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Breaking the “Starving Student” Myth: Understanding and Addressing Food Insecurity Needs on Campus

The project: Food insecurity, a condition of limited or uncertain access to nutritious food, is a critical issue for students’ health, academic achievement, and future well-being. Recent studies, including one conducted at the University of Michigan in 2015, have shown unprecedented high levels of food insecurity on college campuses.

The process: This mixed-methods project assessed the current prevalence, risk factors, and consequences of food insecurity through an online survey representative of the U-M student body in winter 2018. Researchers also used in-depth interviews of 39 students to qualitatively explore the lived experience of food-insecure students as well as innovative strategies to address food insecurity on campus.

Results: Survey results showed the prevalence of food insecurity was 32%. Levels of food insecurity were higher among Black and Hispanic students, first generation students, and students receiving financial aid. Student food insecurity was associated with poorer diet quality, including lower intake of fruits and fiber and higher intake of added sugar. Student food insecurity was also associated with higher body mass indices.

Preliminary themes from the interviews included:

  1. students feel helpless in the face of food insecurity (e.g. “It’s hard to focus because of a lack of energy. It’s frustrating because I want to eat more, and I know it would help”);
  2. food insecurity affects students’ mental well-being;
  3. food insecurity affects students’ physical health (e.g. “I did kind of starve. It is just this feeling where you are numb.”;
  4. food insecurity affects students’ academic performance; and
  5. food insecurity is related to other basic needs insecurities (“e.g. “My parents are broke from giving my tuition. It definitely affects how much food I buy.”).

Cindy Leung, School of Public Health
Alicia Cohen, School of Medicine
Nicole Kasper, School of Public Health

Food Finder Pilot Partnership

According to the USDA, 15.6 million households were food insecure at some point in 2016. For these households, sources of free food – like food banks, churches, and other nonprofit organizations – are critical to their day-to-day survival. Food Finder, a nonprofit organization, is already working to create the first fully verified database of free food sources for every community across the country. By individually verifying basic information about each site, it hopes to allow those who seek free food to access it quickly and easily. Poverty Solutions will partner with Food Finder to pilot a new verification process of all full-time emergency food assistance providers by leveraging the resources of the university. This database will connect food insecure families with trusted sources of free food near them, based only on their current location, and using technology they already have and use every day. The award winning mobile application, coupled with U-M’s research expertise, has the potential to have a real impact on hungry families across the country.

Poverty Solutions will then also have a robust source of data on these feeding sites. Where are they? How do they serve their communities? Researchers interested in food insecurity and the food provider landscape across the country will have access to this database.

Julia Weinert, Managing Director
Poverty Solutions

Lynn Griffin, Executive Director
Food Finders

Evaluating the Effectiveness of Bioretention Rain Gardens in Removing Pollutants Associated with Tire Dumping and Roadside Pollution

The project: Environmental justice research has shown that low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, such as those in Southwest Detroit, are more likely to experience higher levels of pollution. In Southwest Detroit, residential and commercial areas are in close proximity to ongoing heavy industries and high-volume transportation corridors, increasing concerns about the local air and surface water quality. These challenges are further exacerbated by illegal dumping, with piles of garbage, particularly used tires, frequently dumped in this community. These dumping sites may be accumulating toxic levels of heavy metals that can cause serious health issues such as cancer. This project aimed to identify strategies to transform dumping sites by constructing bioretention areas. Bioretention rain gardens utilize physical, chemical, and biological removal mechanisms to improve stormwater quality before it is discharged into the environment.

The process: Working closely with Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision and other Detroit organizations, this project contributed to the creation of three new rain gardens at Bieniek Park, Holy Redeemer Grade School, and Scarcyny Park & Garden, plus made improvements on existing green stormwater infrastructure projects to establish two additional rain gardens at Detroit Cristo Rey High School and the Southwest Detroit Business Association.

Results: In addition to contributing to the five rain gardens, this project also educated local residents and community organizations through Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision’s engagement in the Land + Water Works Coalition.  This promoted a better understanding of the importance of bioretention in addressing poverty and environmental justice inequities through improving the quality of the local environment, reducing residents’ exposure to hazardous contaminants, and adding green space.

Larissa Larsen
Associate Professor of Urban and Regional Planning
U-M Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning

Sarah J. Clark
Director of Programs Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision

The stars on the map show the location of five rain gardens in Southwest Detroit supported by a Poverty Solutions 2018 faculty research project.

Overcoming the chilling effect: Identifying strategies for improving immigrant families’ acceptability and accessibility to health and social services that alleviate poverty

The project: In March 2017, a commentary in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) by two physicians called for research on the potential “chilling effect” that increased immigration enforcement under the new presidential administration would have on immigrant’s willingness to seek healthcare or government services. Given that the timely receipt of health and social services can be a successful poverty-alleviation strategy, this barrier to health and social services for immigrant populations could exacerbate and prolong poverty. Because healthcare and access to other social services is critical for preventing and alleviating poverty, neighborhood Federally Qualified Health Centers are a vital resource for immigrants living in the surrounding community. This project aimed to identify new and promising strategies for how these health centers can provide healthcare and social services to undocumented immigrants and their families in this context of increased immigration enforcement.

The process: Investigators at Community Health and Social Service Center (CHASS) in Detroit, Washtenaw Health Plan in Ypsilanti, Packard Health in Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan conducted in-depth interviews with 28 frontline healthcare and social service providers in 2018 to better understand the barriers to and facilitators of healthcare for their immigrant clients.

Results: The researchers found undocumented clients encounter three phases of delay: delay in the decision to seek care, delay in identifying and traveling to healthcare facilities, and delay in receiving adequate and appropriate care at healthcare facilities. Given the current socio-political climate for immigrants, they recommend healthcare and social services organizations that serve undocumented clients should adapt existing services or introduce new services, including those that are not site-based like telemedicine, home visits by providers, and harnessing a workforce of community health workers.

More information: Barriers and facilitators to healthcare and social services among undocumented Latino(a)/Latinx immigrant clients: Perspectives from frontine service providers in Southeast Michigan

Paul J. Fleming, Ph.D., M.P.H., U-M Assistant Professor, Dept. of Health Behavior & Health Education, School of Public Health
William D. Lopez, Ph.D., M.P.H., U-M Postdoctoral Fellow, Dept. of Health Behavior & Health Education, School of Public Health
Richard Bryce, D.O., Chief Medical Officer, Community Health and Social Services Center (CHASS)

Eliminating the Path to Energy Poverty: A Multi-State Analysis of Equity in Energy Efficiency Investments

The project: Energy poverty, or the gap in energy affordability, is a burden on low-income households amounting to millions of dollars in utility arrears. This burden negatively impacts a household’s long-term health, education, employment, and financial stability. Energy efficiency offers an opportunity to address energy poverty through energy waste reduction measures such as LED lighting, energy-efficient HVAC systems, and insulation. Current state policies requiring utility-managed energy efficiency programs, aimed at producing statewide reductions in energy demand, often distribute funding and program benefits disproportionately across socioeconomic groups, although a spectrum of policy measures exist that should steer policy investments and outcomes towards greater equity. This study evaluated the current state of equity in energy efficiency programs across state policies and estimated the impact on the state’s home energy affordability gap if program investments were more equitable. Using a new metric called the equitable energy efficiency (E3) baseline, researchers measured the effectiveness of state policies at achieving equitable outcomes for low-income households.

The process: To compare equity in energy efficiency investments across states and electric utility companies, researchers developed a normative baseline metric for utility spending on low-income customers. This metric, known as the Energy Efficiency Equity baseline (E3b), accounts for the proportion of the population defined as low-income in a utility’s service territory and the total annual residential energy efficiency investment dollars. The E3b accounts for differences in policy approaches as well as socioeconomic characteristics per utility territory and each year. Researchers used the E3b to evaluate energy efficiency investments among low-income populations by 11 large utility companies in six states, from 2012 to 2021. 

Results: The analysis resulted in the following key findings: 

  • The E3b is a useful metric for evaluating utility performance from an equity perspective. It can be used to compare among utilities and within states, among utilities with small to large portfolios, and utility performance over time. E3b provides flexibility for existing and future variations in state policy approaches, while accounting for the socioeconomic characteristics within utility service territories.
  • Results suggest that while most utilities are underperforming relative to the E3b, positive investment trends are estimated into 2021. This is likely the result of a combination of factors: utility decision-making, stakeholder interventions, and state policy adjustments.
  • State Energy Efficiency Resource Standards policies aimed at achieving equity in energy efficiency should integrate factors including: socioeconomic characteristics of each utility territory, low-income program qualifiers, proportion of the population qualified to participate in these programs, and the total size of the residential portfolio investment.

Tony G. Reames, School for Environment and Sustainability

Ben Stacey, School for Environment and Sustainability, Taubman College of Urban & Regional Planning


The Politics of Technology for the Poor: Between India and the World

The project: Technological innovation seems to have enormous potential to improve the lives of the poor, from improving sanitation to increasing access to education. But these interventions often have limited user interest and uptake. This project examined whether we can do a better job of leveraging technology for the poor, with a specific focus in India. This project investigated the politics that shape development of these technologies, both at the international level and within India. Understanding these politics is a key step toward transparency in policymaking and toward ensuring that technologies are chosen and implemented in ways that poor citizens want and need.

The process: Researchers did fieldwork in India to compile an in-depth case study on technological advances related to sanitary pads available to Indian women in poor, rural areas. Researchers conducted 60 interviews with researchers, entrepreneurs, non-governmental organizations, and government personnel involved with menstrual health and hygiene management innovations for the poor; attended training sessions; and conducted reviews of academic and policy literature as well as news media on the topic. 

Results: Researchers found existing development initiatives focused on menstrual health and sanitary pads in India can actually disempower women as knowers and innovators. Much attention has been paid to Arunachalam Muruganantham as the developer of affordable sanitary pads who also built machines for manufacturing them. He sells these machines to women’s self-help groups across India so they can start businesses selling these pads, become social entrepreneurs, and rise out of poverty. However, researchers noted that publicly celebrating Muruganantham’s contributions can erase and denigrate hundreds of years of innovation by Indian women in managing their menstruation. The research points to the need to start by asking poor and rural women about the biggest problems they face in an open-ended way and amplifying their knowledge and innovation. 

Shobita Parthasarathy, Ford School of Public Policy


Helping Across Generations: An Exploratory Study of Blue Collar Workers’ Retirement Well-Being

The project: With today’s young adults facing increasing financial pressures, it is parents that often come to the rescue. Older adults from working-class backgrounds often provide help to their adult children and extended families, which can affect family relationships and their own economic well-being, particularly in retirement. This project explored the impacts of these arrangements and suggest needed reforms to the social safety net and to the ways we think about retirement so that poverty is both alleviated and prevented.

The process: Researchers interviewed 23 retirees associated with local chapters of the United Auto Workers, unions representing the custodians and groundskeepers at U-M, and the Michigan Association of Retired School Personnel about the types and frequency of help provided to their adult children and extended kin; how help is negotiated; how the provision of help affects economic and emotional well-being; and how provision of help is balanced against one’s own needs in retirement. 

Results: Preliminary findings led to additional funding from the Russell Sage Foundation to expand the study to 65 retirees and conduct follow-up interviews with participants. 

Kristin S. Seefeldt, U-M School of Social Work and Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy

Can Peer Support Specialists Deliver Technology-Based Job Interview Training for People with Psychiatric Disabilities? An Assessment of Community Needs and Priorities

The project: People living with serious mental illness disproportionately live in chronic poverty; conversely, poverty is a risk factor for mental health problems. While 70% of people with serious mental illness want to work, only 10-15% are employed, in part because social and cognitive challenges may interfere with finding a job. This project explored innovative ways that people with serious mental illness can obtain vocational support from Certified Peer Support Specialists (individuals with a lived experience of mental illness who have obtained training on how to serve others with similar experiences), and researchers focused on whether a virtual reality job interview training program (see can be effectively delivered by a Peer Support Specialist.

The process: Researchers held focus groups with 34 Certified Peer Support Specialists (CPSS) from across Michigan to learn more about their experiences with vocational services, and they trained eight CPSSs in the virtual reality job interview program. 

Results: The peer support specialists described unique ways they are able to deliver the virtual reality job interview training. Their coaching would include self-disclosure of difficulties with learning new technology; managing working life while living with a mental illness; and applying for jobs much like those to which their clients would be applying. Peer support specialists often described providing social support, practical knowledge, and linkages to needed resources for people with serious mental illnesses who are looking for work. Most participants who were trained on the virtual reality job interview program said the program would be exciting for peers, that they learned something by practicing with it, and that they had positive experiences with it, which suggests virtual reality job training would be an acceptable service for their toolbox. 

Adrienne Lapidos, U-M Medical School and Department of Psychiatry
Treatment Innovation and Dissemination Lab

Matthew Smith, U-M School of Social Work
Treatment Innovation and Dissemination Lab

Michele Heisler, Michigan Medicine


How Does Unintended Pregnancy Affect the Outcomes of Older Children? Evidence from a New Randomized Control Trial

The project: In the United States, nearly half of pregnancies are unintended, and unintended pregnancies occur five times more often among poor compared to affluent women. The consequences of unintended pregnancy for women’s education and earnings are substantial, and children born as a result of unintended pregnancy are much more likely to live in poverty compared to children whose births are intended. The implications of unintended pregnancies for older siblings are comparatively understudied, but children born to women who subsequently have an unintended pregnancy are likely to be affected by her decreased income and by the need to distribute household resources across more children. The aim of this project was to lay the ground work for a novel study of the effects of unintended pregnancies on older children. Building upon a large randomized control trial in Michigan that increases the affordability of contraceptives for women, researchers hope to examine the short- and long-term outcomes for older children in terms of their schooling, juvenile delinquency, foster care, and participation in public transfer programs.

The process: The researchers worked with the Michigan Contraceptive Access, Research, and Evaluation Study (M-CARES) to expand the number of study participants; add survey supplements that ask women about the intendedness of each birth, time and money spent on each child, parenting practices, and children’s health, schooling, extracurricular activities, behavior and well-being; document the outcomes for children of women involved in the study, during the five-year study period and until the children turn 18; and evaluate the effects of mothers’ access to free contraception on children’s outcomes.

Results: Researchers applied for funding from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to run a randomized control trial using the research protocols put into place through this project.

Martha J. Bailey, professor of economics, University of California-LA

Paula Fomby, associate research scientist, U-M Institute for Social Research

Alfia Karimova, assistant research scientist, U-M Institute for Social Research

Assessing the impact of intergenerational asset building programs on self‐efficacy, academic achievement and college going culture of low‐income Black and Latino girls

In the fall of 2015, Alternatives for Girls successfully piloted a new “Asset Building” model to encourage middle school girls and their families to academically prepare for high school, career and college, and to save for future post‐secondary education and training expenses.

The next phase of work will support up to 60 middle and high school girls and their families to prepare for success in school, career and college, and to save for future costs by matching funds saved by families for college costs.

Alternatives For Girls is focusing on enhancing program robustness, further engaging parents, and strengthening linkages to other college access resources in Detroit. Dr. Trina Shanks, of the University of Michigan School of Social Work, will assist AFG in identifying and implementing interventions that can strengthen the existing program to achieve more asset building and poverty alleviation results.

The partnership is committed to serving these girls on a long‐term basis, and aims that each participant will save $1,000 to $4,000 toward her education by high school completion. Each girl will graduate from high school and enter a post‐secondary education/training program, and will complete a post‐secondary training program, or at least the first two years of college.

Trina Shanks, University of Michigan School of Social Work
Melody Moore, Alternatives for Girls