The Ohio State University Alumni Association

Special Report Food Security

Why is synergy the best policy?

One-of-a-kind public affairs unit facilitates tough conversations

Jill Clark

Assistant Professor Jill Clark of the John Glenn College of Public Affairs focuses on food policy.

Ohio ranks third nationally in food insecurity despite its agricultural bounty — something Ohio State President Michael V. Drake characterized as a “serious paradox” when introducing U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack on campus this year.

Vilsack would go on to say that poverty affects one in five children in the United States, but one in four in rural areas. Food insecurity often accompanies that hardship.

The USDA’s top missioner was on campus in January to launch StrikeForce, a new-to-Ohio initiative designed to combat rural poverty by boosting local economies. The USDA’s on-the-ground effort is intended to help 11 counties reshape a sustainable future based not only on local assets and regional strengths, but on what community stakeholders and farmers say they need.

Jill Clark champions that kind of partnership. The assistant professor with the John Glenn College of Public Affairs calls it co-designing — community-based research that encourages those affected by a problem to participate in its solution.

The benefits of co-design translate “from Franklinton to Uganda,” Clark says. “It builds long-term relationships and trust. It says, ‘I want to know what you need.’”

The method is not without conflict. Every stakeholder has his or her own perspective, ideals and influences. And with hunger, the causes aren’t rooted simply in food. Solving the problem would mean addressing poverty, housing insecurity, institutional racism and more.

Clark says part of her work involves examining how retailers that accept SNAP benefits have been responding to increased poverty in the suburbs. They are responding, she says, “unless you’re in a minority neighborhood.”

In predominantly African American communities, stores selling fresh produce and other healthful options sometimes limit their hours. This can be a barrier, especially for people working multiple jobs, who might turn to fast food or gas stations for meals. It’s yet another burden placed on already-overburdened families.

As Clark sees it, remedies come in fits and starts. There is a unifying path forward, though: “A food system for the people, by the people.” It’s Clark’s mantra, and it’s fundamental to the Glenn College’s philosophy.

“Students won’t get the management and policy training anywhere else in the country like they do here,” she says.

That’s not Buckeye bravado or hyperbole. Clark and Professor Neal Hooker are the only people in the nation to oversee a public affairs unit with experts in food policy. It provides “a space and a place for the hard conversations about food,” Clark says, adding that Glenn College students have the advantage of dedicated discourse surrounding the roles of nonprofits, government and citizens in addressing food insecurity.

“If we think policy plays a role in who eats what, where and why, then we need to be training our students to change the world through public service,” she says. “How can you claim to train students on important issues, yet one of them isn’t food?”

Part of that training includes a course dedicated to the national food-supply system. Clark focuses on the prevailing issues of health, obesity, novel crops, sustainability, food advertising and corporate consolidation. With this unique-to-Ohio State curriculum, graduates could land in any number of places to address food insecurity, whether serving with a local food council articulating the community’s voice, leading a farm-to-school initiative or advising a member of Congress.

The overarching principle is civic agriculture — a rebirth of how people see themselves within the food system. It’s a trend that runs counter to large-scale agriculture. It’s the new vernacular instead of the overworked status quo, a place where people actively commit to local food production to foster their community’s economic growth.

“When we identify civil rights abuses, as a community, we come together and make sure it stops. So what does that look like for food?” she asks. “If all we do is buy and sell food, we’re never accountable for how it works. We can’t give up our responsibility.”

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