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DU Takes on Food Insecurity

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Alyssa Hurst

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DU faculty, staff and alumni are working around the world to address food insecurity

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Metro Caring 1

Food security is a global problem. It’s also a local problem – a very local problem.

It prevails in faraway countries and in the City and County of Denver. And it’s also an issue on the University of Denver campus. According to Chad King, DU’s sustainability coordinator, college students are a particularly vulnerable population when it comes to food insecurity.

“It’s not just a question of do we know where our next meal is coming from, but are we able to nourish ourselves the way we should in order to thrive,” King says. “When I think back to when I was in college, I think about the decisions I made around food. I ate grits for two weeks straight and figured out four ways of making that. We dumpster dived for bagels and ate them for a week. I never thought of that as being food insecure, but that is food insecurity.”

To combat a problem affecting people around the world, DU faculty, students and alumni have taken action. The following stories highlight the many ways they are addressing the problem.

Students feed community through DU food pantry

food pantry
The DU food pantry

Maja Konieczny is the Center for Sustainability’s graduate student lead for food gardens, the food pantry and the food waste team. Konieczny developed a budding passion for the domain of food security after attending a panel discussion featuring Andy Fisher, author of “The Big Hunger.” The panel opened Konieczny’s eyes to the countless ways hunger can impact a person and how food insecurity builds.

“People very often only focus on access to food, but they don’t focus on access to healthy and nutritious food,” Konieczny explains. “We think of only throwing food into stomachs, versus actually paying attention to what we give people to put into their bodies and how it also impacts their mental health and their ability to go through their everyday lives.”

That’s Konieczny’s focus as she stocks the DU food pantry, which serves students, faculty and staff experiencing food insecurity. They can stop by to collect cereal, oatmeal, canned fruits and veggies, snacks and bulk grains, among other items. During the growing season, visitors also can expect fresh produce from the University’s English Language Center garden and community partner Ela Family Farms. Items in the pantry are labeled in both English and Spanish to create a more inclusive environment.

The food pantry also holds regular community dinners that bring people together around healthy vegan meals and even offers to-go boxes for those who can’t stay long. Konieczny has introduced recipe boxes that teach patrons how to make meals using ingredients from the pantry.

After she graduates in winter 2020, Konieczny hopes to continue work on the problem of food insecurity. One area of particular interest focuses on the realm of food rescue, which seeks to redistribute unused food from places like grocery stores to populations in need.

Alum pitches in to help Denver's hungry

Metro Caring
Metro Caring's food market

As a first-year student in DU’s Pioneer Leadership Program, Tommy Crosby (BS ’14) volunteered at Café 180, a pay-what-you-can establishment serving the Englewood community. There, he discovered the power of food and decided to dedicate his time at DU and his career to that cause. Today, Crosby serves as food access team lead at Metro Caring, a Denver-based food pantry.

“Food as a medium is one of the most powerful tools we have to bring people together,” Crosby says. “No matter who you are, everybody has to eat. It’s a fantastic way to bridge different parts of the community together.”

At Metro Caring, Crosby and 500 weekly volunteers dedicate much of their time to creating a no-cost market, set up just like a neighborhood grocery. Patrons can shop for the foods they want with dignity and make healthy choices for themselves.

While that’s the largest piece of the Metro Caring operation, Crosby and the team do much more to realize the organization’s prime directive: ending hunger at its root. That means addressing nutrition through cooking classes and clubs, providing bilingual education opportunities to help prevent diabetes and activating its large community for change.

“Simply giving someone a load of groceries isn’t going to change their life,” Crosby says. “It may change the course of their week or their month, but real lasting change comes through advocacy and harnessing this huge collective, powerful, loud voice that we have.”

Most recently, Crosby and Metro Caring have advocated for the minimum wage increase in Denver and changes to the RTD fare structure.

As Crosby explains, food insecurity affects far more people than many realize, “whether that’s a college kid paying tuition, paying rent and trying to eat healthy, or a retiree who had planned out the next 30 years of their life on a fixed budget and those plans have been thrown for a loop, or someone who just left an abusive relationship and is starting to rent a place on their own and supporting themselves and their kids for the first time.”

Denver food insecurity stats

In 2017, the City and County of Denver’s Food Vision offered eye-opening facts about the local community:

One in six households experiences food insecurity or hunger.
One in five children experiences food insecurity or hunger.
33.2% of Denver families eat less than one serving of fruits and vegetables per day.

70% of the Denver Public Schools student body is eligible for free or reduced meals.

DU faculty research food insecurity around the world

Hanson Nyantakyi-Frimpong

Hanson Nyantakyi-Frimpong is an assistant professor of geography in DU’s College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, but his forte isn’t rocks. Instead, he investigates the relationship between the environment and people, particularly how climate change affects food insecurity.

“If the climate is changing how will it affect society? If we are using the environment recklessly, how will that affect our long-term access to food and resources,” Nyantakyi-Frimpong says.

His work in human geography, which looks at the relationship between the environment and society, takes him to Ghana and Malawi. There he studies the impacts of climate change on farmers, food resources and nutrition. The trouble is that local seeds, like some varieties of local corn, are well adapted to increasingly variant weather conditions, but as more and more local seeds fail, farmers are relying on nonlocal seeds that often can’t withstand the conditions. This leaves many farmers with fewer crops to harvest and less money to feed themselves.

Cultural factors are increasing vulnerability to food insecurity as well, Nyantakyi-Frimpong says. “In Malawi we see a lot of issues with HIV and AIDS,” he explains. “Many men will migrate to South Africa to work in mines and then they will come back home with HIV so they die and leave their kids and wives. In that case, most of the women are vulnerable because they live in a patriarchal area where it is the husband’s relatives who control the land and the resources.”

In fact, he says, many women, along with their children, are driven off their land when they become widowed. Other populations, like including tobacco farmers subject to fickle prices and those fighting HIV with antiviral drugs, are vulnerable as well.

To make a difference, Nyantkyi-Frimpong incorporates an intervention component into his research and works with 11,000 different households in the region, providing access to new seeds, nutrition education and climate information. In addition, the program seeks to change ideas about widowed women by teaching gender equity through the use of drama.  

Sarah “Sally” Hamilton

Sally Hamilton
Sally Hamilton conducting research.

For decades, Sarah “Sally” Hamilton, an associate professor in the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, has studied the links between agriculture, environment and human health. Her anthropological studies, which rely on a political and health ecology framework, have taken her to Mexico, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Jamaica and the Philippines.

“I’m looking at economic, environmental, social and political changes to see how these changes affect households and individuals that make up particular communities,” Hamilton says. “My question is: How does agricultural development affect the physical environment? How does that economic and environmental change affect the livelihood security of people who are rural largely and mostly agricultural?”

Recently, her research has brought her to her own backyard — in Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico, as well as Appalachia, where she grew up. In Colorado, she’s looking at food insecurity in places like Denver’s Westwood neighborhood, while in Appalachia, she’s working to understand how people with little land to cultivate are adapting.

“I am looking at rural livelihoods and urban food security and these things all hook up,” she says.

A large component of livelihood centers on food and nutrition security, which involves the supply and distribution of food, the diets of people in a community and the various ways those diets impact the body. For example, she has followed the economic and health impacts of soy bean oil from its production to its consumption, as well as the implications of male migration in the Andes.

Ultimately, she says, understanding the flow of food is crucial to understanding human communities: “Food is the most important drug that people take. Food is medicine.