The Ohio State University Alumni Association

Special Report Food Security

How could she help but help?

Student leader looks past stereotypes to effect change

Meera Nagarajan

Meera Nagarajan speaks at the Buckeye Summit focusing on food security in April.

Meera Nagarajan looks as though she’d be soft spoken. Buttoned up. First impressions are fragile for a reason.

Nagarajan is a force with a strong sense of justice. Her motivation for addressing food insecurity stemmed first from the poverty she saw in her father’s native village in India and was reinforced while volunteering at a Columbus food pantry. There, she saw people with master’s degrees and homeless veterans and college students, defying her preconceived image of individuals who sought assistance.

The pantry became a learning lab of sorts. She studied the food security and health of clients, eventually earning first place for her work at Ohio State’s Denman Undergraduate Research Forum. She said every interview had been emotionally draining — something that could either “burn you out or motivate you.”

Nagarajan couldn’t turn her back once she heard their stories.

Under the mentorship of Michelle Kaiser, assistant professor in the College of Social Work, Nagarajan founded Food Fellows. Her pilot program trains students from various disciplines on food-related social issues such as sustainability, urban agriculture and food policy. Food Fellows also raises awareness by asking students to take the SNAP Challenge. The experiment entails eating on the $4.40-a-day national average food budget allotted to recipients of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and documenting the experience on social media.

Nagarajan has taken the challenge more than once. The second time, she learned to cut out coffee so she could afford to eat fruits and vegetables.

“It makes you think about food 24-7,” Nagarajan said. “People have to go through it every day, all while they’re thinking about work and bills and child care. It was overwhelming for me just for a week.”

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