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Studying Human Behavior and Turning Policy Into Practice to Address Food Insecurity on the ‘’Cuse Conversations’ Podcast
Children living in the City of Syracuse face the highest child poverty rate in the country, with 48.4% of children living in poverty, not sure where their next meal will come from, according to the most recent data published in the 2020 U.S. census.
Those numbers are staggering, but this week, Syracuse University is partnering with the Salvation Army of Syracuse to raise awareness of the problem and collect valuable donations, coming together to combat food insecurity as one university and one community.
On Sept. 13, the University launched an awareness initiative, Combating Food Insecurity as One University, to showcase the work being done both on campus and throughout the City of Syracuse to raise awareness about food insecurity issues.
“We’re going to have some food drives where people can donate food that will go both toward Hendricks Chapel as well as the community food bank. I think these are great ways of dealing with the short-term need in our community. Those emergency food assistance providers are great ways to deal with the food insecurity issue, even if it’s occurring in a cyclical way. Providing several days’ worth of food can really be meaningful and help support our community,” says Colleen Heflin, associate dean, chair and professor in the Maxwell School’s public administration and international affairs (PAIA) department.
Food Insecurity Awareness Week is being hosted by the Office of Community Engagement, and on this week’s episode of “’Cuse Conversations,” we spotlight the incredible, data-driven work being done on campus to address food insecurity and food justice.
Heflin, a senior research associate with both the Center for Policy Research and the Lerner Center for Public Health Promotion and Population Health has areas of expertise in poverty and child, family and social policies.
Len Lopoo is a Maxwell PAIA professor, Paul Volcker Chair in behavioral economics, senior research associate in the Center for Policy Research and director of the Maxwell X Lab, where experts examine policy issues through different disciplinary lenses to come up with practical solutions.
Heflin and Lopoo join the podcast to discuss how severe the food insecurity issue is in the City of Syracuse, and explain how the Maxwell School’s public policy leaders partner with the Maxwell X Lab to study human behavior, with the goal of turning policy into practice to combat food insecurity and other issues affecting our citizens.
They also share how students, faculty and staff can give back and do their part to fight food insecurity through numerous food drives on campus, how the X Lab’s data-driven approach leads to successful outreach, how they measure an initiative’s success, and what other kind of societal issues can be tackled through this partnership between the X Lab and policymakers on campus and in the City of Syracuse.
As an extension of Food Insecurity Awareness Week, Heflin and Michah Rothbart, fellow Maxwell professor and researcher, will be the featured guests at next week’s Thursday Morning Roundtable on Sept. 22, presenting New Evidence Regarding the Importance of Food Assistance Programs.
Check out episode 115 of the “’Cuse Conversations” podcast featuring Colleen Heflin and Len Lopoo. A transcript [PDF] is also available.
01What drives your research?
Colleen: “I’ve been interested in different measures of economic well-being for a long time. And for a long time, most of the work was really done on income-based measures like poverty. But in 1996, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) created a new measure, the food security measure, and I happened to be one of the early researchers that played around with that measure. I’ve spent a lot of my career since 1996 trying to unpack the causes and consequences of food security and how our bundle of federal, state and local programs support food security, but also sometimes may actually create implementation problems.”
Len: “I had a strong interest in the low-income population and poverty programs, and a lot of my research has been looking into social programs and the effects they have on families. The X Lab came about through a variety of ways, one of which was my real interest in doing social science research where we collect our own data and where we were running interventions that we could actually measure very specifically what the data tells us and what we were trying to do.”
02The X Lab is fascinating, taking a real-world problem, studying data, working with policymakers and devising ways to tackle these problems. What makes the X Lab successful?
Len: “The X Lab is getting close to six years old now, and I think when myself and co-founder Joe Boskovski started the lab, we had a few goals. The first was that we take some of the innovations that we are learning about through behavioral science and bring those into the social science field. The thing the X Lab is trying to do is take those innovations in psychology and work work with partners on campus and in the community to figure out ways to use these innovations successfully. We were very intrigued about putting together a team at the Maxwell School where we could work to come off the Hill and actually see if we can make some change in our community.”
03How do the two of you work together to study and assess the food insecurity issue and then try to come up with some ways to implement best practices to address the issue?
Colleen: “So I’ve been researching SNAP, commonly known as the food stamp program, for some time. And one of the findings that I have helped illuminate is that there’s a problem called administrative churn where individuals at the point where they need to go through the re-certification process to stay on the program often fall off for a variety of reasons. Because they don’t understand what they’re supposed to do, they don’t get the message, there’s lots of reasons. But this means people actually become food insecure for a short period until they can get back on the program. And so I knew this was a problem, but I wasn’t an expert in behavioral science. So I came to Len in the X Lab and I said, ‘How could we redesign this process better?’ and make it so people can get through this re-certification process and have more stability in their access to food resources.”
Len: “We had an interested partner at the University of Minnesota and the USDA to test behavioral interventions designed to increase the likelihood that SNAP recipients recertify on-time in Hennepin County. So we started to think about how might we communicate more effectively to reduce the burdens on the people with SNAP as they’re going through the process of re-certifying. Colleen and Joe went to Minnesota and learned a lot about the specifics of the program, and what we learned was there are a lot of rules that the folks on SNAP have to follow, and they lose track of deadlines and which forms need to be filled out when. So we tried communicating with them differently. Rather than sending a lot of messages through the mail and through robocalling, methods they weren’t responding to, we developed a texting program, which became much more effective to make sure we could reach the program recipients. We were able to improve re-certification for SNAP between 5- and 10-percent at almost no cost. It was really an effective way of overcoming a barrier and learning more about why this system wasn’t working very well. Turns out the way you frame the information makes all the difference in the world. You test what actually works. It may be the case that something works really well in Syracuse, New York, and it doesn’t work quite as well in Hennepin County, Minnesota. Don’t just try to make everything fit in every place, but actually test it to see what works.”
04There's another segment of the population at risk for becoming food insecure, our military service men and women. What work are you both doing to address this issue?
Colleen: “The point of separation, the point when our military service members are transitioning from active duty to civilian life, that’s a time where a lot of our military members are having to cover their own housing for the first time. There may be challenges of trying to find a job, and there’s often this increase in food insecurity. I was interested in seeing what information the military provided at the point of separation, and the information was challenging. It just wasn’t very clear. I asked the Veterans Administration if we could try to make this process a little better, and Len and I have been working on ways of simplifying the information, trying to make it so that individuals better understand the information that is being presented to them. We have some really encouraging results, and the D’Aniello Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF) has been a great partner in providing some support for this given their interest in food and security and military transitions. This is one of those great examples of Syracuse University and our partners working together to use our expertise across multiple domains to address real problems.”
Note: This conversation was edited for brevity and clarity.