High Impact Learner: Student/Faculty Research

Helena Yang '14 teams up with Professor to study food insecurity
Yang

Forty-nine million people in America are food insecure, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That number stretches well beyond the homeless. Your neighbor, teammate, or student sitting beside you in class could be wondering where their next meal will come from.

For the past three years, Prof. Amy Dailey of the health sciences department has partnered with students to study how a community-sponsored initiative, called Healthy Options, has helped to alleviate food insecurity in Adams County.

This year, she teamed up with health sciences major, Helena Yang ’14.

As Helena explains, many people who are food insecure fall into what experts call the “food gap.”

“These people make too much money to be eligible for food assistance, but too little money to access enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle,” she said.

That’s where the Healthy Options initiative comes in. The Healthy Options initiative has been implemented every summer beginning in 2011 to provide families in Adams County who are ineligible for government food assistance to receive $44 in vouchers per month to purchase healthy foods at local farmers’ markets. The initiative also provides many nutrition and physical activity educational opportunities for families.

Helena was interested to discover what influences families who receive the vouchers to make healthful choices.

Dailey and Helena met early in the summer during Helena’s Heston Summer Experience internship. With the Healthy Options team, a subset of members of the Adams County Food Policy Council, they developed a mixed-method research approach. The approach involved baseline and follow-up quantitative survey methods and a qualitative community-based participatory research tool called Photovoice.

To use Photovoice, Helena equipped 14 food insecure families with cameras and asked them to document their experiences with food. Through their images, she hoped to gain insight into how the participants conceptualized their circumstances.

She asked the participants to photograph aspects of their children’s health habits that concerned them or that they were proud of and also what influenced their eating habits.

Then, Helena led a series of discussions with the families based on the photos they captured.

One theme that emerged from the Photovoice discussions is the challenges participants faced trying to feed their families healthy food – especially amidst heavily-marketed foods that are often easily attainable and unhealthy.

“What we noticed was that when asked to take photos of their experience with food, many participants took photos of their families,” Helena said. “This highlighted the importance of family influence in shaping healthy habits and even how that influence can counteract the appeal of unhealthy, heavily-marketed foods.”

She is currently compiling her full findings and will present her research at the American Public Health Association conference next month.

“What I learned through my time working with food insecure families is that you can’t solve the problem [of food insecurity] by giving someone a voucher for food. There needs to be a system around it – you need to pair healthy food choices with a healthy lifestyle.”

Helena says her research at Gettysburg has greatly influenced her post-graduation plans.

She will graduate in May and plans to attend graduate school to study public health. She hopes to one-day work in food policy so she can be part of creating a system to alleviate food insecurity.

Dailey continues to mentor Helena through the process of database management, data coding, and analysis—all practical skills that Helena will use in graduate school and in her future career.

There are many opportunities for students to partner with faculty for research opportunities, and as Dailey explains, the relationship is mutually beneficial.

“The student gets hands-on experience learning how to conduct research in the field.  And for me, it is especially helpful. This kind of research helps me to strengthen my relationships with community partners and I believe through this process I also become a better teacher and mentor.”

Read about other high impact learners at Gettysburg College: Aleksandra Petkova '14, social justice and service; Molly Reynolds '14, the arts; Julia Freed '16, active pursuits; and students working with the College’s distinctive programs.

Founded in 1832, Gettysburg College is a highly selective four-year residential college of liberal arts and sciences with a strong academic tradition that includes Rhodes Scholars, a Nobel laureate and other distinguished scholars among its alumni. The college enrolls 2,600 undergraduate students and is located on a 200-acre campus adjacent to the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.

Contact: Jamie Yates, director of communications and media relations 717.337.6801

Posted: Tue, 22 Oct 2013

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