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Sociology students create survey tool for Idaho food pantries

“The highlight of this class was dissecting what food insecurity really means and how it can be integrated into so many other components within society,” says Calley West, a senior sociology major at Boise State University. “Food is just a really interesting concept if you really dive into it. There’s the cultural aspect of what type of foods you eat together, how food brings people together, like how a lot of families come together at the table. So it’s easy to see how food insecurity can impact a culture.”

In early May, West, along with classmates from associate professor Rebecca Som Castellano’s senior seminar class in the Department of Sociology, presented findings from a survey they conducted to the CEO and staff of the Idaho Foodbank. “It was really cool to get to work with the students and dig a little more deeply into some of the issues that the Foodbank is interested in exploring,” says Som Castellano, whose research at Boise State examines food systems and community engagement.

Students from Rebecca Som Castellano's Senior Seminar Class in Sociology at a food pantry in Boise

As a volunteer on the Idaho Hunger Relief Task Force, she had been in conversations with people from the Foodbank about creating a survey tool that food pantries across the state could utilize to evaluate the effectiveness of their food distribution efforts. They worked together to define the objectives of the study. The Foodbank wanted a survey tool to learn about the experience of their “neighbors,” the term they use for their clients, with the idea that eventually the research could be expanded across the state of Idaho. The Idaho Foodbank partners with food pantries across the state to feed the hungry and they identified three food pantries in Boise to pilot the project. She notes that, “the Foodbank made recommendations based on their inside knowledge and connections and I’m really so thankful for that and for them being willing to work with us.”

Ally Wilcox, a senior sociology major, describes her experience in the class, “food insecurity is a really big issue but there are all these dynamic factors coming into play. So we’re taking a mixed-methods approach and working with different people in the different communities and also looking at how the policies and environmental factors are involved—it’s a very full-circle approach.”

Som Castellano designed the senior seminar class to be a culmination of learning, experience and service for her students, “This is their capstone, so up to this point they’ve had lots of courses on theory, on methods, on all of this substantive coursework that gets them thinking about a lot of these social issues. So looking at food insecurity felt appropriate for this class because it’s a culminating experience.” The class had two primary learning objectives or components: a research component and a professionalization component.

“We had some career and academic assignments too. We submitted cover letters and resumes which was actually really exciting because at the time I was applying for an internship,” says Tess Fleming, also a senior sociology major. “She actually gave an assignment for us to show up with three graduate schools that we would possibly be interested in, even if we weren’t planning on going to grad school.” The professionalization component also included professional writing exercises along with strategies for interviewing and negotiating salaries.

Students spent the first half of the semester reading and understanding food insecurity and its many factors before moving into the research component of the class. Som Castellano describes her approach, “I don’t mean to sound overly altruistic or anything, but it’s mostly about service to the community and the integration of service and research into the teaching. I really like to do applied community-based research and sometimes the purpose of that research isn’t for a scholarly output per se. It’s really about providing actionable data for our community.”

“Everyone has a general understanding of a capstone project and so I was just expecting to do something around that kind of vibe,” says Wilcox. “And then Professor Som Castellano explained what we’re doing and I was like, that’s really cool, because I was applying to graduate schools and I’ll actually know how to do research instead of just make a project.”

Then the students moved into the research component of the class—the data collection and analysis. The students designed a survey instrument based upon the conversations Som Castellano had with the Foodbank and tested these with leadership at the food pantries. Students chose whether to collect quantitative or qualitative data. The students collecting qualitative data interviewed staff and volunteers at each food pantry. The students collecting quantitative data, interviewed “neighbors” picking up food and entered the data into a survey they developed that could be accessed on their smartphones.

“The pantry workers and volunteers were so supportive and seemed excited and enthusiastic about like working with the students,” says Som Castellano. The class expected to collect 100 surveys and collected about 150. “There are some results coming out that feel meaningful and useful,” explains Som Castellano.

The students presented their findings to the Idaho Foodbank CEO and staff on May 3, 2022. “It was really cool because we had the CEO on the call but we also had a lot of her team on the call as well,” says Fleming. “She discussed the results and that she would pull out information relevant to their departments.” Along with learning that a vast majority of respondents said that they feel like the food pantries are really welcoming, open spaces for them, the students shared that they learned how useful people with mobility issues find the drive through pantry option.

“I would say the most fascinating part was being able to apply what I learned into a real life situation that is a current issue and concern here in the Treasure Valley,” explains West. Fleming was equally excited at the opportunity to provide research that an organization will actually use, “this semester was like actual, tangible social research that we went out and did and then ran statistical analysis on and the fact that it’s now regarded as a real pilot project is just beyond me—that’s crazy!” Wilcox echoed their sentiments, “It’s a little bit past service learning, you know. Like, this is another step, someone’s actually going to do something with this.”

“I come out of a tradition of rural sociologists who do a lot of community-engaged research and there are plenty of other people doing that around campus,” explains Som Castellano. “I think it’s a great thing that we can do here. It’s one form of valuable scholarship, they all have value, but it’s nice to feel like we can just do something little to help.”

“I’m always hoping that my students can engage and then reflect on their engagement,” Som Castellano says. West asks, “We all understand that people all are going through their own things, but what’s causing that? What are the social structures that create these and how do we apply social theories to solving the bigger problems like food insecurity?”