awareness and self-reflection are critical. Throughout the interviews themselves, I had to constantly check in with myself to evaluate my body position, the expressions on my face, and even the space I was putting between myself and the person being interviewed. All of these things factor into how comfortable a person can be during an interview, and there were many times during interviews where I used space to attempt to create a more open environment for a person to feel more comfortable. More than once, it led to more sharing from the person being interviewed. I also had to go back periodically and evaluate my own interviewing style and understand what the conceptions and ideas that I had built up over the course of the interviews were so that I could remain flexible.

Interviews were conducted in a very structured way with a specific protocol. When arriving at the distributions, I would always make an announcement beforehand to inform the clients of who I am, what I am doing, and inviting them to come and talk to me if they wish to do so. This was important because if I did not do this, some of them might feel uncomfortable with someone walking around the distribution with a notebook and recording equipment looking around for people to talk to. Most of the interviews that I gathered were from people who had decided to come and talk to me, although some interviewees were found by me simply striking up conversations with clients and then asking them to be interviewed. Interviews were always recorded, either on a tape recorder or video camera, in order for me to analyze the data afterwards. The interviews needed to be set up in a way that they wouldn’t take away a lot of time from people collecting food at the distributions, so were usually structured to last about 5-10 minutes. I always collected a consent form from the client, along with a picture that could be used with the story when put into the story bank.

After collecting the interviews, I transcribed each interview in order to compile them into the story bank and analyzed them to single out recurring themes that are relevant to HCFB’s goals. This process could be time consuming, but it was really invaluable in being able to see everything that came up in the interview. Sometimes, it is hard to really take in everything that the person is saying during the interview itself when a lot of things are being said. Transcribing allowed me to be able to go through the interviews line-by-line. It is this process that can allow the interviewer to see what works and what doesn’t and where they can make specific improvements based on the errors they might see in front of them. Common errors that can be picked up include asking leading questions and rushing an interview. Once all the interviews were transcribed, I collected them in the story bank that I had created.

The second half of my internship focused on creating a report to present my overall findings to the food bank. Stories that are compiled into story banks can be valuable data when trying to look for emergent themes that are coming up in multiple interviews. This is the true value of a story bank when seeking answers to the questions that research into food insecurity focuses on, such as the questions mentioned earlier. The lived experiences of people that are discovered through ethnographic interviewing provides concrete examples from the people’s lives, such as those of the clients of the food bank, with regards to these questions. Since food insecurity is a very human problem, a person’s experience is of primary importance when conducting research. This experience includes not only the external circumstances that they find themselves in, but also the internal experiences that they have in regards to their own views and beliefs. The report that I compiled was able to pull those experiences into quantifiable data. Once I finished the report, it was passed along to the board of directors in order to inform them about how the clients are experiencing and understanding food insecurity. The finding of this report makes up the bulk of the next section.

 

FINDINGS REGARDING FOOD INSECURITY IN HAYS COUNTY

Hays County is home to 25,120 people who are classified as food insecure, or 1 in 7 people (Link). Food insecurity is defined as “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways” (Whittle 2015). This definition takes into the account the changing face of food insecurity; as, throughout the course of my internship, I talked to people who made it clear that they weren’t so much going completely hungry, but instead lived a life where they had very limited access to nutritionally-adequate foods due to their financial constraints. These financial constraints varied in nature, but I found that most had to do with housing, health issues, and having to provide for children. Furthermore, I found that most of the people that I spoke with throughout the course of the semester were only seeking food assistance for short periods of time, and saw it as a form of assistance that they could rely on until their circumstances improved. I found very few instances of hopelessness or feelings that they would always have to rely on services such as these.

The widespread economic impacts of gentrification have significantly contributed to food insecurity in Hays County. One of the most common things that I heard in the course of my interviews was that clients had to pay so much of their money to housing costs that they weren’t able to buy the food that they thought to be sufficient or adequate. Gentrification has been documented as having contributed to rising costs of living and having a significant impact upon  issues related to food insecurity (Whittle 2015). I found Hays County to be no exception, where many of the people that I spoke with reported that they already had to pay anywhere between half and three-fourths of their income towards housing costs. It has been suggested that paying even a third of one’s income towards housing costs causes strains on one’s ability to provide food for one’s household (Dickson-Gomez 2009). Throughout the process of interviewing, a common factor was attributing the high rent and housing prices to the growth the city of Austin has experienced in recent decades. Many of these people felt like they were paying a lot of the price of this growth and it has been reflected in their housing costs having risen.

Furthermore, reliance on disability and/or social security payments cause an ever-widening imbalance between food availability and access. Research on food insecurity has suggested that disability-related issues are some of the primary indicators of vulnerability to being food insecure (Coleman-Jensen 2013). Most of the people that I interviewed during the course of my internship reported relying on disability and/or social security as their primary form of income. They constantly reported that their checks from these services did not provide the amount of money that is necessary in order for them to acquire the food that they need for themselves and their families. Rent prices in Hays County seemed to a driving factor in their lack of available resources, as most of them reported to have paid most of their income to rent, leaving them with insufficient funds for necessities such as nutritious food. In addition, disability went hand in hand with continuing medical problems that required the application of the money that was available to individual persons or households. Health issues such as cancer, immobility, and cardiovascular disease were common in the pool of interviewees, and medical attention to these health issues took precedence over food when allocating financial resources. In addition, many of the people that I spoke with did not qualify for additional government aid such as SNAP (formerly known as food stamps), and because of this they were not able to supplement their income to afford the food that they desired. Recent policies have changed the qualification standards of assistance programs such as SNAP to make it harder for people to supplement already limited incomes (Whittle 2015).

Also, gender plays a part in food insecurity, as most of the clients of the food bank whom I was able to talk to were women. In the United States, there is a higher prevalence of food insecurity among women (Bukenya 2017). Throughout the course of my internship, I saw that 3/4ths of the interview that I collected were from women. This realization interested me a lot because it got me to think about whether this is really a reflection of my own process or if it is a reflection of something bigger such as gender roles or stigma. Through research, I was able to see that this is a common trend with food insecurity and, through the interviews, I was able to question this result. This was primarily because a lot of the women that I talked to were the people in their families who were responsible for food and feeding the family, so they were also responsible for coming to the food bank to acquire food. I was able to speak with quite a few mothers who stated that providing for their children is what brought them to the food bank initially and that they felt a deep responsibility to provide nutritiously-adequate food for their family. This responsibility led them to seek food assistance from the food bank. The overall population of the clients that I observed at the distributions reflected the majority representation of women at the food bank.

Food insecurity is a part of the lives of students at Texas State University as well, and seems to be largely covered up as a result of stigma and misunderstanding. HCFB had tasked me with seeking out students to interview, as they had very little understanding of the status of food insecurity on among the students at Texas State, and I was able to speak with a few students at the distributions. National trends demonstrate that almost half of college students experience some form of food insecurity (Link). Since Hays County is home to a large university, one would expect a large number of students at the food distributions. However, this is not the case. When I did find students to speak with, they mentioned that food insecurity is never discussed at their school and, because of this, the problem is largely invisible, and there’s an idea that college students can’t be food insecure. There was usually a sense of surprise when they discovered that services such as the food bank were available to students, and that there were other students who were struggling with the same kinds of problems.

As an ethnographer coming into a non-profit setting, it was of primary importance that I understand the role that I was there to play. I was the only intern (out of 12) who was using qualitative research methods in my internship. It was an interesting feeling, bringing a unique set of skills to a group like this non-profit, especially seeing that my role was really to focus on clients’ experiences with food insecurity, as opposed to the logistics of how to get more people the food that they need. Although I saw how important this kind of work is to the efforts of being able to help more people, as an researcher, I had to primarily pay attention to the experiences of the people I was working with as they are now as opposed to how they could be. I had to meet them where they are to really understand the effects that food insecurity has on their lives, and the effects of their lives on food insecurity.

The soft skills that are provided through anthropological training were the most valuable skills that assisted me in my internship. There were many times during my internship where I had to think critically, holistically, and flexibly in order to achieve the goals that I set out to achieve through my interviews and data analysis. Food insecurity in Hays County turned out to be a complex mix of economics, health, social issues, policy, and even gender roles. In addition to the soft skills that I was able to apply, anthropology’s focus on people’s experiences has allowed me to get insights into food insecurity that went beyond causation or structural elements. Using the skills that I have learned allowed me to see how people understand their experiences with food insecurity and how it played into their understanding of their world. One interview even showed that food insecurity changes the way that people see their own country and the role that they play within it.

Services such as those provided by the food bank can serve as an empowering mechanism, which places its effects far beyond those of relieving food insecurity. Most of the people who attend the distributions spoke about the effects of the food bank’s efforts on their lives in terms that go beyond just having enough food to eat. Many of the food bank’s clients see the food bank as “a family” or a place where everyone comes together to help each other and to feel understood in an environment in which food insecurity is still stigmatized. Despite their initial protestations to seek food assistance because of their reluctance to receive “hand-outs”, clients of the food bank are able to find a place where they felt welcomed, accepted, and listened to.

There is a great sense of solidarity between the clients of the food bank, and this was expressed constantly in interviews; clients said that they felt like they were home and were in a place where everyone was going through the same thing. These experiences were always retold with a sense of empowerment and created a sort of agency in the ability of a group of people to come together and help other people. This last part was evident in how clients created extended social networks outside of the food bank where they redistributed food that they did not use, traded food after distributions with other clients of the food bank, gave rides to people who could not access the services of the food bank, helped each other with preparing foods received at the food bank, and also returned to the food bank as volunteers once they were in a position where they could do so. The mentality of “pass it on” is widespread at the food bank, and seeing it was a great inspiration to many new clients and myself.

 

 

 

WORKS CITED

Bazerghi, C., McKay, F.H., Dunn, M. 2016. “The Role of Food Banks in Addressing Food Insecurity: A Systematic Review.” Journal of Community Health 41: 732-740.

Bukenya, J.O. 2017. “Determinants of Food Insecurity in Huntsville, Alabama, Metropolitan Area.” Journal of Food Distribution Research 48: 73-80.

Coleman-Jensen, A., Nord, M. 2013. “Food Insecurity Among Households with Working-Age Adults with Disabilities.” United States Department of Agriculture. Accessed April 17, 2017. https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/err144/34588_err_144_report_summary.pdf

Dickson-Gomez, J., Convey, M., Hilario, H., Weeks, M.R., Corbett, A.M. 2009. “Hustling and Housing: Drug Users’ Strategies to Obtain Shelter and Income in Hartford, Connecticut.” Human Organization 68: 269-279.

Whittle, H.J., Palar, K., Hufstedler, L.L., Seligman, H.K., Frongillo, E.A., Weiser, S.D. 2015. “Food Insecurity, Chronic Illness, and Gentrification in the San Fransisco Bay Area: An Example of Structural Violence in United States Public Policy.” Social Science & Medicine 143: 154-161.

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