Clemson students explore, influence food security in Upstate South Carolina through undergraduate research course

Nearly 688,000 people are considered food insecure in South Carolina, according to the nonprofit Feeding America. Food insecurity means a lack of access to enough food to live a healthy lifestyle, and the Clemson University College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences (CBSHS) has put the topic front and center for a group of undergraduate researchers this semester.

A new Creative Inquiry (CI) class, Introduction to Food Systems, is geared toward food systems and food insecurity and giving students the chance to learn more about solving this problem and helping those who suffer because of it. The idea for the class came out of a Food Systems Research ad-hoc committee created by CBSHS Dean Leslie Hossfeld that consists of faculty from five CBSHS departments. The group met for months before putting the course together.

Mariela Fernandez, assistant professor in the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management (PRTM) and part of the committee, has led the class and overseen the work of several student projects, including updating a food resource map for the Upstate and developing the framework for a minor in food systems.

“Our students are getting the chance to do a little social and environmental work while learning about marginalized populations,” Fernandez said. “It was important to me to bring this class to life for the students.”

They are also learning about food systems, and each week are taught by a CBSHS faculty member from the committee to learn about food research on a community or national level. One such scholar was PRTM assistant professor Harrison Pinckney, who spoke about food insecure neighborhoods and how policy and societal norms influence food availability in certain parts of the state. Pinckney talked about how affordable housing policy and agricultural policies come into play, something that surprised junior economics major Ronnie Clevenstine.

“Something that shocked me was learning how deeply entrenched the policy and institutionalization of food systems and equality really are,” Clevenstine said. “I thought food insecurity was all about where a grocery store was in your neighborhood, but it’s much more interdisciplinary than that.”

This lecture has so far been junior computer science major Helena Upshaw’s favorite part of the class, but she is looking forward to working on the food resource map with her four other classmates and Mike McGirr, director of Land-Grant Local Food Systems Solutions, which is also housed in CBSHS.

The food map, created in April 2020, is a resource to those in the Upstate who are battling food insecurity and contains contact information for food banks and feeding programs. A collaboration between CBSHS, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC), and the United Way, it will be expanded to all 46 counties through a grant with DHEC. The students are tasked with updating the existing map with the organization’s current contact information and resources. The updated food resource map will be available in fall 2022 and will reside on DHEC, United Way and Clemson websites.

“Having a class that actually allows me to have an impact on the state is fantastic,” Upshaw said.

The students have been tasked with creating a needs assessment survey to determine if there is broad interest in a food systems minor at Clemson. They have researched other land-grant universities across the country with models of food systems institutes and food systems minors to get an idea of how to set one up. Still in the planning stages, the minor will be housed in CBSHS and taught by an interdisciplinary group of faculty members throughout the college.

Both Upshaw and Clevenstine were ecstatic when they saw this CI on the list of classes during registration last semester. This class allows those passionate about food and food justice, like Clevenstine and Upshaw, a chance to explore the topic and gain additional knowledge to carry with them in their careers. Upshaw said her dream career involves working at a food sustainability startup. She has become more passionate about food systems and justice since she began studying it over the last couple of years.

“Food is one of the basic necessities for life, and I’ve become dedicated to food system reform,” Upshaw said.

For Clevenstine, a personal experience of unstable finances in high school ignited her passion for food system justice. While living at a family friend’s house for roughly six months, she felt the stigma that is a day-to-day reality for many economically insecure people in the United States. She experienced how a lack of access to food could lead others to unfairly question a person’s worth, and how this stigmatization could lead to a painful, perpetuating cycle.

“The reality of food insecurity for individuals without the generational privilege afforded to me is a much more painful, extended and visible experience,” Clevenstine said. “I am committed to a career in eradicating this stigma and ensuring individuals have adequate access to food, housing and further economic opportunity.”

The CI course will be offered in the fall of 2021.

The Clemson University College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences (CBSHS) was established in July 2016. CBSHS is a 21st-century land-grant college that combines work in seven disciplines – communication; nursing; parks, recreation and tourism management; political science; psychology; public health sciences; and sociology, anthropology and criminal justice – to further its mission of “building people and communities” in South Carolina and beyond.