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

July 23, 2020

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

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

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now


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Ms. Frizzle creator leaves behind a legacy of learning

July 23, 2020

ASU scholars discuss the life and work of children’s author Joanna Cole; the literary titan sold 93 million books that spawned 2 television series

“The Friz” has stepped off the bus and is off on another adventure.

Last week the world mourned the passing of celebrated children’s book author Joanna Cole, whose “The Magic School Bus” series inspired and entertained generations of learners.

The prolific and award-winning writer died on July 12 at the age of 75 from idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. Formerly a grade school teacher, Cole sold an astounding 93 million books in her lifetime.

But it was the PBS television series (1994–97) based on “The Magic School Bus” and an updated version on Netflix in 2017 that made her a household name and sustained her popularity.

ASU Now reached out to a trio of university scholars from Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College to help contextualize the impact of Cole’s work and legacy: Cyndi Giorgis, professor of literacy education and children's literature in the Division of Educational Leadership and Innovation; Frank Serafini, professor of literacy education and children's literature and children’s book author; and Sherman Dorn, professor and director of the Division of Educational Leadership and Innovation.

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Cyndi Giorgis 

Question: The first “Magic School Bus” book was published in 1986. What made the book and subsequent series that followed so special?

Giorgis: Most science books for kids published during that time presented information, often by relating a litany of facts about the topic. “The Magic School Bus” books incorporate three genres — fantasy, realistic fiction and nonfiction — as well as humorous quips. Editors were initially concerned that mixing genres might be off-putting — not for children but rather for teachers and librarians who were accustomed to genre-specific books. Fortunately, the multigenre approach worked and continues to engage readers of all ages.

The design of “The Magic School Bus” books includes a storyline written in first-person narrative. There are thought bubbles and speech bubbles for characters’ conversations sprinkled across the pages. Students’ school reports appear in page margins and show scientific facts being learned. There is additional information displayed in the illustrations, such as on classroom posters. And jokes and puns are woven throughout the books.

In 1986, when “The Magic School Bus” books were first published, there wasn’t much diversity shown in children’s books. The goal of both Joanna Cole and illustrator Bruce Degen was to represent children in the real world, which included depicting diverse characters.

Q: Why has this series of books remained popular over the years?

Giorgis: “The Magic School Bus” books blend facts and story in a way that make science easy to understand and accessible to children. The books pose ideas and questions rather than just facts. The science-themed adventures grab kids’ attention as the beat-up yellow school bus transforms itself into a spaceship, a submarine or a time machine. Ms. Frizzle is that science teacher you wish you could have or wish you could be. She’s a bit wacky in her approach to teaching. The students in the story recognize the problems and propose possible solutions rather than Ms. Frizzle telling them the answers. Characters experience science firsthand and in doing so, they model attitudes, strategies and actions that readers themselves can turn into successful science learning.

Kids reading these books can envision themselves experiencing science vicariously through Ms. Frizzle’s amazing field trips. The format is attractive to young readers. While teachers and parents are often perplexed in how to read these books because of the varied genres, kids navigate through the pages with no difficulty because they pick and choose what captures their attention. And the books invite them to return again and again because there’s so much visual detail and textual information. Joanna Cole’s ingenious approach to writing a book about science that is entertaining, informative and magical will continue to engage readers’ interest and endure the test of time.

Question: What’s the challenge of reading books like “The Magic Bus” series, which has elements of fiction and nonfiction?

Serafini: “The Magic School Bus” series involves a blending of fictional and nonfictional elements used to engage young readers in the adventures of the main character, Ms. Frizzle, and teach them things about science and the world around them.

The blurring of the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction means more to educators than helping librarians decide where to house books in the library. This blurring also means that the lines between the elements of narrative and the structures of expository texts are being blended together in unique ways. Young readers are quite adept at distinguishing the fictional adventures and the facts about science set apart in the sidebars of these picturebooks.

Although these books offer the reader what may be considered factual information, they also utilize narrative and fictional elements. Genres in children’s literature are constantly evolving and redefine the boundaries and distinctions of fiction and nonfiction previously recognized. As picture books expand in complexity they will present young readers with more challenges in navigating the differences between the real and the imaginary.

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Frank Serafini

Q: Cole’s books have sold 93 million copies worldwide. How extraordinary is that for a children’s author?

Serafini: In today’s world of children’s literature, it is unusual for a picturebook series to sell millions of copies. Series like “Harry Potter”, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid”, “The Babysitters Club” and “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” have dominated the sales of serial narratives. Beginning in 1986, “The Magic School Bus” series became one of the best-selling franchises in Scholastic publishers’ history until “Harry Potter” outsold them.

The series focused on elements of the natural world and allowed Cole to continue to develop new stories about things she felt children were interested in. Cole tapped into young readers curiosity about the world around them and developed numerous books to inform them about how the world works.

Q: To what extent was “The Magic Bus” TV show different from Cole’s enormously popular children’s books?

Dorn: The original show’s episodes were based only partly on the books. Joanna Cole had published six "Magic School Bus" books by the show’s first season in 1994 out of more than 80 books at that point in her career. But each season of the show had 13 episodes! So while the first broadcast episode was taken from one of the books, the show had to create storylines that Cole had never written. Many of the episodes later became part of the book series if in a different format from the first books, and the children’s publisher Scholastic started rolling out so-called show tie-in books beginning in the mid-1990s. The 52 episodes of the 1990s show created a huge market for all of the books, making them even more popular.

There are some elements in the books that couldn’t appear in the show: all of the details in Bruce Degen’s illustrations and the nonfiction afterword at the end of each book. But the animated show carried the spirit of the book series — an invitation to adventures in science through story. The show faithfully used Degen’s drawing as a model, adding a kinetic animation style for Ms. Frizzle, her pet lizard, and especially the bus itself. Lily Tomlin earned a daytime Emmy for her performance as Ms. Frizzle, and rightly so. (When Netflix rebooted the series a few years ago, Tomlin was recast as Valerie Frizzle, now with a PhD and passing the classroom responsibilities to her younger sister Fiona, voiced by Kate McKinnon.) 

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Sherman Dorn 

Q: How was the show different from other children’s shows of the 1990s?

Dorn: It was public television about science, written for children and available to everyone in the country.

In the 1990s, children’s television was dominated by cable, with children’s programming channels carried to more than half of American households: Discovery Channel, the Learning Channel, the Disney Channel, Nickelodeon, and Animal Planet. Some of that programming was educational, like "Beakman’s World," but even the best cable shows reached largely middle-class families that could afford cable. What was available universally to elementary-aged students? A few educational shows were available to everyone in the 1990s, most famously "Reading Rainbow, Arthur" — and "The Magic School Bus."

"The Magic School Bus" was also one of a small handful of public television science shows in the last century broadcast for children and supported in part by the National Science Foundation, along with "3-2-1 Contact" and "Bill Nye the Science Guy." Other science television shows at the time had larger budgets and a more polished look, like Carl Sagan’s "Cosmos" series and especially "NOVA." But those shows were aimed at adults. In retrospect, the country missed a huge opportunity at the time to encourage schoolchildren’s interests in science, and "The Magic School Bus" was in many ways an exception to the generally mediocre children’s television of its era.

Top image: Covers from "The Magic School Bus" series by author Joanna Cole and illustrator Bruce Degen and published by Scholastic.