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Mapping the Food Conversation


Lauri Andress standing in her office.

Written by Lauri Andress
Photographed by Raymond Thompson Jr.

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I have a confession. I am not your typical public health research scholar. More like a community-engaged, sociopolitical academic entrepreneur. OK. So I made that up. Actually, I study upstream factors — non-medical determinants of health — that produce poor population health outcomes.

My work on food access, now food deserts, started when I arrived at West Virginia University in 2013 from destinations urban and suburban. Prior to this point, I was a public health-public affairs administrator and political aide who studied these non-medical determinants of health as a political concept in the U.S. in comparison to the U.K.

First lesson: Research is not neutral or objective. We all wear lenses, making it important to acknowledge and understand our position. 

When I arrived at WVU, I needed to adjust my lens to “see” what West Virginia was like for the only groups of people that I have ever been concerned about. As I learned from my parents, that is and remains, a concern for those on the bottom. 

Second lesson: The mechanisms by which people on the bottom experience exclusion are shared across time, space and, eventually, the physical body. 

Third lesson: There is more to the causes of death, disease and affliction that may be seen across groups of people on the bottom than what we commonly teach in our health institutions. 

So, I set about learning how low-income women, those at or just above the poverty level, and seniors lived daily and secured an essential factor in our lives — food. I still like to see conversations take off when people are presented with the photos, stories and interviews I use in my research. In fact, most powerful in moving decision-makers towards solutions are still the stories — metaphors, images and narratives — that come from my early publication titled “Juggling the Five Dimensions of Food Access; Perceptions of Rural Low-Income Residents.” 

Next lesson: Some may say that the language of public health are numbers and reports filled with data, but rethinking what counts as evidence opens the door to new ways of thinking about the causes of and solutions to the population health problems we see in West Virginia. 

Fifth lesson (honestly I have lost count): The narratives, ideas and stories that a community weaves together collectively to create meaning ultimately drive the policies, regulations and programs that are considered. 

Today, after four or so years of research on the food security issues and preferences of rural families, seniors and other vulnerable community members of West Virginia, I moved further upstream to see what was causing the lack of food in many of our counties. I spent the last year mapping the food conversation in West Virginia. The results indicated that we are having what I call an “elitist” food conversation that excludes the lived experiences of our poorest populations in this state and their need for a full retail experience that also provides affordable and healthy food. 

The actual conversation that is occurring is largely about agriculture, farming and health defined around disease. The publication “Mapping the Elitist Food Systems Conservation in West Virginia, What Is Missing?” is forthcoming. 

The solution that I presented, with the help of my co-principal investigator, Paul Kinder, at the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, during our West Virginia Food Desert Summit in December 2019, suggested a food desert incubator aimed squarely at initiatives that work along a continuum. This continuum spans all the way from agriculture to retail while leveraging food systems investors combined with WVU’s existing, entrepreneurial startup strategy. 

Anyway, I am still that person I described above (the community-engaged, sociopolitical academic entrepreneur) but to get credit as a tenure track assistant professor I finally came up with a better way to describe what I do: a community-engaged place and health scholar with a focus on power differentials and social justice. 

Lauri Andress is assistant professor in the Department of Health Policy, Management and Leadership in the School of Public Health. She researches infrastructure issues in West Virginia rural communities with a focus on barriers to population health, including transportation and food access for low-income women, children, the homeless and seniors.