About 200 students and community members attended the 13th annual Susan B. Meister lecture in the Biomedical Research Science Building Wednesday with keynote speaker, Robert Gordon, the director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. The event was hosted by the Susan B. Meister Child Health Evaluation and Research Center at the University of Michigan and discussed the prevalence of food insecurity in the country and its effect on children.
Gordon has a range of previous work experiences, including working with the White House to establish Americorps, clerking for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and serving in the U.S. Department of Education. The event also featured Public Policy professor Natasha Pilkauskas and Kelly Orringer, director of the division of general pediatrics at Mott Children’s Hospital.
The lecture began with opening remarks from CHEAR center director Lisa Prosser. Prosser took the stage to recognize Meiser, who founded the CHEAR Center Board of Advisors and for whom the center is named after.
Gordon began by addressing the current political climate, emphasizing the importance of simple and efficient change. He went on to identify the three key themes of his discussion: policy, process and personnel.
“All of this sounds Hallmark simple, and it is,” Gordon said. “I think we’ve gone astray because we have made things too complicated and if we can stay anchored in simple ideas like these and if we can simplify the ways we do our work, we can activate a compelling agenda for reducing poverty and hunger.”
Gordon then called attention to more specific issues in the process such as recent strides to move to self-attestation, which would allow low-income applicants to report their assets themselves instead of having to provide asset proof when filling out applications for benefits. Gordon said he believes the change to self-attestation would take away some of the stress from having to provide proof of assets.
Gordon also spoke about the importance of good design when it comes to applications and processes, providing an example of a benefits application that was cut down from 42 pages — the longest in the country — to 18 pages, making it more efficient for low-income families to apply. Gordon also talked about changes in website layout that would make it easier and quicker for applicants and caseworkers to read and fill out.
“We should care about how things look,” Gordon said. “Design, as it turns out, is one of the ways that we treat people as equals.”
Gordon closed his presentation with a call for hope, ensuring that although this type of work is difficult, it is worth it.
“The public sector is often demonized. And a big part of my job is just reminding my colleagues that our work is among the most important work that there is,” Gordon said.
Orringer, who has a specialty in pediatrics and a degree from Harvard Medical School, spoke on identifying food insecurity as a major indicator of child health as well as a social determinant for health. Orringer elaborated further on this topic, linking food insecurity to youth mental and physical health problems as well as family vulnerability. Orringer stressed the importance of advocating for children’s health, specifically calling on the engagement of hospital staff.
“What’s really important on a clinical basis is to make sure our staff, our nurses, our medical assistants, our trainees that come through, and faculty all are sensitive to this issue and are aware of the screening for this, why we are doing it, why this is important, and what the resources are,” Orringer said.
Pilkauskas reiterated many core facts Orringer touched on, focusing on the policies that influence the prevalence of food insecurity.
“I’m a policy person, so I care about policies, and I would say that overall we know that food stamps and SNAP are both really effective at reducing food insecurity,” Pilkauskas said. “But what we really don’t know at all is if there are other policies that do anything around food insecurity.”
The event then transitioned to a question and answer panel, with Prosser facilitating the discussion. Gordon answered a question about how President Donald Trump’s policies would affect asset changes, explaining the Trump administration wants to end the policy.
“The proposed changes from the Trump Administration would stop us from implementing the asset changes,” Gordon said. “The way we make the asset-test changes is through broad-based categorical eligibility, which is a bipartisan change to SNAP legislation that gives states more flexibility … and basically the Trump Administration wants to (gut) it.”
Public Health graduate student Henna Tzeng, who also works as a dietetic technician for Michigan Medicine, told The Daily she attended to learn more about child health policy.
“I just didn’t really know about the policy side of child health,” Tzeng said. “It was really helpful and interesting to hear another voice about what’s going on and how they’re making actual practical changes to help improve child health.”