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UNT gets $116,000 grant for research on food data

Profile image for By Rachel Mehlhaff / Staff Writer
By Rachel Mehlhaff / Staff Writer

The University of North Texas, along with Southern Methodist University, is collaborating with the North Texas Food Bank to better understand food security.

The Hunger Center of North Texas, a new research initiative of the food bank, awarded UNT a $116,000 grant to look at how people use their social network and relationships, or social capital, to get food.

SMU, which received a $120,000 grant, is focusing on the role social networks play in food insecurity.

Richard Amory, director of research for the North Texas Food Bank, said the Hunger Center was started in July 2011 because of a growing interest in data-driven work. The data is expected to improve the food bank’s services and improve lives, he said.

The center received five proposals and two were selected for a grant.

It decided to work with the UNT and SMU research teams because they understand what the food bank is doing, Amory said.

The universities are using different methods, but both are answering similar questions, he said.

“It’s interesting to be working within two disciplines,” Amory said.

UNT’s approach is anthropological. It’s organic through recruiting people for focus groups and going to local food banks, he said.

SMU’s approach is more of a statistical analysis, he said.

The goal is to ask critical questions, evaluate what the food bank is doing and go beyond what it knows, he said.

“We need strong collaborative partnerships,” Amory said. “We find we need each other.”

Nancy Gillis, research scientist at UNT, said UNT’s study would look at the complexities of food security, or peoples’ access to affordable, nutritious foods, without resorting to a food pantry, pillaging, scavenging, robbing and stealing.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 58.9 percent of families with incomes below poverty level are “food secure.”

Lisa Henry, chairwoman of the anthropology department at UNT, said many people don’t identify themselves as food insecure despite using food pantries because they are skilled at using the food pantries and know from where their next meal is coming.

UNT’s study is looking at how food security is defined and how it’s perceived, Henry said.

For Gillis, the research she started in September for the North Texas Food Bank is an extension of her thesis, which focused on factors that affect food security.

Gillis said UNT’s project would look at the social capital and the existence of resources of low-income families in rural and urban environments.

She will talk with families about their different food sources, their perspective of the community and how they utilize resources within their community.

Gillis is looking at Lamar and Hunt counties, as well as a portion of Dallas County.

“We’re interested in comparing folks living in Dallas and folks living in more rural areas we serve,” Amory said. “We want to understand how their experiences are different.”

UNT’s research will be conducted over 12 months. SMU’s project will last 18 months.

Gillis said the hope at the end of the study is to be able to share the results and possible recommendations with the North Texas Food Bank to make changes to programs and services or add different programs.

“That just depends on what the data says,” Henry said.

RACHEL MEHLHAFF can be reached at 940-566-6889. Her e-mail address is .