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Zhang Gets New Grant to Study Childhood Hunger in U.S.


Qi "Harry" Zhang, an Old Dominion University health economist, has developed a research specialty in the last few years analyzing food assistance programs, hunger and obesity. His latest grant comes from a highly competitive program of the University of Kentucky Center for Poverty Research (UKCPR) and will allow him to look more closely at food insecurity among children in the United States.

Working with Zhang, who is principal investigator for the project, will be Hua Liu, ODU assistant professor of political science and geography and an expert in geographic information systems (GIS). Two researchers from the University of South Carolina will also be part of the team. The title of the project is "Availability and Accessibility of Emergency Food Assistance and Food Insecurity Among American Children."

Zhang and his collaborators will use U.S. Census data together with a 2010 Hunger in America survey to determine how the availability and accessibility of emergency food assistance programs affects the risk of very low food security in households with children. The Hunger in America surveys are conducted by the Feeding America organization.

Household food security means that each member of the household feels confident about access at all times to sufficient, safe food to maintain a healthy and active life. Food insecurity is typically measured by questions such as, "In the last 12 months did you or other adults in your household ever not eat for a whole day because there wasn't enough money for food?" Or, "'We relied on only a few kinds of low-cost food to feed our children because we were running out of money to buy food?' Was that often, sometimes or never true for you in the last 12 months?"

Due to lack of information about emergency food assistance programs, they are used by only 36 percent of the very low food security households, Zhang said. Also, he said the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) spent $55 billion on multiple food assistance programs in 2007, yet 6.2 million households with children were sometimes "food-insecure" during that year.

The problem is serious enough to have caused the federal government, in collaboration with numerous organizations, to set a goal targeting 2015 as the year in which child hunger will be eliminated in the United States. The UKCPR program that is funding Zhang's project is called Research Program on Childhood Hunger. That program receives support from the Food and Nutrition Service of the USDA.

"The results of this new study will provide important information, allowing policymakers to target specific sociodemographic groups and regions for resource allocations to enhance local emergency food assistance and eliminate children's hunger by 2015," Zhang said.

"By linking Hunger in America 2010 with Census 2010, we will conduct descriptive analyses, including innovative geospatial analyses, to provide the most updated profiling of very low food security households with children," he added.

The geospatial analyses will be a contribution of Liu, whose previous GIS research has included work in epidemiology, human-environment interactions and environmental health. She will be responsible for constructing the maps that show areas where low availability of emergency food programs coincide with significant numbers of households reporting insecurities brought on by a lack of money to buy food.

Zhang, who specializes in statistical analysis, said this project will be able to identify the risk factors for very low food security in households, as well as in communities. "Except for the traditional risk factors, such as single-mothers and being in a minority-concentrated neighborhood, we expect to find that households with unemployed adults may have a higher risk, since most regions still have not climbed out of the recession. The clustering map of very low food security households will provide a visual tool for policymakers to estimate the severity and concentration of the problem in given areas."

The UKCPR grant is for $75,000. Last year, Zhang began a three-year project supported by a $200,000 USDA grant that is titled "Local Economic Conditions, Food Assistance and Food Insecurity Among Households with Children."

Earlier this year, Zhang and several collaborators began work on a $1.6 million National Institutes of Health project that is titled "Causes and Interventions for Childhood Obesity: Innovative Systems Analysis." That project, which will also last three years, will try to get to the roots of the childhood obesity epidemic in the United States and find ways to reverse the trend.

Other childhood hunger projects funded this month by the UKCPR are being conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, Cornell University, Columbia University, University of South Carolina, Boston University, Rutgers University, Bowling Green State University, American University, Virginia Tech, Williams College, Iowa State University, University of Virginia, University of Missouri, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Georgia State University and Spelman College.

This article was posted on: June 22, 2011

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