Season 6 - Episode 640
Craig Gundersen is an agricultural economist whose game-changing research examines the causes and effects of food insecurity. Gundersen, who serves as the Jim and Tammy Snee Family Chair in Food Security, has developed metrics used by food banks nationwide, and provided research yielding greater understanding of the SNAP program’s impact. In this Baylor Connections, he examines approaches to the fight against food insecurity and shares the path that brought him to Baylor.
Derek Smith:Hello and welcome to Baylor Connection. It's a conversation series with the people shaping our future. Each week we go in depth with Baylor Leaders, professors, and more discussing important topics in higher education, research, and student life. I'm Derek Smith, and today we are talking food security with Craig Gundersen. Dr. Gundersen is the Jim and Tammy Snee Family Chair in Food Security, a prominent agricultural economist who comes to Baylor from the University of Illinois. Gundersen brings numerous impactful research projects and is based in the Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty with an appointment in the Hankamer School of Business. Gundersen's focus has long been on strategies to address food insecurity, evaluating the causes and consequences of food insecurity, and studying specific programs and approaches to address those challenges. His game-changing research and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as SNAP. SNAP's effectiveness positively impacted the program's perception and metrics he developed help food banks across the nation evaluate how well they're serving those in need. Glad to have you here at Baylor. Glad to have you on the program, Dr. Gundersen. Thanks for joining us today.
Craig Gundersen:Great. Thank you so much, Derek. Really happy to be here.
Derek Smith:Craig, you've been at Baylor since 2021. As you've got settled in, what have you enjoyed most about being part of the Baylor family?
Craig Gundersen:The most important thing for me, and the reason I came here, is being at a university which takes our faith very, very seriously and incorporates it into all aspects of it, whether it be the research that we choose to do, the research that we do, our interactions with students in the classroom, our interactions with faculty across campus and also with our alums from our university and everything, and all the friends of Baylor. It's just incredible to be a place where our faith is taken so seriously.
Derek Smith:Dr. Gundersen, you're an agricultural economist, a food economist. Help us get a vision of what exactly that looks like for you. First off, where might we find you working? Is it all in the office? Is it all outside? What's that look like?
Craig Gundersen:Most of my time is spent in the office doing research, and also in the spring I teach a course so I'm either in the classroom or in my office doing research. Also, I travel quite a bit for work because in my area, there's a great deal of interest in food insecurity topics and so I travel probably twice, two or three times a month and then travel internationally a few times a year to talk about issues pertaining to food insecurity.
Derek Smith:Food insecurity is a topic that we hear about in the news and has received more focus and certainly here at Baylor is doing things about that. What are some of the questions related to that that drive your work? You talked about questions earlier, what are the questions that particularly just kind of get inside your heart there?
Craig Gundersen:Right. I think that, from my perspective, is there's a whole wide array of questions about food insecurity and there's been a really a well-developed research literature on this topic, but I think that there's still a lot of questions to be posed. One of the areas where I'm especially interested in this is that, overall, is that food insecurity rates have declined quite a bit since 2014 by about 40% for the full population, about 60% for children. Wonderful news, great news that this has declined so much. It's also great news that during COVID it didn't increase hardly at all, so great news. The challenge becomes though is, to some extent, those who are left behind. What we have to figure out is, for a lot of people who are left behind in all this, is that it's not just more resources, it's something else that we need to help them with. To give you four examples of groups that seem to be struggling or left behind are those with disabilities, especially those with mental and physical health disabilities. If you look at the food insecurity literature, the biggest determinant of food insecurity is disability status. But also, I'm concerned about loneliness as a major predictor of food insecurity. Addiction, those suffering from addictions are much more likely to be food insecure, and those coming out of prison. Recently incarcerated are also at high rates of food insecurity. Figuring out how to help these groups in particular is really a big challenge. One thing that I think that is something we have to be thinking a lot more about in the food insecurity literature, and, again, coming back to our faith, is that our churches across the country and across the world are most effective at reaching out to those who no one else is reaching out to. I think that our faith communities can have a huge impact on reducing food insecurity, and I think our research can inform how these things can be done most successfully.
Derek Smith:Visiting with Dr. Craig Gundersen here on Baylor Connections, and you mentioned these four groups that seem to be left behind right now, how much of what you do, obviously you use economic tools, numbers, and data. How much of what you do is learning about different, I don't know if demographics is the right word, but as you study the people who are being left behind?
Craig Gundersen:Personally, most of my research uses what's called secondary data sets. This is data that's been collected by somebody else, whether it be from nationally representative data sets or for work that I'm doing with the Houston Food Bank and the Atlantic Community Food Bank to ascertain different ways that assistance can be provided to those who are in need. But my research has concentrated on this and I use what's known as econometric tools from the economic literature to do this research.
Derek Smith:You have, and we're going to talk about this a little more in a minute, you're in the Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty also in Hankamer. You talk about different aspects of food insecurity that you're studying. How much of the work that you do is collaborative, whether that's interdisciplinary or you mentioned Houston and Atlanta food banks there. What's that look like for you?
Craig Gundersen:Again, one of the, if we could talk later about why I came into Baylor, we could talk a little bit-
Craig Gundersen:About that later, but is that I do extensive work with Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty. That's where my home is here, along within the Department of Economics in the Hankamer School. I do a lot of work in the collaborative sense as working with people. I guess I could say in a few ways that my work is collaborative because, first of all, a lot of the questions I'm being posed, I'm posing are those that are in the policy sphere and are program administrators of different programs to answer questions that they're posing, and that's collaborative. Most all those persons are not economists, but they're saying, "What works, what doesn't work? How can we make this better?" Work is also collaborative in so far as even though almost all my work is published in economics journals, I do publish quite a bit in non economics journals because a lot of other people outside of economics are interested in these topics.
Derek Smith:Talking with Dr. Craig Gundersen. Let's talk about your journey to Baylor here. I mentioned you hold the Jim and Tammy Snee Family Chair in Food Security in the Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty. As you've described your work, it certainly seems like a great fit, but tell me about when did you first hear about that position and what were your immediate thoughts?
Craig Gundersen:If I could just give a little bit of background about, I want to give a little bit of background first about why-
Craig Gundersen:I'm so excited to have the opportunity to come to Baylor. I consider myself a very, very lucky man to be here. I'm Catholic and I did my undergraduate at University of Notre Dame up there in Indiana. One of the great things I loved back then was how you would have students, faculty, and everybody taking really seriously our faith and how that incorporates into both what goes on in the classroom, what goes on outside the classroom, what our future directions of our lives. Then my sons went there and I see, my two sons went there, and then to be able to see how things are continuing to be that excitement there and everything that goes on there. I really wanted to get back to that sort of atmosphere. Through the Baylor Club of Hunger and Poverty is every year they host something called Together at the Table. I'd been coming down for that for about a decade and gotten to know a lot of people there, and so really excited. We'd always been talking about maybe there's possibilities that I could come down here. At the time, I was at University of Illinois and, finally, is through the incredible generosity of Jim and Tammy Snee, just for those of you had a chance to meet them, you all are very lucky. Just two incredible people. Through their generosity, we were able to make it work such that I was able to come down here. That's kind of my journey from all the way back at my undergraduate days at University of Notre Dame, graduated back in 1990, all the way up till today here at where I will be ending my career here at Baylor, such a wonderful university.
Derek Smith:I'm curious, your enthusiasm for this topic obviously goes back a ways.
Derek Smith:Take us back. Was it when you were a student at Notre Dame or before that, when did your interest, excuse me, the topic of food insecurity grow from?
Craig Gundersen:Okay. Well, let's go way back then. At Notre Dame, there's something called Catholic social teaching where we think carefully about different aspects of our faith and what that calls us to do. As Catholics, as Christians, we're called to be parts of our community and contribute and to make things a better, bring the kingdom of God here to the world. We can all do this in many different ways. When I was looking at Catholic social teaching, I thought, well, one of the areas that maybe I can make a contribution is in terms of poverty, of poverty work. Between college and graduate school, I worked at Casa Juan Diego, which is a Houston Catholic worker house in Houston, which where we had a house in Houston, the one on [inaudible 00:09:40], where we helped Central American refugees. I did that for a year between college and graduate school. Then I went to graduate school at University of California Riverside, got my PhD in economics, and actually my PhD was looking at, my dissertation looked at housing poverty. But at the time is that, as earlier we talked about food insecurity, of course there's an underlying measure to food insecurity. In 1996, I was hired by the US Department of Agriculture as part of their development of this new measure, this food insecurity measure, which is building on the work that I did in the space of housing. I went then to USDA for seven years in Washington DC, then I went to Iowa State for five years, and then in 2008 I left to go to University of Illinois where I was in the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Economics. Then I came to here to Baylor in 2021. Really, as I tell people, I've been doing the same thing basically since 1996 with respect to my research, looking at the causes and consequences of food insecurity and on the evaluation of food assistance programs with an emphasis on SNAP.
Derek Smith:Well, let's take a look, Dr. Gundersen, at some of your research projects to maybe take us inside so we can envision what that looks like. What are some projects, give us an overview first and then we can dive into. What are some projects that have been particularly meaningful to you to be involved in?
Craig Gundersen:Okay. I guess I would... Whenever I talk about this is I always begin by saying I've just had some amazing people to work with throughout my career. Being able to work with all these amazing people as forward of my work. I like to concentrate on, I guess I would say three main areas where I think I've been able to be a part of the food insecurity literature. The first is just looking at the numerous causes of food insecurity across many different dimensions. One area of research of mine that a paper that I wrote a long time ago and continue to emphasize is looking at the American Indians who have much higher rates of food insecurity than other groups in the United States and it's not readily explained by income differences. In other words, something is going on within that group that has much higher rates of food insecurity. Thinking about what that is and thinking about, that was one example of work that I've done looking at the determinants of food insecurity and also the consequences. That's one area, building on what we can know about why some groups are at greater risk than other groups and income is one of the determinants, but there's a lot of other stuff going on, as I mentioned earlier when I was talking about disability status, loneliness, incarceration, and addiction. There's these other things going on with respect to this. A second thing that I've done research on is to look at the impact of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, is that one of the challenges in evaluating this program is that it's not randomly distributed to individuals in the United States, of course. You have to be eligible for it, then you have to apply for it, and then you have to get the benefits. Analyzing the impact of this program is quite difficult insofar as you have to address issues of selection into the program, measurement error. There's a lot of things going on. Work with my colleagues and I, written a number of papers on that, which from our perspective really has clearly shown it's become a stylized fact now that SNAP recipients are about 30% less likely than eligible non-participants to be food insecure. This has had a profound impact on policymakers and programmers. I say, you want to point to a successful program, point to SNAP. We've really developed this. That's the second area. The third area is work that I do with Feeding America, is that one of the challenges in looking at food insecurity United States is that looking at this at a national level or even at a state level, doesn't give you the full picture about what's happening. There's enormous geographic differences across the country in terms of food insecurity. What I designed with Feed America was something called Map the Meal Gap, where since 2009 we have county level estimates of food insecurity for full population, but also for children. We also break this down by congressional districts. For the past few years, we've been breaking it down by black persons, Hispanic persons, and then white non-Hispanic persons, and we're breaking the rates down here, to see the disparity, especially between blacks and whites with respect to food insecurity in the United States. This has become, we've also been doing this at the census track level and the zip code level. It's become the tool that's used by food banks to effectively direct resources towards those in need, and also by city governments, county governments say, "Where in our communities are people most in need?" This has become, Feed America's Map the Meal Gap has become the source for that information. Those are the three main areas where I think I've been most excited about my work and hopefully that it's made a contribution to people's understanding of this really important issue.
Derek Smith:Dr. Gundersen, let me ask you about the last one you mentioned first, when you talk about Feeding America and mapping the meal gap, what were some of the challenges you had to overcome to do that effectively and then get that to be used effectively?
Craig Gundersen:Right. The challenge is that the food insecurity questions are a number of different surveys in the United States, and the main one that it's on is something they call the Current Population Survey. The annual report that comes on, that will be coming out in late October this year, gives us information about food insecurity at the national level and at the state level. The challenge though was that it's not, due to confidentiality reasons, is it's not representative at a lower level. For example, we don't know what a particular, McAllen County, we don't know what their food insecurity rate is because there's not a large enough sample size for this. What I said was, but what we can do is that there's another data set called American Community Survey, which doesn't have questions on food insecurity, it has no information on food insecurity, but it does have information on demographics. For example, the proportion of people who are poor in a county, homeownership rates, proportion of the population that has a disability, there's a lot of other information. In this census that what I developed then was using data from the Current Population Survey was estimated a model, and then using information for the American Community Survey, we get estimates for all these counties. Food banks had really no way to direct their scarce resources towards areas of needs or counties had no idea, "Well, what zip codes are at greater need?" This provides us with these tools. Part of the reason why I think this was so important is that for a lot of people think that poverty is in some sense a synonym for food insecurity, but it's not. 70% of poor people are food secure, and roughly 15% of non-poor people are food insecure. Using poverty is the sole metric, which a lot of people were using before, just didn't give the complete picture. Map the Meal Gap allows us to say for every single county in the United States is what the food insecurity rate is. This was a huge resource to different groups doing work at the local level. For food bank or some other organization with scarce resources, this would be incredibly expensive for them to calculate. In other words, by providing this tool, this information for free, it's really helped out. Across the country, it's helped out groups across the country, but especially groups that otherwise wouldn't be able to afford to calculate these numbers.
Derek Smith:Yeah, that's a great resource to measure effectiveness and resource allocation and whatnot as we visit with Craig Gundersen. Dr. Gundersen, we have the final couple of minutes of the program. I want to ask you about SNAP your work in SNAP. What should people know about the role that SNAP plays in addressing food insecurity?
Craig Gundersen:Okay. I always tell people any discussion about how we address food insecurity in the United States has to begin and end with SNAP is... I love SNAP. What I always tell people is there's a lot of government programs that are, for lack of a better word, doesn't have a positive or negative impact, and there's a lot of government programs that actually have a negative impact on people's lives, but SNAP is not one of those. SNAP is just this amazing program that has, as its central goal, is to alleviate food insecurity in the United States and study after study after study, including some that I mentioned earlier that my colleagues and I have worked on, has demonstrated that this program is incredibly successful and it's successful for a number of different reasons. I'll briefly outline those. The first is that it's what we call an entitlement program. Therefore, individuals can be on the program for as long as needed. The average stage is only about 11 months, but some people need it for longer. For example, senior citizens who are retired and in need, this program is there for them for an extended time period. It's also an entitlement status insofar as the government automatically expands or contracts as needed as it doesn't need the government to step in and say, "This is, only a limited amount of money can be spent on this." No, it just automatically expands during bad economic times. It contracts during good economic times. The second reason is that it leverages our retail food network. Is that, so individuals on SNAP is they don't have to go somewhere special to spend their benefits. They can go walk alongside their aisles of their supermarket alongside their friends and family and neighbors. It's a wonderful thing is that you have this, it leverages the already existing retail food network in the United States. The third reason, that I like to talk a lot about, is the fact that it gives dignity and autonomy to individuals. We have too many anti-poverty programs in the United States, and elsewhere for that matter, that I don't think give dignity and autonomy to individuals. SNAP gives this to individuals. It allows them to make their own choices about what they want to eat. It allows them to shop alongside their neighbors. One other important thing about this is there's a lot of anti-poverty programs which discourage work, for lack of a better term, but SNAP gives individuals the dignity to be able to say, "If I want to work more, I can work more and my benefits aren't completely cut off." People's benefits, what's called, as their incomes increase, their benefit levels fall, but there's no what's called a cliff effect, which would discourage people from working. It gives people dignity on autonomy by allowing them to work without punishing them for working. Also, is that it gives them the dignity on autonomy to make their own food choices that are consistent with their family situation, their cultural preferences, and, for lack of a better term, what they want to eat and enjoy eating. SNAP is just a wonderful program.
Derek Smith:Thank you for that description of that. Dr. Henderson, as we head in the final moments now, I'm just curious. I know you look at impacting policy, tools for food banks, resources for communities. What do you enjoy most or what do you hope that your research continues, the many ways your research contributes to those things?
Craig Gundersen:I think for me at least, is the most exciting thing is being able to, well, I guess the first exciting thing is to be able to provide these tools to food banks, to policy makers, and program administrators to really emphasize what works in terms of alleviating food insecurity, especially SNAP, but also our extensive charitable food assistance network, which does a great job at alleviating food insecurity and give them the tools to understand the geography of food assistance, I mean food insecurity in the United States. One other thing that's exciting to me also about this research is that, given that Baylor gives me a platform insofar as a professorship here, I mean, I'm sorry, an endowed chair with the Snee family, it's really huge honor, which allows me to make a lot of contributions to their broader dialogue about food insecurity in the United States. As we talked about, I'm giving presentations all across the country, and for that matter, all across the globe, on this topic. Baylor gives me the forum to do this, along with our articulating what my research is, what our research has contributed to our understanding of this, it also allows us to say, "Look at the groups that are being left behind." If I could say it once again, is those groups, persons with disabilities, persons with addictions, persons who are lonely, and the recently incarcerated. Those are all people that we need to really especially reach out to. Again, because I'm at Baylor, we can begin talking more and more about how our Christian communities can really help out those individuals in need.
Derek Smith:Well, that's wonderful. Dr. Gundersen, I really appreciate you sharing that and your time today and look forward to what you have in store for us through the work you do. Thank you so much.
Craig Gundersen:Okay. Thank you, Derek. I really appreciate this opportunity.
Derek Smith:Dr. Craig Gundersen, the Jim and Tammy Snee Family Chair in Food Security at the Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty, our guest today on Baylor Connections. I'm Derek Smith. A reminder, you can hear this in other programs online at baylor.edu/connections, and you can subscribe on iTunes. Thanks for joining us here on Baylor Connections.