A Conversation with CHASP Faculty Fellow Dr. Erin Lentz
Annie Henson is in the second year of a dual-master degree program, pursuing a Master of Public Affairs at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and a Master of Public Health at the UT Health Science Center - Austin Regional Campus and 2018 CHASP Ambassador.
Erin Lentz, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor and food policy scholar at The University of Texas at Austin LBJ School of Public Affairs.
Annie sat down and spoke with Dr. Lentz about her work in women’s empowerment and food security.
ANNIE HENSON: What was your path to studying food policy issues?
ERIN LENTZ: I became interested in hunger in high school. I read somewhere, “there’s enough food for everyone in the world to be fed but hunger still exists.” I was struggling to understand why the availability piece is there, but the access piece is missing. When people talk about defining food security they think of it as nested layers - there has to be enough available; people have to be able to access it; it has to be culturally appropriate; and people have to be healthy enough to utilize it. I got really interested in that access piece - why is it that some people can’t get enough food? The obvious answer is that they don’t enough money, right? So I started out studying economics. Then, the more I talked to people, the more I got interested in questions around power, which led me to sociology. Sociology has a broader lens on thinking about what kind of constraints people faced and that some of them were not just market-based or about poverty.
AH: How did your work lead you to looking at women’s food insecurity?
EL: I was chatting with a good friend and colleague about how poverty doesn’t explain undernutrition as well as we would expect, especially in parts of South Asia. In other words, poverty does explain some undernutrition but it isn’t the only factor. People can be undernourished for other reasons. We kept bumping into these other reasons as we were talking to people. Over and over again, women were saying that they faced constraints that were different from what men were saying were constraints or what their children were experiencing. We felt that some of the statistical modeling around food insecurity and undernutrition were not picking up on these constraints that were specific to gender. Much of the undernutrition literature also looks at kids and somewhat ignores the other members of the household. Many data sets collect only nutrition data for kids, so we just do not know what is going on with women. That started to make me wonder - what if we do find out what is going on with kids is not necessarily what women experience? Perhaps it’s not as simple as addressing poverty, and how do we start thinking about the other constraints that women face beyond poverty?
AH: I have never thought so much about the women-specific piece in undernutrition and food security, especially here in the United States. I think that’s especially overlooked.
EL: That’s a great insight. Two things come to my mind. One is that when people talk about women’s empowerment, they are often really mean is empowering women to improve the lives of their kids. But what about improving the lives of the women? There is this instrumental use of women’s outcomes for other outcomes, rather than for helping themselves. The second is that some fascinating research by Fram et al. 2011 shows that kids try to manage their own hunger. In other words, they know their parents are also hungry and they cut back too. We may be targeting the kids’ hunger through school lunches and so on, but that isn’t enough to ensure that children aren’t hungry, because they are also managing their hunger at home.
AH: It sounds like you developed your career interests early, but is this where you thought you would end up?
EL: No, I wasn't at all convinced that I wanted to be an academic. I really wanted to be a practitioner, which I was for a while when I worked at CARE. But to my surprise, I learned that I really like being in the weeds of research. On the teaching side, I really enjoy getting to have one-on-one conversations with students because everyone’s coming with different perspectives and different experiences. Plus, I really like the ability to step back and reflect that research requires.
AH: Tell me about your recent testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on modernizing food aid.
EL: I have to say the Congressional testimony was such a departure from my day-to-day work and such a different style of communicating. As an academic, my job was to describe the evidence and the implications from the evidence. It was really satisfying to show that there really is a big body of evidence on ways to reform food aid to reach more people in need, some of which myself and my co-authors generated. The evidence is strong, and it is a golden opportunity for us to do better.
AH: The testimony on food aid is an example of an area where there’s been some significant progress recently. What other big food issues do you see research helping advance?
EL: I think there is going to be more and more attention and care paid to what we mean by food security. Do we mean for an individual, for a household or, for primarily children? Intra-household undernutrition and food security is garnering attention in a way now that was not the case twenty or even ten years ago. A second area is on early warning food insecurity systems. It takes U.S. food aid so long to arrive to where it is needed. I’ve been working with colleagues, using different types of secondary data, like prices and satellite data around precipitation and greenness indices, elevation, market prices, and what peoples’ roofs are like. We’re putting those together to try to estimate hot-spots of food insecurity and to provide even earlier warning than the current standard. We’ve done this for Malawi, and it’s definitely an improvement. Now we’re trying to figure out how to expand that to other places.
AH: What do you recommend to students interested in food studies and women’s social rights to gain a better understanding of the field?
EL: A very useful starting point is to have a clear view of what kind of limitations by gender are unique, in terms of economic and social rights. Instead of just thinking about, “do women have the right to vote,” ask “what are the economic and social barriers that women and others face?” There are also several organizations that think about civil rights and laws that are a wealth of information, including the Bernard and Audre Rapaport Center for Human Rights at The University of Texas at Austin and the Center for Economic and Social Rights in New York.
Erin Lentz, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor and CHASP Ambassador at The University of Texas at Austin LBJ School of Public Affairs. She received a Ph.D. in sociology and an M.S. in applied economics and management from Cornell University. She received a Fulbright fellowship to Bangladesh to research the secondary effects of food aid in local communities. She has worked or consulted with CARE, the United Nations World Food Program and numerous other international NGOs on markets, food security and food assistance programs.
Annie Henson is in the second year of a dual-master degree program, pursuing a Master of Public Affairs at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and a Master of Public Health at the UT Health Science Center - Austin Regional Campus and 2018 CHASP Ambassador. Annie is particularly interested in expanding her understanding of the systems that impact health disparities, especially in regard to nutrition and women's health.