Current Issue

Hunger and Food Insecurity, a Global Pandemic, and Crises-Within-a-Crisis: Applied Sociology in South Carolina

Catherine Mobley, PhD, Professor of Sociology Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Criminal Justice Clemson University, Clemson, SC

Leslie Hossfeld, PhD, Dean College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences Clemson University, Clemson, SC

Food insecurity and food access are social problems that rural areas face on a daily basis. Rural regions of South Carolina, like the country and world, have been impacted by COVID-19, exacerbating already difficult situations. In order to reduce the risk of community spread, schools, public places and non-essential businesses have been closed. Residents are encouraged to remain at home during the duration of the shutdown. As a result, the pandemic has intensified hunger and food insecurity throughout the country. 

Sociologists are particularly well suited to contribute to ongoing research on these pressing social concerns. Below we describe some of our research on hunger and food insecurity and share our experiences engaging with our communities to learn more about these issues. As food insecurity scholars who study hunger and food access, we have watched from our quarantined locations the mounting problems in our communities and have struggled with ways to continue to examine and find solutions to this escalating crisis. 

In Summer 2019, we embarked on research to assess hunger and food insecurity in Upstate South Carolina. Our project, “Hunger and Food Insecurity in Pickens County, SC, 2019”, co-sponsored by the United Way of Pickens County, incorporated several methods, including community member surveys and interviews, key informant interviews, community focus groups, a survey of churches in the county, and a transportation audit. The results revealed there is a thriving network of non-profit and government agencies and programs addressing hunger and food insecurity in the county. However, hunger and food insecurity is compounded by the existence of food deserts and the lack of public transportation, especially in more remote areas of the county. The research team has developed a multi-sector approach that would effectively harness community assets to meet the challenges associated with food access.

In Fall 2019, we received funding from the BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina Foundation to expand the Pickens County study to seven rural counties across the state. We have since partnered with a colleague in the Department of Public Health Sciences to add two additional counties. Data collection for this project was scheduled to begin in early Summer 2020, with the deployment of a student research team to various areas of the state. For the Pickens County study, we presented the results to the community in early February 2020. In early March, we began discussions with the United Way about initiating a Hunger Coalition that would use our study results to develop strategies for addressing hunger and food insecurity in the community.

In mid-March, the World Health Organization officially declared the rapidly spreading coronavirus outbreak as a pandemic, setting the research team on an entirely different trajectory in our study of hunger and food insecurity. Since the onset of these unprecedented circumstances, the research team has expanded to include colleagues from the Department of Communication and Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management, enacting public sociology within an interdisciplinary context. By bringing to bear the perspectives and methods of multiple disciplines, the researchers will investigate the on-the-ground experiences of community members who face hunger and food insecurity in the context of COVID-19.  

Currently, we are focusing on Oconee County, the northwesternmost county in South Carolina, bordering North Carolina to the north and Georgia to the east. We will leverage our Pickens County research to employ a multi-method, community-based approach. We will combine community surveys and interviews, food environment analysis and land use and policy assessments to better understand the factors contributing to food insecurity and identify opportunities to improve food security from a food systems perspective. Study results will inform and guide community stakeholders and farmers in the region to support equitable food access and improve food security in times of crisis.

In the context of COVID-19, while hunger and food insecurity are challenging for Oconee County residents, especially those who have been unable to work, the circumstances have been further exacerbated after a devastating tornado struck on Easter night. The Category EF3 tornado impacted the most vulnerable area of the county; more than 90 homes were destroyed and over 500 were damaged, with an estimated loss of $11 million. As a result of the combined effects of property damage, COVID-19 and related job loss, along with persistent, high poverty in some communities, many county residents find it difficult to meet their daily needs, such as food and shelter. Oconee County residents, especially low-income and minority groups, have been facing a crisis-within-a-crisis, struggling to repair or rebuild their homes and regain a sense of community, while also dealing with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Communities across the nation face similar difficulties. In the past several weeks, in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the ensuing protests, communities are grappling with a potential crisis-within-a-crisis-within-a crisis, as citizens address the intersectional concerns arising from food insecurity, the global pandemic, and racial injustice.

We have found that engaging in community-based research is proving to be particularly challenging in the midst of these crises. The research team is currently discussing the best methods for collecting data in a way that prioritizes the safety of community members. For example, we will soon use the Zoom web-based meeting platform to conduct stakeholder focus groups and in-depth interviews with community members who have been impacted by recent events. We are also partnering with key community partners who will assist with participant recruitment, help to identify key needs and strengths, and build community support for this work. 

You can learn more about our research on hunger and food insecurity through this link:

https://www.clemson.edu/cbshs/about/building-communities/index.html. Feel free to contact us with questions about our projects (Catherine Mobley: camoble@clemson.edu; Leslie Hossfeld: lhossfe@clemson.edu). We have much to learn from one another as we engage in community-based sociological research during these unprecedented times.