Environmental justice professor discusses food insecurity on campus

Thursday, November 17, 2016 - 8:03pm

In the office of Dorceta Taylor, professor of environmental justice at the University of Michigan, a poster of the University's 2013 Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium at which she gave a speech titled “Race, Poverty, and Access to Food in America” hangs. A copy of “Toxic Communities,” a story of poor and minority neighborhoods affected by hazardous health problems, rests on her bookshelf.

Taylor has studied food insecurity — the state of being without reliable access to affordable, nutritious food — on campus since she began working for the School of Natural Resources and Environment. At Yale University, she received two doctorates in sociology and forestry and environmental studies.

Taylor said it was her multidisciplinary educational background that led her to pursue research interests in environmental justice, poverty and urban issues and food access. In 2012, she received a grant of $4 million from the United States Department of Agriculture for her research on food access in Michigan cities such as Flint, Detroit, Grand Rapids, Ypsilanti and Sault Ste. Marie.

In addition to her roles of researcher and professor, Taylor is also active in advocating for diversity on campus. Currently, she serves as the Natural Resources and Environment School director of diversity, equity and inclusion.

Taylor’s passion for food justice has grown since she initially became interested while maintaining her home garden in elementary school. She said the issue of food access is based on the fact that people in the United States are unable to purchase healthy food because they lack the transportation or financial means.

For her, she said, food insecurity is a convoluded issue, and if informed individuals are not actively fighting to correct the problem, they are complacent in its continued existence. Overall, she said, food insecurity is an epidemic, and one that needs to be prioritized by professors and researchers.

“I thought: What is the point of being an academic if you really don’t tackle some of those kinds of everyday things?” Taylor said.

In regard to finances and food access on campus specifically, Taylor said the University has difficulty when factoring in all perceivable expenses for college students. For instance, she said there is little to be done in situations when students divide their income with family members.

“Suppose, for instance, you are working and are making $200 a week,” Taylor said. “If you send $150 home, you only have $50. Where the University is concerned, they already provided you with $200. The way the financial aid is set up is set up for the students, not for the families. They are just looking at you as the client.”

In situations in which students split their aid with others, Taylor said, they put themselves at risk of not meeting their own expenses. 

The University does provide resources for students struggling to get groceries. The Maize and Blue Cupboard hosts regular food distributions at Trotter Multicultural Center with fresh produce for students who may not be able to make the trip to the grocery store or don’t have the means to buy food. The Campus Farm at Matthaei Botanical Gardens is open to students and volunteers who can pick fruits and vegetables also free of charge.

Beyond finances, however, transportation also plays a role. While there are grocery stores in the area, students without vehicles have difficulty reaching them during the week. Large chains, such as Kroger and Meijer, are situated more than two miles away from Central Campus, meaning sudents must rely on small grocery stores like Replenish, People’s Food Co-op and Sparrow Market.

“It’s hard if you don’t have a car,” Taylor said. “We need to have awareness that there are students and staff amongst us who have trouble.”

She cited the overall difficulties low-income families face in accessing grocery stores as a main cause of food insecurity across the state of Michigan.

According to her research, Taylor said residents in rural areas in the Upper Peninsula have less access to grocery stores than residents in urban areas like Ann Arbor.

Another focus group in this research is farmers across the state who have encountered challenges in selling their products because of their inability to purchase machines for transactions using Electronic Benefit Transfer Bridge cards, a form of transferring government benefits similar to food stamps.

“They make very little and work long hours,” Taylor said. “They can’t afford the gas to even drop off their food at the end of the day to the farmers market. A lot of the time there is food left over.”

In Detroit, Taylor and her graduate students look at the products offered in corner stores, smaller stores that typically offer sodas, snacks and less expensive, non-perishable foods.

Taylor said it is costly for corner stores to offer fruits and vegetables because of the high price of refrigeration and the lack of space. She added that retailers tend to sell to larger companies rather than corner stores. “Retailers don’t want to sell in small quantities because they won’t profit much,” Taylor said. “They would prefer to drop off larger quantities at Meijer instead.”

The solution to this, she said, can be found at home. Since she received the $4 million grant from the USDA, the money has provided more than 100 families in Ypsilanti, Grand Rapids, Detroit, Flint and Sault Ste. Marie with seed boxes to create at-home gardens. The program has expanded each year since its founding in 2012 and the seed boxes have been well received by program participants.

Taylor said despite seeing the challenges faced by residents across the state, any improvements produced by her research are what keep her motivated.

“What I’ll find drives me and gives me energy is when I know what I am doing is making a difference and benefiting somebody else,” Taylor said. “That somebody’s life was changed for the better.”