In the Spring of 2019, a team from Johns Hopkins University (JHU) and Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) collaborated to learn more about organizations in Baltimore that serve youth who experience food insecurity. For more information about the project and participants, see our summary.

In this post, the multidisciplinary team members who come from a variety of backgrounds, share their experiences working together and exploring this topic.

Anushka Jajodia
MICA, MA in Social Design

I am so grateful to have received the opportunity to be part of a team that is trying its best to navigate through a cause that is so complex, like many others. While it seems unfair at times to have the privilege and position to research neighborhoods and communities, it is also important to talk about the issues and encourage a design system that respects the communities.

My conversations with various food experts, practitioners and researchers in Baltimore surfaced the strengths and limitations that exist at different levels around food insecurity.

Our area of focus as a research team was to understand the role of data across organizations in the city. I realized how important data collection is to facilitate outreach and spread awareness. There were three key insights that emerged from the conversations:

  • To prioritize outreach at the organizational and institutional level that informs the system and the people to receive funding from the city/state.
  • To incentivize outreach within the community (to always respect and nurture relationship-building)
  • To educate the public to reduce any assumptions about what low socioeconomic neighborhoods need or deserve

As a human-centered designer, I was inspired by the powerful individuals that participated in the collaborative ideation session, and the experience has sparked more questions for me. For instance, I learned that adolescents seek to engage in programs that provide fruitful and economic opportunities for them. How can the organizations that are already doing so much in the city be supported to shift relationships between institutions and the community? How can they be supported to serve adolescents in the city? For the adolescents who have to be breadwinners of the house because of traumatic experiences in the family like incarceration or family separation, how can a community support the specific needs of teenagers and creates a meaningful rapport with them and not exclude them? How can we loosen all these limiting nodes and turn them into opportunities to promote safety and health for families?

A key body of research questions remains, including how can food be provided in a long-term, sustainable way in addition to meeting the immediate needs of people experiencing food insecurity? How can we attain a balance between a sufficient provision of healthy food plus constant change in the policy structures that value the community at the center of its design? Is it ever possible to have a system without any discriminating policies or resources that reduce the accessibility of basic requirements across neighborhoods? I sincerely hope that through all these discussions and questions, we can all create opportunities to act on and ease the tensions that exist in the city.

Nadir Kharusi
JHU, Masters Degree candidate, Applied Economics and Research Associate at Center for Applied Public Research

Going into the project I had limited knowledge of food insecurity in general, and food insecurity in Baltimore, in particular. I had to acquire a basic understanding of what food insecurity meant in Baltimore and the metrics used to measure it. The knowledge that I was able to gather from independent research was limited. After all, I hadn’t ever lived in Baltimore, nor do I know anyone who does that has experienced food insecurity.

This project connected me to nonprofits, government entities and researchers who are actively engaged in trying to understand, measure, and combat food insecurity in Baltimore. They exposed me to critical pieces that are missing when it comes to thinking of food insecurity.

Often the issue is reduced to accessibility to food only, with little regard to the impact that specific kinds of food has on people’s’ lives as a whole. Not having access to nutritional food could have long term detrimental effects on students’ academic outcomes, the ability of parents to take care of their dependents, and neighborhoods. For instance, one person I had the pleasure of interviewing noted that “your concept of options becomes limited” when you are born and raised in an environment in which it is normalized to consume food that is harmful to you.

Some of the individuals who work in the food insecurity space interact with people who experience food insecurity directly and establish a personal bond with them. They understand the importance of relying on people’s lived experience to truly understand the issue and make policy decisions accordingly. My only regret is not being able to directly interview the individuals experiencing food insecurity due to privacy considerations and the short timeline of the project.

My biggest takeaway from the project was understanding the importance of analyzing social issues using an equity lens, and addressing the issue in the short-term  while collaborating with the community to find and implement sustainable solutions. Temporary fixes like food pantries address the immediate need for food, but viable long-term sustainable solutions are needed. At its core, finding and implementing solutions to food insecurity and poverty are constrained by the lack of political will.

Max Marshall
JHU, Research Engineer, Department of Civil Engineering

This project was a fascinating experience for me, as well as an interesting look at a nuanced and important issue that we need to work extremely hard to solve. In general, my goal is to use engineering to improve complex socioeconomic and technical systems, and I also have several years of experience working with students in Baltimore City who are served by affordable meal programs. Consequently, I was very excited to combine these interests in an effort centered around data usage and adolescent food access in Baltimore.

My interviews provided a thought-provoking and varied insight into the food landscape of Baltimore. I spoke with people working on very different parts of the process, from governance to meal prep training, from grant writing to food delivery.  Each had a unique perspective on what should be done to address food inequality, and many had different interpretations of what a sustainable and equitable food system should look like. These differences were reflected in how each person chose to use their time. Some felt that changing policy at the state and federal level were the best ways to generate meaningful change, while others found their optimal role in farming, or putting free food directly into people’s hands. Besides illustrating the range of existing efforts to promote food access, these conversations helped fill out my understanding of the scope of food insecurity in Baltimore. I began the project knowing that food distribution and eating habits could not be characterized or improved in a simple way, but the interviews and our group ideation session improved my conception of the complexity of the problem and the role that data analysis and technology play. As I reflected on the experience and prepared to write this summary, I found that what I took away fell into three major points.

  1. The food system does not stand alone. The way people choose to access food is deeply affected by their environment. In Baltimore communities where resources are extremely limited (and often largely consumed by rent and other expenses), healthy eating is not always a priority or even a consideration. In order to properly frame conversations around food inequality, we need to recognize that solving this problem means addressing a slew of others. Accessible and affordable modes of transit could make a difference, but Baltimore is limited by a patchwork public transportation system, and roads that serve the needs of wealthier, whiter communities. Comfort and familiarity with food sources could help, but Baltimore’s segregated neighborhoods and store locations tend to put the burden of traveling to an unfamiliar place for healthy food onto the city’s poorest residents. The presence of older family members and friends to teach kids how to prepare meals could support healthy behavior, but many of these potential teachers are incarcerated. When considering potential improvements to food security, we cannot decouple nutritional health from the health of the community in general.
  2. Take data at face value. What does it mean if 100% of students at an after-school program for middle schoolers receive free meals? A potential funder might see that number and conclude that the program needs no additional help because all participants are already covered. Conversely, they could easily assume that the program needs more money and should offer additional meals to parents and older siblings, as a 100% participation rate is indicative of larger food needs in the surrounding community.  Ultimately, it is impossible to deduce from a single metric the complex scope of food-related needs of an institution, community, or individual. In that vein, I worry that data-driven approaches to improving healthy food access are problematic.
  3. We need more horizontal connections. The people I interviewed fell into a distinct pattern. Almost all were funding or administrating efforts to promote food access, or working directly on efforts sustained by funders. In short, the flow of resources is largely vertical, from those with an excess at the top to those in dire need at the bottom. This, as I see it, creates a highly inefficient system, but this is not the place for a discussion of the efficacy of the nonprofit industrial complex writ large (although this issue came up several times during interviews and the group share back session). Rather, there is an opportunity for collaboration among the groups who fall into the “funded” bucket of the earlier paradigm, those who labor on the front lines of this work. Each of these organizations have individual and specific skills, resources, and needs.  Instead of relying entirely on funded support, these organizations could turn to one another. Even among the small group of people I spoke to, I saw multiple opportunities for collaboration, with one organization’s excess resources neatly mapping to the needs of another. Unfortunately, I believe that receiving resources from above and competing for funding has discouraged horizontal cooperation. Nevertheless, collaborating in this way provides an opportunity to multiply the strength of people in this fight and advocate for reform with a collective voice. Food insecurity is a multidimensional problem, and we need an intersectional and community-driven effort to solve it.