The Ohio State University Alumni Association

Special Report Food Security

Why should where you live determine how long you live?

A look at disparities based on location

Michelle Kaiser

Franklinton Gardens is a valuable learning environment for the students of Assistant Professor of Social Work Michelle Kaiser.

The gap in life expectancy between the richest 1 percent and poorest 1 percent is 14.6 years, according to a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Some context: The leading cause of preventable death in the United States — eating food that is bad for us — has fallen out of favor with the white, well-educated and upper-middle-class population. So companies have turned marketing efforts toward people of color and the urban poor.

The effect is compounded when larger grocery chains opt out of a presence in minority neighborhoods, according to Assistant Professor of Social Work Michelle Kaiser. The problem, sometimes called retail redlining, occurs when a company looks not at the economic potential of a neighborhood but at its racial or ethnic composition. Bias might then conjure fears of low profits for a store in that neighborhood.

Convenience stores, however, with their abundance of processed foods, are increasingly present in minority neighborhoods and in Ohio.

Behind Kaiser’s desk is a small sign reminding her to “give a voice to the voiceless.” That is the essence of social work, a field she sees as vital to today’s conversations about society, economics and the environment.

“The point of all this isn’t to write papers,” she says of her commitment to an on-the-ground approach.

Kaiser is the principal investigator for the team behind Mapping the Food Environment. The vast effort was born within Ohio State’s Food Innovation Center, which pulls experts from disparate fields of study and encourages them to look beyond their own paradigms to address global problems.

The team has surveyed residents of neighborhoods along Columbus’ High Street corridor about food security, access, affordability and production along with health. The team is analyzing the results and applying them to the respondents’ communities. The baseline data informs local interventions.

In Franklinton, for example, several nonprofits have used the findings as rationale to invest in the impoverished community long known as “The Bottoms,” a reference to both the neighborhood’s elevation and Franklinton residents’ status at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. The maps and descriptive data also can be used to seek grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and others.


The investment in Franklinton Gardens yields a nutritious bounty.

“Our findings provide a deeper understanding of community-level food security and food access issues [such as] transportation, availability of food stores, cost [and] food preferences,” Kaiser explains.

The team is layering the data with the geographic coordinates of food stores, mapping the supermarkets, dollar stores, pharmacies and corner stores where respondents shop.

“We are finding price disparities in different types of foods across stores depending on where they are located and the type of store, as well as differences in the availability of healthful food in particular,” she says.

In the classroom, Kaiser takes a similarly multifaceted approach to the topic of fighting food insecurity. She created an elective, Follow the Tomato: Community Food Strategies, which she insisted be part of the employment offer that brought her to Ohio State in 2012. Earlier this year, she was one of 10 recipients of the Alumni Award for Distinguished Teaching, the university’s highest teaching honor, selected from a field of more than 3,000 faculty. Through her dynamic lectures and mentorship, she opens students’ eyes to the complex elements that determine whether a family faces challenges to food security.

“Food is a lens by which we’ve come to understand many community-level issues,” she says. “Inviting students from city and regional planning, agricultural communication, public health, health services administration, the humanities, medical dietetics, public affairs and EEDS (Environment, Economy, Development and Sustainability) is crucial for them to develop the ability to work with people who may have different values [or] different training from their discipline.”

To address food through exposure to different fields of study, the College of Social Work now offers three dual master’s degree options, one with the John Glenn College of Public Affairs, another with the College of Public Health and yet another with the Knowlton School of Architecture’s City and Regional Planning programs.

All students in these and other social work degree programs must gain experience through field placements. They might partner with residents on a 2-acre urban farm such as Franklinton Gardens. It’s there and in the surrounding community that students see individuals’ challenges and potential, and where they learn to advocate for social equity and public health.

“As social workers, we fundamentally value service, social justice, integrity, the importance of human relationships and dignity,” she says. “Every person, every household, every community has a story. We need to hear people’s stories so we can ensure that their voice plays a role in making
change happen.”

The sign behind her desk is her daily call to action.

Help Ohio State grow healthier communities


Support the Initiative for Food and AgriCultural Transformation team’s collaborative mission to examine and address food security from cultural, political, economic and environmental fronts.


Buckeye Food Alliance pantry

Assist a student-led effort to help current Buckeyes in need.


Food Innovation Center

Help experts from across 15 colleges tackle food and nutrition issues through food mapping, public health policy, obesity prevention and other key initiatives.