Examining Disparities in Food Access and Enhancing Food Security in Underserved Populations (2014)


Secondary Client Organization: 
United States Department of Agriculture
Secondary Client Confirmed: 


SNRE Faculty Advisor: 
Dorceta E. Taylor
Advisor Confirmed: 
Master Students Involved in Project: 
  • Stephen Ahn, MBA/MS Sustainable Systems
  • Kenneth Johnson, MBA/MS Environmental Justice/Sustainable Systems
  • Mary Lutton, MS Environmental Justice
  • Ima Otudor, MS Sustainable Systems
  • Juliana Pino, MS Environmental Policy and Planning
  • Mark Yoders, MS Environmental Informatics
  • Connie Yu, MBA/MS Sustainable Systems
Contact full name: 
Dorceta E. Taylor


Job title: 
Ann Arbor
State or Country: 
Contact Phone: 
Contact e-mail: 
Contact information: 
I am a U-M faculty member

Project Status

Project Status: 
Project in Progress

Project Details

Project Location : 
Michigan. This project can include other states depending on student interest.
Summary of Project Idea: 

NON-TECHNICAL SUMMARY: Food security has emerged as a major global and national problem. Nationwide more than 50 million Americans live in food insecure households. Consequently, activists and civic leaders are spearheading a variety of strategies to reduce food insecurity. We will undertake research, education, and extension activities aimed at understanding disparities in food access in Michigan and effective interventions to enhance food security. This project will examine the relationship between demographic characteristics and the distribution of food outlets in Michigan. It will also examine the presence or absence of food deserts and oases, and mechanisms for enhancing participation in local food initiatives.  Though we are interested in the whole state, we will focus attention on Sault Ste. Marie, Brimley/ Bay Mills, and St. Ignace - towns in the Upper Peninsula; Holland, Muskegon, Benton Harbor, and Grand Rapids in the west; Flint, Saginaw, Lansing, and Kalamazoo in the central part; and Ypsilanti, Taylor, Southfield, Warren, Pontiac, Inkster, Dearborn, and Detroit in the southeast. These cities have large populations of one of the following racial and ethnic groups: Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, Asians, and Arabs. By focusing on one state, we can control factors such as the policies related to Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT or Bridge) cards.  However, we will examine cities that vary on dimensions such as the degree of food insecurity, size, poverty rate, demographics, the extent of depopulation, amount of vacant land, extent of urban agricultural initiatives, health initiatives, and land use policies. We will use an array of methodological techniques to execute this project. These include key informant interviews, spatial analysis of the distribution of food outlets, an analysis of consumer purchasing and consumption behavior, and the development of a raised-bed gardening program to help low-income residents with limited space grow their own food. We will provide assistance in constructing the beds, planting instructions, seeds, and tracking how much is produced. We will also develop two field-based courses (one for graduate students and the other for undergraduates) that will use community-based participatory research techniques to connect students and community residents in learning activities.

OBJECTIVES: We will undertake research, education and extension activities aimed at understanding the disparities in access to healthy foods in the state of Michigan. Our goal is to promote strategies for enhancing food security of underserved populations in the state. The project will focus on 19 towns and cities in 14 counties in Michigan. These include Sault Ste. Marie, Brimley/Bay Mills (Chippewa County), and St. Ignace (Mackinac County) - these are northern towns in the Upper Peninsula that abut Native American reservations; Holland (Ottawa County), Muskegon (Muskegon County), Benton Harbor (Berrien County), and Grand Rapids (Kent County) in the west; Flint (Genessee County), Saginaw (Saginaw County), Lansing (Ingham County), and Kalamazoo (Kalamazoo County) in the central part of the state; and in the southeast we will focus on Ypsilanti (Washtenaw County); Taylor, Inkster, Dearborn, and Detroit (Wayne County); Southfield and Pontiac (Oakland County); and Warren (Macomb County). Michigan is a state in which food insecurity and lack of access to healthy foods are major concerns. The food systems in each city and town will be examined in the larger context of how the urban problems and activities are related to local food production.

The project seeks to achieve the following goals in each: (a) Identify the disparities in access to healthy foods in each municipality by examining the relationship between the demographic characteristics of the cities and the distribution patterns of various types of food outlets (including EBT retailers); (b) Identify the factors related to the presence of food deserts and food oases; (c) Examine the relationship between access to healthy foods, purchasing and consumption behavior, and health outcomes; (d) Identify mechanisms through which producers and consumers can be connected more directly and effectively and help facilitate more efficient connection; (e) Identify those who are vulnerable to becoming food insecure and facilitate their increased participation in local food networks; (f) Create two service-learning courses - one graduate and one undergraduate - related to food security and urban agriculture issues; (g) Promote national, state, and local food policies that will help to reduce food insecurity.

APPROACH: We will use a multi-method approach to collect information needed to execute this project. We will combine qualitative and quantitative techniques in our assessment of food access in Michigan. We will identify the major stakeholders and conduct in-depth, key informant interviews with them. Information from these interviews will be used to guide the activities we undertake and develop additional research instruments. We will also conduct in-depth interviews with a stratified (by type of food outlet) sample of food retailers as well as farmers in the cities as well as in the peri-urban belt around each city. The interviews with food retailers are intended to assess the extent to which they sell healthy foods and their willingness to sell organic, locally-grown food. The farmers' interviews will collect information on the extent of organic food production, as well as their ability and willingness to sell their produce locally. Closed-ended responses will be analyzed with the statistical package SPSS where both qualitative and quantitative analysis can be conducted on the responses. We will analyze the responses using both descriptive statistics and multiple regression analyses. We will conduct content analysis on open-ended responses to identify common themes that arise. We will identify the different types of food outlets operating in each city by collecting data from various sources such as the Web and the Michigan Department of Agriculture list of vendors. We will merge data collected from different sources and geocode the data. We will use ArcGIS and the Census to conduct a spatial analysis of the distribution of different types of food outlets in each city. This will allow us to assess how the distribution is related to demographic factors such as race and income.

We will measure and analyze the purchasing behavior, consumption patterns, and physical activity levels of low-income residents. We will recruit residents from city and county health programs to participate in the project. We will develop a raised-bed gardening program to help low-income residents with limited space raise their own food. Participants will receive help constructing the beds, given seeds and planting instructions, and provided with scales to weigh what they have produced. We want to track information provided by participants to see if and how consumption patterns change with the installation of the garden beds. One final element will be the development of two field-based (one graduate and one undergraduate) courses that employ community-based participatory research methods to connect students from participating universities and community residents in learning activities.

Skills/Expertise Needed: 
  • Good research skills (interviewing, conducting focus groups, administering surveys, familiarity with GIS techniques)
  • Good analytic skills (spatial and statistical analysis)
  • Good writing skills, publication (for popular and scholarly outlets)
  • Familiarity with spreadsheets and statistical packages (such as Excel, SPSS, and similar software)
  • Familiarity with communicating through the Web
  • Lobbying, policy analysis, and policymaking
  • Community organizing (working with community groups and low-income individuals)
  • Stakeholder identification and inclusion
  • Grant writing
  • Strategic planning
  • Agriculture, urban farming, or urban gardening
  • Nutrition and health
  • Business analysis
  • Curriculum development
  • Teaching and training
SNRE Program Areas: 
Conservation Ecology (Aquatic Sciences, Terrestrial Ecosystems, and Conservation Biology)
Environmental Policy and Planning
Behavior, Education, and Communication
Environmental Informatics
Environmental Justice
Sustainable Systems
Professional Career Development Benefits: 
  • Research Methods - sampling, survey design and administration, interviewing, focus groups
  • Spatial analysis - data collection for GIS analysis, analytic techniques
  • Data analysis - qualitative and quantitative analytic techniques
  • Writing - producing publishable materials for scholarly outlets and lay audiences.  Findings from this project will be published on the Web as well as in scholarly journals, and the news media.
  • Curriculum design and development
  • Policy formulation
  • Lobbying
  • Students will make contacts with:  farmers, farmers' markets, food store owners/managers, food justice advocates, health professionals, state and county health departments, state and county agriculture departments, other relevant social justice advocates and policy makers
  • Findings of the project can be presented at local, regional and national meetings such as the Agriculture and Human Values Conference and the American Sociological Association.
Funding Sources: 

This is a USDA project that has already been funded for five years for $4,000,000.  Additional funding for the Master's Project can be sought from SNRE, Rackham, and sources funding food security issues.

Identify expected products/deliverables: 
  • Spatial analysis of the distribution of food outlets in Michigan - identify food oases and food deserts and relationship to demographic characteristics
  • Report detailing stakeholder perceptions of food access and food insecurity in Michigan
  • Policy analysis and recommendations regarding enhancing food access in Michigan
  • One graduate and one undergraduate food insecurity course
  • Food security briefings
  • Published articles disseminating the findings
  • A master's project report
  • News reports in the media
  • Increased access to raised bed gardens