“I think what people in my generation can do is become actively engaged in the conversation. They can engage with their members of Congress and work with organizations that want to promote the health of the whole family. That’s the only way we’re going to be healthier as a nation. Being aware of this fact and knowing how to navigate the political landscape that’s in front of us is the only way to effect change.”
– Caroline Cahill, Feeding America Fellow
About Caroline Cahill: Caroline Cahill is a Feeding America Corps member. She is working on child feeding programs with the Bay Area Food Bank in Mobile, Alabama. It’s a two year placement and she’ll be in Mobile until August 2017. [Editor’s Note: Effective 1/1/16, Bay Area Food Bank will be called “Feeding the Gulf Coast.”]
Caroline hails from New Jersey. She is a graduate of Willamette University, where she earned a degree in exercise science. Caroline attended Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, where she received a Master of Public Health degree with an emphasis in global health. While attending graduate school, Caroline worked with the Atlanta Community Food Bank on the food bank’s adoption of the Choose Healthy Options Program.
About Feeding America: Feeding America is a national network of more than 200 food banks throughout America. It is the largest private domestic hunger-relief organization in the nation and estimates that it feeds 46 million people at risk of hunger, including 12 million children and 7 million seniors. The organization also conducts hunger research.
Feeding America sponsors a national Child Hunger Corps (fellowship) program that focuses on alleviating child hunger. Caroline Cahill is one of nine national fellows working in the Corps. After a rigorous national selection process, Corps members are assigned to food banks around the nation. Each Corps member begins his/her placement conducting a six month community needs assessment phase. Using their research, Corps members develop a set of recommendations to address the child hunger programming gaps in their service area. Corps members spend the majority of their two-year service term implementing and/or expanding child nutrition programs. The final six months is spent on assessment and assuring programmatic sustainability.
Q: What you do as a Feeding America Corps Member?
Caroline: So every Corps Member is a bit different. We’re assigned to nine different food banks across the country. We’re all Child Hunger Corps Members and each of us has a two-year placement. We’re hired on to either expand or start a child hunger project at our host food bank. Bay Area Food Bank – where I am placed – is a regional food bank that serves the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, Alabama and Panhandle Florida…24 counties in all. We serve seven counties in Florida, eight in Mississippi and the remainder (nine) are in Alabama.
Bay Area Food Bank already has a fairly robust child-feeding program. We operate both after school snack programs at places like Boys and Girls clubs. We also provide summer feeding programs (SFSP) in similar agencies and with partners, such as churches. We have started cooking matters classes with kids aged 11-14. These classes provide basic cooking skills and nutrition education. Students get to make a healthy meal and take it home. We also have a backpack program.
The backpack program is an interesting model. Here’s how it works: each week we offer kids who have been referred or selected by schools a 5-10 pound backpack with three days of food to carry the kids through the weekend. All backpacks are not a federally reimbursable item like afterschool or summer programs. We are entirely reliant on external funding, although USDA grants are available. We do fundraising in the community for this program. The foods are mostly shelf stable items. We include foods such as individual servings of Spaghetti O’s and other things that kids could make themselves with a microwave. We also include food items such as oatmeal bars.
Many, many food banks and food assistance organizations across the country offer this kind of backpack program. And while it is a fair band-aid for hunger relief, the children who are receiving these backpacks or weekend snack packs are chronically hungry and there needs to be more programming support for reaching the root of hunger and that starts with feeding the entire family.
Q: From your perspective as a Fellow working specifically on the issue of alleviating child hunger, what’s your take on what’s going on nationally in terms of public policy?
Caroline: It’s a huge failing by members of Congress in letting the Childhood Nutrition Reauthorization expire at the end of September. Hopefully they’ll get it together in the next month. Food banks and Feeding America as a whole are getting information out about rural and child hunger, but more education is needed.
It’s definitely interesting. I attended Willamette University, which is a college in a fairly liberal part of Oregon. I did my graduate work in Atlanta, which has a very robust local food movement. Living in Alabama has been a learning experience for me; it is very different in terms of its political landscape. It would be a lie to say that race and politics are a thing of the past here. That’s definitely not the case. High school graduation rates are much lower among African American children. Diet-related rates of chronic disease are much higher among communities of color on the Gulf Coast than among their white counterparts.
I think what people in my generation can do is become actively engaged in the conversation. They can engage with their members of Congress and work with organizations that want to promote the health of the whole family. That’s the only way we’re going to be healthier as a nation. Being aware of this fact and knowing how to navigate the political landscape that’s in front of us is the only way to effect change.
Q: What inspired you to become involved?
Caroline: I’m from Maplewood, New Jersey. At Willamette University I was an exercise science major…it’s the best department at WU! I would say I didn’t have the typical way of getting through college at Willamette University. I transferred to Willamette during the middle of my freshman year. I intended to major in English. But by the time I got there to sign up for classes, every class in the English department was full. But there were open classes in the exercise science department. I wasn’t into science, but I was an athlete (I was a rower), so I sat in on my first class. It was an introduction to the field. And I felt like it’s where I had to be.
I had a great freshmen and sophomore year. My academic advisor was Michael Lockard. He introduced us to the intersection of exercise and chronic disease in his class, which was “Physical Activity and Disease Prevention.” That really stuck with me.
Q: As an undergraduate, you conducted some interesting research. Can you tell our readers about this work?
Caroline: I entered my junior year and a lot of my friends were studying abroad. There was a great deal of anecdotal talk about gaining weight, going from living in America to France and Spain and countries that are overall somewhat healthier than the United States.
So I began to wonder: “What happens to foreign students when they study abroad in the United States?” Willamette University has a partnership with Tokyo International University. Every year about 100-120 Japanese students come and study abroad at Willamette University for ten months. I actually worked with a different professor on this project: Dr. Stavrianaeas. He ended up being my thesis advisor and I worked with the university’s residential health services coordinator for Tokyo International students. We collaborated to design a culturally appropriate way to work with these students and introduce the concept of participating in the study, that it was confidential and not mandatory, etc. Students could participate in one section and not be obligated for the entire year.
I tracked health, diet and physical activity changes over the course of their stay. I met with students every ten weeks. I worked with about 50 students over the course of the year. I took the same measurements in all four time periods and conducted a diet survey. I asked if they had trouble purchasing food on the meal plan and other kinds of questions. For example, were they running out of meal points? I posed questions about physical activity. The survey was interesting. My favorite part was tracking physiological changes, such as height, weight and body fat changes along with recording blood pressure. I also did a fingerprick test to determine cholesterol levels.
Q: What were your findings? Did the project influence your plans for graduate school?
Caroline: Pretty much everything had increased. The average weight gain for female students was about eight pounds; the majority of the weight gain occurred in the first six months. Interestingly, almost all students came to the U.S. with high HDL, which is a good indicator of heart health. By the time they left the U.S. – almost across the board – the HDL was below 40, which is typical for America but low for Japan. Physical activity was quite low.
All of the research was only possible through a mini-grant I received from Willamette University’s president, Stephen Thorsett. The grant enabled me to purchase supplies. I was also awarded a Carson grant; this allowed me to complete my study and also present findings at a conference in Boston. I had a lot of help. I worked on the project for nearly a year. I knew that after graduation I wanted to work with a similar population – such as recent immigrants to the U.S.- and to track how health changed after living here in America. A couple of the researchers I wanted to learn from were at Emory University’s School of Public Health.
I enrolled at Emory with the intention of learning from the faculty involved with the university’s Global Diabetes Research Center, but my practical internship experience was with the Atlanta Community Food Bank. I really wanted boots on the ground type of work rather than in academic research at that point. I was able to work with Janice Giddens – she’s at the Atlanta Community Food Bank – and she still is one of the most important mentors I have. She has her masters degree in nutrition and is a registered dietitian and had been working at the food bank for a few years. She brought the Choose Healthy Options Program, developed by MAZON and the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, to the Atlanta Community Food Bank. It uses a simple algorithm to rank inventories in the warehouse relative to nutrients, including sugar, fiber and fat. And it has played an important role how the Atlanta Community Food Bank monitors its food procurement and output (both purchased and donations).
I worked on the roll out of that program. My main work was tracking the changes in the product that was going out to partner agencies and, thus, their clients; I also interviewed food pantry directors on their thoughts on the new nutrition program. Part of that was learning more about their perceptions of client needs. The questions explored how important food pantry directors thought nutritious food was to their clients and the role they felt they played in the food landscape of their community.
Q: You’ve got a year and a half left in your Fellowship. Have you thought about what’s next?
Caroline: I’m not totally decided. I think I will be going back to school to finish my academic course with a PhD. I wanted some practical experience, but to elevate my current work, I think I need the additional academic experience and learning. And I really want to dive into the more academic and research-based intersection of food insecurity and chronic disease.
After a doctorate, I want to link food security and nutrition research. I want to work on U.S. food insecurity as a public health issue. It’s not always considered a major public health issue in academia. When I’m thinking about some of the counties I work in (for example, in Holmes County Florida 30% of the children are food insecure), it’s clear to food banks that this is a public health issue. And I would like to bring more research into public health on food insecurity among the food banking population.
Feeding America just started their randomized control trial at three food banks – Alameda County, Houston and Gleaners in Detroit – called FAITH-DM. It’s built upon their previous cohort study funded by the Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation. I’d like to work with students who are interested in that area and bring a little more academic and research assistance to organizations that are working with food insecurity, such as Feeding America is doing with their FAITH-DM project.
Q: What’s been the biggest challenge or most disheartening thing for you?
Caroline: The hardest thing is the bashing of heads of folks in organizations who are boots on the ground. Community-based organization don’t always want to work together, when we could pool our resources to effect greater change. While that’s definitely changing, there are some organizations that are resistant. I also finding it challenging that we know certain things are an issue, but we have little data to support what we are seeing, for example that Backpacks might not be the most effective hunger relief strategy for food insecure children. Research takes time. We live in a “now, now, now” culture. We have to put in the time and effort to make sure we get good data and don’t base our work on anecdotal stories.
Q: There are other Corp Members/Fellows across the nation. How do you keep connected with one another?
Caroline: We all just attended a conference hosted by Feeding America. Besides that we have a day-to-day or month-to-month running dashboard/discussion board on a website – it’s called Yammer. Yammer enables us to pose questions, post resources and generally crowd-source answers. We also do monthly check in calls with each other and go over what’s going on what we’re proud of. We’re only a few months into program, so we’re working out kinks.
Locally, each of us is getting into our community assessments and getting to know our service areas well. It varies. There is a Fellow in South Dakota who covers the entire state. Another Fellow is based around Birmingham. We are all assigned to different service areas but a lot of us are in rural or semi-rural areas.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Caroline: I feel very fortunate in my placement. My supervisor and executive director are very interested in getting data on the communities we serve and ultimately providing targeted approaches to solving our issue of child hunger. It’s a great placement for me and really a welcoming experience. To work in the Gulf Coast and the South has been supremely educational on understanding the political landscapes of these states.