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Amidst COVID-19, food and community come to the forefront

Center for Global Health research focuses on how food insecurity is affected during crisis


empty cans of food
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July 23, 2020

After Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, Anais Delilah Roque began having stomach problems. Usually she and her family ate fresh vegetables and local products. But with the power grid completely destroyed, the Roque family had to rely on canned food and other nonperishables, like potted meat. They got into arguments over what to buy that would last longer.

Three years later, Roque, now a graduate research associate in environmental social science at Arizona State University, has been interviewing Puerto Rican families for a study on food, sharing and connection under quarantine.

Stories she hears from families bring back memories of life during the blackout.

The world is experiencing changes in food and sharing during the pandemic. While most situations haven’t been as dire as Puerto Rico’s, food shortages in the spring and being confined together have spurred changes. Some parents seized on the moment as the perfect time to teach teenagers how to cook.

Alexandra Brewis-Slade saw COVID-19 as an obvious point to jump in on questions of how illness and other crises worsen food insecurity.

The founding director of the Center for Global Health and a President’s Professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change said the center identifies a key theme each year, one that they believe can reinvent and reimagine global health.

“This year it was a focus on the human experience of food insecurity, working with nutritionist and food security expert Meg Bruening in the College of Health Solutions,” Brewis-Slade said. “Many of us who support the center are anthropologists, so we are always centrally concerned with how people themselves experience health-relevant events, not just the best ways to create health. We are also interested in how people in communities, by working together, form their own solutions to crises because — as is often the case — government responses can often fail to meet the needs of citizens. Research is needed to understand how people manage, but also how we can use limited resources to support these important grassroots community-based initiatives.”

Brewis-Slade and Amber Wutich, director of the Center for Global Health and also a President’s Professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, were doing research with partners in Puerto Rico to understand how people were working together within communities, as part of work with the international Household Water Insecurity Experiences research collaboration, for which the Center for Global Health is a key partner.

Roque, herself a climate refugee from Hurricane Maria, has been leading that work for the team. Water shortages were a major problem in Puerto Rico for more than a year after the hurricane. Roque’s dissertation work shows the many ways communities come together to deal with state failures to provide basic services in crisis times.

“So it made sense to combine the two streams of our team’s work and launch a study of how Puerto Ricans are managing with food shortages in the wake of COVID-19,” Brewis-Slade said. “Of course, some are still dealing with water shortages, so the two are not unrelated.”

The pandemic has been extremely challenging in Puerto Rico, Roque said. The island’s preexisting fiscal challenges and austerity policy magnified the effects of the virus. There are challenges to provide economic support to the residents, high unemployment rates and irregularities with COVID-19 test kits even though people have been in mandatory lockdown.

Grassroots organizations led a protest demanding food for the people and have been actively organizing to give food in different sectors of the metropolitan area.

“The dynamics occurring in Puerto Rico, as an unincorporated territory of the U.S. provides a good case to understand households dynamics around food and COVID-19,” Roque said. “Understanding household dynamics and stressors are important to inform local policymakers, community development organizations and related organizations. These participants' stories are very important because they can assist in preparedness documents moving forward as well as to think in alternatives to provide fewer stressors to households.”

Because face-to-face interviews aren’t possible, the team has recruited people willing to work with them online.

“We’ve developed approaches to working with online communities to do ethnographic research in the past, so it was an easy transition for us,” Brewis-Slade said. “Right now we have completed reviews of what is happening in (more than) 100 households. We use what is called a 'social network' approach where we ask people how they are organizing and rearranging to deal with food shortages and quarantines, both within their households and in how they connect to others."

While the study is in its early stages and analysis hasn’t begun, a few trends have jumped out.

There is certainly a lot of worry and tension within families around food and spending on food, such as how much to stockpile. There are changes in how work is done around shopping and preparing food in the household.

“So, it’s likely we are going to see that these worries translate into higher risk of depression and other stress-related health issues,” Brewis-Slade said. “It reminds us that the health costs of coping with COVID-19 extend well beyond the disease itself into almost every other domain of everyday life. And that has consequences for mental health.”

They’re seeing a preliminary relationship with gender and roles in the home, Roque said.

“We asked participants to list their household members and how often would they interact in activities such as online groceries, going to the supermarket and cooking for the household members, outside friends or family members,” she said. “We are seeing some clear roles among gender despite everyone being home in the household due to COVID.”

The way people organize themselves to respond to crises is an under-researched part of global health. 

“What is often the case is communities can come together in amazing ways to help each other — something we are seeing a lot of lately,” Brewis-Slade said. “And that is very heartening. But these types of arrangements can also be very stressful, because families that are already stretched now have others more dependent on them. One of the things we especially want to uncover is when and how those new emerging arrangements and obligations in response to crises are helpful and when they become a drain on people psychologically and physically.”

Top photo courtesy of Pixabay

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