Student Research on Metrics in Health and Food Access

Sarah Lyman, Director of Communications

FINE’s Communication Manager Sarah Lyman recently interviewed her colleague Hannah Leighton and two Smith College students Phoebe Lease and Sofia Romero Campbell to hear about their recent collaborative research project - auditing the Health and Food Access page of FINE’s Metrics Dashboard, and recommending a suite of metrics using a racial equity lens.  

Sarah: What was your motivation for this project? How did you end up working with this class at Smith College? 

Hannah: FINE’s metrics dashboard was built to provide a snapshot of farm to institution (FTI) activity in New England and to provide some broader food systems context in which that farm to institution activity lives. The Dashboard is currently set up to feature key FTI supply chain indicators and supporting metrics in agriculture and fishing, and health and food access. We are in the process of preparing for a dashboard revamp in 2022 that will allow for much more robust analysis of how farm to institution activity is influenced by other key parts of the food system. Part of our preparation is auditing the existing supporting metrics dashboard pages. Given the importance of health and food access to farm to institution work, we wanted to reexamine our current page and find ways to tell a more meaningful story, while also applying a racial equity lens. Each semester, we work with students from across the region on collaborative research projects and we started working with students in Smith’s Food Systems Capstone class last year. This felt like the perfect opportunity for students who are interested in the intersectionality of food access, food security, racial equity, and local food. 

Phoebe: I joined Smith College’s environmental concentration program in my sophomore year because I knew I wanted to do something about the climate crisis, but I wasn’t sure how to work it into my humanities-based major requirements. The environmental capstone, which is a requirement for all concentration students, was focused on food access this semester. This was a subject I hadn’t explored before, but its connection to race and socioeconomic-related injustice immediately connected to other topics I had explored in class. I wanted to work on FINE’s dashboard project because I wanted to understand how nonprofits can measure the tangible impact of their programs. 

Sofia: I have always been interested in social justice causes, however it wasn’t until I got to college that I recognized the value of addressing social justice issues in an environmental context. By joining the sustainable food concentration at Smith College I was able to explore this intersection more deeply and I have found this area to be one of the most impactful places to address poverty, health, and infrastructure. For that reason, I was especially interested in taking on the dashboard project for FINE because it highlights the need for this kind of thinking. 

Sarah: What drew you to this particular topic? Why is this work important to you?

Phoebe: It’s impossible to address food inequality in the U.S. without talking about systemic racism, redlining, gender and race wage gaps, or generational wealth (or a lack thereof). Sometimes mainstream conversations only mention convenience or income without talking about why that lack of access or money exists in the first place, or why it mainly impacts certain demographic groups. The same goes for almost every other social inequity in the U.S. including environmental racism, which is why I wanted to learn about this topic further with FINE. 

Sofia: Throughout elementary school I ate free and reduced lunch. Since then, I have been acutely interested and aware of how food accessibility impacts people like myself. There are always so many forces at play in situations where someone might find themselves to be food insecure. For that reason, I was drawn to the behind the scenes work of this project and the challenge of thinking about how to track and address food insecurity in more thoughtful ways. 

Sarah: Can you tell me about your process for tackling this research? 

Phoebe: So much reading! We started out by conducting our own sort of literature review, but realized early on that a comprehensive total literature review of food access and racial and social justice would require more than a semester. Thankfully, we found a lot of great tools that had already proposed equity-related metrics, and some had collected extensive data as well, such as Michigan State University’s Measuring Racial Equity in the Food System, the Bread Institute’s materials on food & mass incarceration, race, and wealth gaps, and the Urban Institute’s Disrupting Food Insecurity database. With that in mind, we tried to narrow down the dozens of metrics we came across into five ‘bucket’ categories: food access, food environment, finances, demographics, and healthcare. 

Some of these metrics were already on the FINE dashboard, like the percentage of children eligible for free lunch in a state or poverty rates; things like rate of medical debt, student loans, or lack of health insurance were added to paint a more comprehensive picture of what an individual’s budget and priorities may look like when trying to pay for food. 

Final metrics recommendations. Yellow signifies metrics already on FINE’s dashboard.


Sarah: What are the key findings and recommendations you uncovered through this research? 

Phoebe: First, we realized how important it is for non-food experts to understand all of the facets of food insecurity, especially for those who run important institutions in communities. We found that although there are data collected on food access and demographic groups at a national level, that information is often absent at a state level, which can impact the ability of states to tailor programs for their own population. For example, food insecurity was available by state, and by race, but not race and state. Nor were food insecurity rates by state available for highly vulnerable populations like formerly incarcerated individuals or undocumented immigrants. Collecting these data or at least developing programing with these specific groups in mind is really important to shifting overall systemic issues. 

Based on our research, we also saw a shift in conversations about personal characteristics or “choices” and food access. For example, the MSU report recommends moving away from obesity-based statistics when talking about food insecurity. A decrease in obesity does not necessarily correlate with an increase in food access, and of course the main goal of increasing food access is to increase quality of life and community wellbeing, which is not necessarily tied to weight. It seems the shared goal of food access initiatives is to increase access and options to fresh produce, not necessarily to shift people’s individual eating habits and behaviors. 

The MSU report also talks about the measurement of ‘healthy food’ and how that can be subjective and vary by culture. The American food pyramid for example, says that American adults should consume 2-3 cups of dairy a day, even though about 75% of African Americans are lactose intolerant. So our country’s healthy guidelines do not always apply to everyone. 

Sarah: What do you hope FINE will take away from your work on this project? 

Sofia: We hope FINE will be able to use the dashboard in the future to help shape the actions and policies of law makers, organizations, and institutions. While it is not easy to challenge the norms around data metrics and indicators, we are excited to see how FINE can incorporate new ways of thinking about food accessibility in order to shift the focus away from individuals or communities and concentrate on root causes. There is a big opportunity for FINE to lead the way and we look forward to seeing how the dashboard project moves the organization in that direction. 

Sarah: Hannah, what are the next steps for the metrics dashboard and how will the work done by Sofia and Phoebe be utilized moving forward?  

Hannah: This past summer, FINE’s Research Associate Sheryl Rivas took Sophia and Phoebe’s recommended metrics and collected all available New England data. Over the next several months, we will be updating our dashboard to be more interactive and more intersectional, and the update will include this new suite of metrics. We are really grateful for all of the thought and energy that Sophia and Phoebe put into this project. 

About the Researchers

Phoebe Lease

Phoebe Lease is a recent American Studies graduate of Smith College, where she focused on consumer culture and climate change. She is especially interested in how previous energy transitions have shaped American popular culture and how art can be used to usher in a new energy era based on a just transition. She hopes to find work in the climate communications field; otherwise, you can find her trying to identify mushroom species at home in North Carolina. Find Phoebe on LinkedIn.

Sophia Romero Campbell

Sofia Romero Campbell is a recent graduate of Smith College where she majored in Government, with a minor in Latino/a Studies and a concentration in sustainable food. Growing up in Colorado as the granddaughter of ranchers and farm workers, she is particularly interested in agricultural policies addressing water access, land ownership, and food distribution systems. She plans on attending Duke University for an International Masters of Environmental Policy. Find Sofia on LinkedIn.

Hannah Leighton

Hannah Leighton is the Director of Research and Evaluation at Farm to Institution New England, where she oversees FINE’s metrics project, manages internal and collaborative research efforts, and leads FINE's efforts to measure the impact of farm to institution activity across the region. Prior to her work at FINE, Hannah spent several years writing about food, working in hospitality, and farming on vegetable and small-scale livestock farms across the country. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Creative Writing from the New School University and a Master’s degree in Sustainability Science with a concentration in Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Find Hannah on LinkedIn.