Episode 26: Part 1: Feeding our Planet Sustainably and Equitably



Dr.  Wendy Slusser  00:04

Today, I chat with UCLA Public Health doctoral student Hannah Malan about how she has applied her background in communication research and food security to a social cause that she is passionate about: feeding our planet sustainably and equitably. Please join me in the first of a two-part episode. In this part, I chat with Hannah about her journey to UCLA and research on the challenges our UCLA students face with food insecurity. So Hannah, this is such a pleasure having you here. Thank you for making time in your day on your visit down here from San Francisco to talk with us. I know this is your home away from home now, versus San Francisco was that way before. So I’d like to know what brought you here in the first place, to Los Angeles and to study at UCLA. Like what drove you here, what were some of the surprises that you found when you got to Los Angeles and then to UCLA?


Dr. Hannah Malan  01:11

Sure, I mean, I think like many people, it’s a million different turns, and opportunities, and connections, and false starts, and then new directions. I went to UC Santa Barbara, I did my degree in communication studies with a minor in professional writing, which left the job opportunities after school quite broad but also pretty vague. I didn’t know quite where I fit and what I wanted to do, so I just took a temp job at an advertising agency type of thing in San Diego and that’s where I learned to write a compelling headline and clear website copy. I was a junior writer there for a while and then came to Los Angeles when my boyfriend, now-husband, started pursuing graduate school in biostatistics. And at that time I was like okay how can I start working on things I care about? How can I use my skills to do something and work in a field that I felt like was meaningful and could start a more of a career trajectory for me? I’ve always been interested in sustainability and healthy communities, environmental issues that overlap and intersect with human health, which to me are most environmental issues, if not every environmental issue.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  02:29

You were kind of early – you were ahead of the game in a lot of ways.


Dr. Hannah Malan  02:33

Yeah, well I don’t know. I mean I also grew up in a home where my dad is in environmental policy and my mom is a preschool teacher, so they’ve always been such amazing examples of defining your success by serving others and, you know, making progress towards a world you want to live in, however that looks. So whether it’s being kind to people in your life or, you know, working on broader scale change. So I think for me I’ve always been driven to a career like that. I think that’s actually quite common in my generation, is finding purpose and mission driven work, so I really though didn’t know what public health was before I came here. And my husband sent me a press release about a new global media center they were opening at the Fielding School. That sort of piqued my interest and I learned more about public health. At that time I was working at Global Green, an environmental organization, doing social media work, but I was exposed to the sorts of climate change resiliency programs they were working on. They were working on food hubs and I think at that point, food stood out to me as this real connector, so it brought together people from public health from sustainability from, you know, people who are working on the ground and also broader policy issues and figuring out incentives to promote local food and healthy food, so yeah. I think at that point I was like, okay public health seems like it’s the people-focused part of environmental sustainability or of health. So that made more sense to me than going into something like environmental health because I knew I wanted the focus of my work to be on people. That’s a great way to define the role of public health in a world of sustainability, yes. So and then what, so then you just applied and then…? So then I applied, yeah I came to campus and visited. I didn’t get into UCLA for undergrad so i was like, alright this is my chance. And I thought, yeah let’s give it a try. You know a master’s degree is only two years so it seems like a relatively accessible thing to do. And UCSB has a quite a an academic approach to communication studies so I was familiar with that social science part of research and learning. So it was quite a natural fit for me in public health, which tends to take a social science approach to health issues. So I felt comfortable in that way. You know, I had taken some statistics and that type of stuff, but I guess I was just surprised by how much I didn’t know. And I keep being surprised by that. I mean, I think it’s –


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  05:25

When you started at the school?


Dr. Hannah Malan  05:26

When I started at the school, yeah. And I keep feeling that way of, you know, the more I learn, the more I feel. And I think that’s why I wanted to get a PhD is, you know, as soon as you scratch the surface of something, you realize all the complexities underneath.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  05:42

Let’s unpack what attracted you to public health and its relationship to food in the environment.


Dr. Hannah Malan  05:49

Okay, sure.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  05:49

And I think that that’s a really important subject, because as we learn more and more how food impacts our climate health, and it could be both positive or negative. So with your interest in food and the environment, when you first got to the School of Public Health, what did you think you could solve? Or what was your inspiration that drove you to thinking that this might be the way you can make a difference, which is what drives you?


Dr. Hannah Malan  06:23

I think it’s never one thing. And I still don’t feel sure about what I’m doing is the right approach. I think, as I said, often when we learn things that it brings up more questions. But I think food to me really emerged as something that touches so many parts of our life. The production of food, the distribution of food, the selling of food, not only in markets, and grocery stores, but food as art in restaurants and experience and bringing people together, cooking at home, you know, culture and all of that history and beauty that comes into experiencing and enjoying a meal with someone.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  07:07

That’s food literacy, really.


Dr. Hannah Malan  07:08

And that’s food literacy. But then yeah, as you mentioned, there’s also this part of food that has some really, there’s like a darker side, right. And I think that is interesting and compelling. And while food can bring such joy and so many benefits to our lives, it can also increase our risk of disease, and damage our planet, and be stressful for students, and other people who are struggling to afford nutritious, balanced meals. So I see food as a topic that is essential to health and environmental sustainability. And I think we can think big and tackle both of those issues at the same time.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  07:49

So Hannah, when I first met you, you were pitched by another student saying how fantastic you are, and what a great writer, and also how you were so interested in environmental issues as well as food. And so you started working for the Semel Healthy Campus Initiative and helped us with our progress report. But what emerged during that time of you helping us with the work was how much you were able to digest and synthesize the information, and the work that we did, and apply it. You had a real researchers mind, in my opinion, and I observed. And so as you entered your second year, and you were going to do a master’s in science, you drove yourself towards another student. And you both created a really super interesting research project that was applied and important for our campus because we had discovered that there was food insecurity on our campus, prior to the UC-wide survey. And I’d love to hear more about what food security is for students on campus. What does that mean? And then what made you decide to dive deeper? And what were some of the things that surprised you, what you found?


Dr. Hannah Malan  09:03

Sure. So this is one of the awesome things about working for Semel HCI, is they’re always quick to respond to the needs of campus and aware of what’s happening on campus and able to mobilize students and faculty to work on those issues. And I think coming from, sort of, this big picture public health, environmental approach to food security, I had always thought about it more in terms of how the UN defines food security, which is really thinking about all people, at all times, having access to sufficient safe and nutritious food. You know, that’s acceptable to them that can help them live a healthy and active life. And so in that way, when we think about food security issues like climate change, and other environmental sustainability issues like water, land use. Those things become crucially important as we’re trying to feed this global population that’s expected to reach 10 billion by 2050. But then on a smaller scale, when you when you delve into, really again, the human side of it and the human experience. The USDA has a more specific and two-level definition of food security, which includes both low food security, which is really reduced diet quality, and preference, desirability of the food you’re eating, as well as very low food security, which is what we typically call hunger. So reduce food intake because you don’t have the resources to afford enough food. And so in that context, that’s how we were thinking about food security and how it’s been measured in the United States and among students here on campus. So, yeah, my understanding is that, you know, we had known that students were skipping meals, and it was common for students to replace complete meals with things like ramen or other inexpensive food options. But this whole issue of why, how, to what extent, students were experiencing food insecurity, how they cope with it, their perceived solutions, and the role of the university – that was still unknown to some extent. There was a survey that came out of UC students that found 40% of UCLA students in particular were food insecure, with about 24% of them in this low food security category, and 16% in very low food security. You know, there are a lot of questions to be asked still. And at the same time, the Global Food Initiative from the Office of the President was interested in this topic of food literacy, which has many different definitions, but in general, refers to the collective knowledge, skills and behaviors required for healthy eating. So sounds quite like primal and animalistic, but really, how do we feed ourselves? Right? In this food environment you’re in, how do you make sure that you are getting enough healthy food to support your life? And that means different things to different people in different contexts. So what does food literacy look like for a college student? And how does that interact or intersect with food security? My colleague, Tyler Watson, was also a graduate student at the time in Semel HCI. Wendy, were really the mastermind bringing us together to work on these two topics. And so we were able to do a series of focus groups. So small group discussions, we did 11 with different subpopulations of students on campus, about eight students in each group. And so by subpopulations, I mean, graduate students, undergraduate students living off campus, undergraduate students living on the Hill, students, we identified who were currently using food resources, which I can talk a little bit more about later, but things like the Food Closet. And so we really talked to students about their experiences, how they get food, what they think causes food insecurity, how students are coping. Again, what they see the role of the university is, and we heard pretty overwhelmingly that, and this was not a surprise, because it had been reported in other literature. But the cost of attendance was overwhelming for students. So that was a big part of the cause of food insecurity is students just feeling like they couldn’t make ends meet. And by cost of attendance, I mean, not just tuition, but also the cost of living in these really high rent areas. Anyone who lives in LA, or San Francisco, knows that it’s a struggle to afford the rent. So it’s that, you know, you can’t afford the rent you live farther from campus. So the transportation costs and time.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  13:58

Right because actually the numbers are even higher than what you would expect for students who might be receiving the free or reduced school lunch during the K-12. period, like there seems to be more food insecurity.


Dr. Hannah Malan  14:11

So that’s a really important point. And something that I found surprising in the in the research that came out of the Global Food Initiative Survey, which was 56 or 57% of students who reported experiencing food security in college were new to food insecurity. Which suggests it’s not an issue of, as you mentioned, it’s different than what they experienced as a child. So there’s something about the college context that is particularly challenging. Economics is part of it. And another part we heard from students was that they’re fending for themselves for the first time and this is where food literacy comes in. So, you know, we think about different types of solutions and upstream approaches to addressing these issues. Economics is absolutely one of them, giving students more money. I think it could solve a lot of problems. But there’s also this upstream solution of giving students opportunities to develop the skills, to not only cope with food insecurity, but actually prevent food insecurity by utilizing the resources they currently have and finding additional resources. So food literacy can mean making the most of your money, finding resources, like CalFresh, which is at a federal level is called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP, formerly called food stamps, but also cooking at home, preparing food, stretching your food dollars, and understanding that healthy eating doesn’t always have to be out of reach. And that was a common perception of students is that, to paraphrase a student’s quote, it’s, you know, there must be a way to eat healthy on a budget, I don’t know how. You know, or things like I can’t afford to eat right 100% of the time, or every day. So it’s this sense that eating healthy is aspirational, but it’s not something I can do as a student. And that to me was concerning, because I think this gets to the culture of health, this idea where students felt like struggling to feed themselves was a normal part of the student experience. And I strongly believe it shouldn’t be.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  16:21



Dr. Hannah Malan  16:21

Especially at a university where we are educating and inspiring the next generation of leaders. I think a huge value and important part of Semel HCI is communicating to students that we do care about the whole student and the whole person. And I think we need more messages like that from every part of society, that you’re more than your job. You’re more than your degree or your grade.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  16:47

Your productivity.


Dr. Hannah Malan  16:49

Yeah, I mean, as a graduate student, I felt that strongly. It’s being defined by your productivity.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  16:55

Well, I think you’re talking about upstream solutions to food security or insecurity and one of the roles of university, of course, is education and capacity building. So food literacy really makes a lot of sense, from that point of view, too.


Dr. Hannah Malan  17:11

Absolutely. I mean, you know, some studies suggest that folks with higher food literacy and food skills have higher diet quality and are less likely to be food insecure. And if you think about it from a place like UCLA, we heard from students, too, that they wanted more support from the university to develop these skills to learn how to cook. You know, students discussed things like meal prepping, and, you know, shopping a few times a week to get fresh food, and find sales, and those types of things as strategies for not only improving their diet quality, but reducing stress around what to eat, and how to get food. At a place like UCLA, we can be doing more to help students develop those food literacy skills, which don’t just help them in college, but throughout their lives. Yeah, I mean, there’s been a general, what some scholars have called a culinary de-skilling. Which is, you know, our generation is much less likely to have the skills to prepare fresh food, and even grocery shop and those types of things. So college is really an appropriate time since the first time you’re living on your own, to be doing that. And when you’re in an educational setting, yeah, there’s no better time. I think another thing that was really important we heard from students is they felt like it was appropriate. They felt that it was appropriate for the university to be providing those types of resources and skills. And they trust the university. That’s a huge, huge part of it, too, we can talk more about this later but I think many of us feel confused in this information environment that we live in. But students really discussed trusting information from the university and wanted more support from the university.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  19:04

So I think, you know, your focus groups really uncovered some rich information that a survey can’t. A survey can, you know, get numbers and get a cross-sectional kind of view of a population. With the focus group, you really found some areas that we could actually change or improve on. And I really have to say that yours and Tyler Watson’s results, inspired and have really helped us create a teaching kitchen on campus, which was not here before for students. And since that has happened, I’ve talked to professional students, medical students, nursing students, who didn’t know how to even crack an egg. So we’re confronting, you know, we’re confronted with this group of students, not all of them of course, that really could use these rudimentary skills, these life skills. And it’s not just helping them while they’re at college but for life. And so how do you feel about the fact that some of your research is actually already impacting practice?


Dr. Hannah Malan  20:18

That’s awesome. That’s really exciting. And that’s my favorite part of research, turning research into action. And that’s why I have loved working with Semel HCI. And I think really what led me to continue and do a PhD is feeling like, okay, research matters.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  20:40

How do you think you were able to translate your research so quickly, because I think that that’s something that would be a great piece, or pearl, that you could share with other early researchers, you know, emerging students and PhD candidates?


Dr. Hannah Malan  20:57

I think this is advice that you gave me, Wendy, and I’ll just pass it along. But it’s really about, and I think it’s applicable for not just research or careers but so many things, is building on strengths, and also acknowledging and building on what’s already happening. So I think, rather than always trying to go at things alone, it’s really important to understand what’s already being done, to align yourself with, and build upon existing efforts, too. You know, if folks are working on things, and you have a different approach, to communicate that to them rather than going off on your own. And I think that sort of collaboration and acknowledgement of what’s happening and trying to identify how you can best contribute is a great way to go about doing research. I think something that I’m continuing to learn is thinking about, what are we trying to learn? Like, what is the most important thing that we’re trying to learn from this research? And knowing that from the start, before just doing something for the sake of doing it? So how will we use this information and sort of working backwards from there, developing your research questions based on, I mean, it sounds like a no brainer. But sometimes I think in the research process, you can get distracted from the real world, but really thinking about how would this be applied? And how can we best structure our questions and our research to support the practical nature of things that are happening on the ground?


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  22:37

With that observation actually, it’s interesting, because you started naturally, in a sense a community-based participatory research project. And that has now evolved into a more structured, community-based participatory research project for your PhD thesis. So explain to the audience what does that mean, community-based participatory research project? Because I think what you’ve just described is what a lot of people do naturally, not a lot, but a fair number where they will look at the strengths and they’ll work with the community and research something that is mutually agreed upon. Which you did with those series of focus groups. And then you did it in a more decisive way for your thesis?


Dr. Hannah Malan  23:24

Sure. So community-based participatory research refers to research that is community-driven, and collaborative, rather than just community-placed. So often in public health, we’re working on settings-based approaches to public health. So working in an institution like a school or a university, working in a community, in a hospital, rather than with a person one-on-one. So that’s a settings-based or a community approach. But community-based participatory research is a little bit different, because rather than the researcher going in, collecting the data, and deciding what’s done, you really involve the community members from the beginning. Their shared decision making and ownership over what’s done, how the data are collected, what is done with the data, what questions we want to ask, what problems we want to solve, what strengths are already exists that we want to build upon. And I really think that’s the best approach for creating solutions that are acceptable to people, that address community-defined needs, rather than the researcher saying this is what needs to be done. They’re more sustainable in the sense of long-lasting, more scalable because the lessons learned from those types of projects can be applied elsewhere. And it’s more of a recipe I guess, than a strict set of rules. I never follow recipes exactly. But, you know, you have to adapt them. You have to adapt them to your kitchen. What supplies you have and preferences and all of that. So yeah, I mean, I think it’s been a wonderful experience. And I think another important part of it is that the researchers have a lot to learn from the communities they’re working with. So, you know, the folks in dining that I’m working with now have 30-plus years experience working in restaurants, and, you know, decades of experience doing nutrition education and sustainability operations. And so we’re all learning from each other and really trying to bring together our different skill sets to elevate each other’s work and to create solutions that in the end, you know, I love Pete Angelis, who’s the head of Housing & Hospitality. He’s always just interested in trying and learning. And I see research is such an important part in helping us understand what works, potential unintended consequences of doing things. And I think that openness to learning and trying is something that the private sector has done really well. If you think about Silicon Valley and their openness to trying and failing and learning. I think we could all learn a lot from that in terms of how researchers can support communities who, you know, want to go through iterations and learning about creating solutions.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  26:24

Thank you for joining us today. And please tune in next week for the second part of this conversation. Hannah and I will dive into her current research on how to promote eating sustainably starting in our own backyard at UCLA. We hope you can join us next week.

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