Above: Fleurian Filkins, 28th Class Emerson Fellow.
When I first learned that I would be working with the DC Office of Planning Food Policy Division and DC Food Policy Council for my field placement, I was excited and nervous. For most of my life I had lived in rural parts of upstate New York, surrounded by small, tight-knit communities. The food security activism I did in college was comparable in size, focusing on local food pantries and community gardens. The comparatively enormous size of Washington, D.C.’s food policy scene was daunting. I worried about how I could possibly understand the local context and integrate into the community enough to equitably advocate in just a handful of months. Fortunately, I didn’t have to figure that out alone.
My supervisors set me up for success, providing opportunities for me to get to know local advocates and sit in on collaborative meetings between emergency food providers and government agencies. The structure of the Office of Planning Food Policy Division and Food Policy Council also helped me quickly understand the basics of D.C.’s food policy scene. The Office of Planning plans the long-term growth of D.C., including divisions such as City-Wide Strategy and Analysis, Community Planning and Design, and Historic Preservation. I was placed with the Food Policy Division, which works across agencies and silos to create an equitable food system. It also coordinates the DC Food Policy Council, a coalition of food leaders and government staff that promotes an equitable, healthy, and sustainable food system. The inherently collaborative nature of the DC Office of Planning Food Policy Division and Food Policy Council helped me establish the connections and baseline of knowledge I needed in order to complete my research.
I was tasked with conducting qualitative research on senior food insecurity and nutrition program access. Despite the existence of many nutrition programs that seniors can use, D.C. has repeatedly had a senior food insecurity rate that is higher than the senior food insecurity rate in any U.S. state1. I conducted research to identify barriers that perpetuate this trend and develop recommendations that could better leverage government-funded nutrition programs to address senior food insecurity in D.C.
During my time at the Office of Planning I learned just how impactful community-oriented qualitative research could be for policy development. Starting off with a literature review, I found that I learned a lot about senior food insecurity, but I did not fully understand the realities of it. I knew the issue was important and why, but was still disconnected from it. When I started interviewing food insecure seniors and government and non-profit nutrition program administrators and staff, that all changed.
The way we perceive an issue changes drastically based on how we are exposed to the issue. Food insecurity statistics and generalities in reports are concerning, but it’s easy to emotionally distance ourselves from them. Actually talking to the people experiencing food insecurity or running programs to address food security carries an undeniable weight. There’s no brushing off the emotional impact of hearing the frustrated words of a senior who has been struggling for far too long or seeing the teary eyes of a program administrator who has to turn away hungry seniors due to a lack of resources. Connecting with the people directly dealing with senior food insecurity helped me connect to the issue more deeply. Documenting and publicizing these lived experiences (with permission) could similarly be paired with quantitative data to increase the emotional impact of food insecurity research when advocating for changes.
Beyond increasing the personal connection I felt with the issue of senior food insecurity, directly collaborating with program administrators and people with lived experiences also provided me with unique perspectives and solutions. I think one of the best aspects of my research is that it involved three groups: government agencies, non-profits, and food insecure seniors. Administrators from government agencies provided insight into the regulations that impact how nutrition programs are implemented. They helped me identify potential systemic barriers, viable solutions, and mechanisms of change. Non-profit staff were well-positioned to understand the concerns of many of their clients, allowing commonly experienced barriers to be identified. They also understood barriers in implementation, such as difficulties implementing communication systems or coordinating deliveries. By conducting interviews with people administrating or operating programs first, I was able to get a sense of how nutrition programs operated in D.C. and develop better questions to ask seniors during their interviews.
Compensating food insecure seniors financially for representing themselves in interviews increased the depth and nuance of this research. Previous literature documented some barriers to nutrition program access from a broad view, but no recent local research mentioned the experiences of specific seniors. By talking to seniors, many of whom were long-term residents of D.C., I was able to get a better sense of the barriers to nutrition program access experienced by different communities. This included systemic barriers outside of nutrition program operations, such as low public transportation access, food apartheid, and limited literacy, which program staff did not always personally understand. Seniors also had a first-hand understanding of the factors that perpetuated food insecurity in their neighborhoods and how social networks help people overcome barriers together.
Seniors were also critical to the development of recommendations to address barriers. Many seniors had strong opinions on how nutrition programs should be run. Because they were program participants, and not administrators, their perspectives were not limited by the everyday constraints of program implementation and operations, making it easier for them to come up with novel solutions. I was able to expand on many of these ideas to develop recommendations with seniors. Seniors reportedly enjoyed this process and found it meaningful. It was also an opportunity to connect them with other resources and advocacy opportunities.
This research experience has shown me the benefits of using qualitative research to improve policy. Often, policy development is conducted solely within government bodies, with public engagement being an afterthought. By centering people with lived experiences in this research, and compensating them for their time, this research identified novel solutions. It also provided detailed descriptions of the barriers that seniors experience when attempting to access nutrition programs. Though quantitative data may provide an overview of senior food insecurity, adding qualitative data to the body of evidence may help legislators and advocates connect to the issue emotionally, spurring action. Other anti-hunger advocacy organizations, nutrition program administrators, and government agencies should consider incorporating more paid opportunities for people with lived experiences to be involved in shaping the social programs they rely on to meet their nutritional needs.
This research has also taught me a valuable lesson about leadership and advocacy. When I first moved to D.C., I was worried about how I would equitably do this research as an outsider. The reality is that there is no way to equitably lead or advocate without collaboration, outsider or not. The sheer scope of the issue of food insecurity and the many ways that it is experienced means that no one person can develop equitable improvements to policies alone. Being an effective leader and advocate requires knowing how to develop meaningful relationships and deferring to people with more expertise and lived experience.