After receiving the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Diversity Incentive Fund, two Virginia Tech faculty members are tackling a critical inequality in society – food insecurity.

Systemic racism and the COVID-19 pandemic have highlighted systemic health disparities, as well as adverse consequences, among individuals of color. To help combat these inequalities, Sarah Misyak, research assistant professor and program manager for research and evaluation for Virginia Cooperative Extension’s Family Nutrition Program, and Natalie Cook, assistant professor in Department of Population Health Sciences in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, decided to assess equality in the Family Nutrition Program to better serve the commonwealth’s population.

The Family Nutrition Program already helps to ensure equity in Extension by working with individuals and families with low-incomes and by hiring staff that represent diverse backgrounds, races, and ethnicity. The current socio-political movement affirms the program’s commitment to civil rights and its ongoing goal of being intentional about its approach to recruiting, reaching, and retaining a broad and diverse set of individuals and communities.

“The present moment underscores the importance of ensuring that community nutrition programs are designed and executed in ways that positively impact food insecurity rates and nutrition and physical activity behaviors while shifting policies and practices to ensure equitable access to nutritious foods and opportunities for physical activity for all,” Misyak said. “We always strive to research real-world implications and we hope that this will help move us forward in advancing health equity in Virginia.”

Established in 2013, the Diversity Incentive Fund aims to create new opportunities that increase the understanding of, appreciation for, and advocacy of diversity issues through an annual fund amount of $2,000. The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Diversity Incentive Fund is specifically designed to provide support for new, innovative, and creative approaches to raise awareness, engage learners, and change behaviors about diversity and inclusion within the academic community as well as the broader communities that the college serves.

“The CALS Diversity Council was thrilled with both the number and quality of applications we received in 2020. This fund allows us to support new, innovative approaches to increasing diversity, inclusion, and equity both within the college and with our stakeholders," said Erin Ling, chair of the college’s Diversity Council. "This project will help the Virginia Family Nutrition Program critically assess its current practices and identify ways health inequities might be unintentionally reinforced.”

Incorporating transformative evaluation is vital to ensure the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education and Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program-funded programs are designed and executed in ways that impact food insecurity, nutrition, and physical activity behaviors, and other health disparities in Virginia communities. Community-focused programs must create a new normal, status quo, way of doing work.

Misyak and Cook’s findings will provide baseline data to inform potential new racial equity initiatives by identifying areas for improvement and will also serve as an example of how to conduct such an assessment for other groups in the college. The researchers will share a summary of their findings in a webinar in 2021.