MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Proper food and nutrition promote overall health and well-being, but many West Virginians are not getting enough to eat. According to Feeding America, one in eight individuals, including one in six children – among the highest rates in the United States – are facing food insecurity.
To create healthier communities across the state, two West Virginia University students are researching and developing solutions that address hunger as part of their field placement experiences through the School of Public Health.
Emma Chua and Ellie Nesbitt, seniors in the Bachelor of Science in Public Health program, are putting their classroom lessons to work this semester at Mountaineer Food Bank and Pantry Plus More.
“Growing up in rural West Virginia, I saw too many of my classmates and friends coming to school underfed or coming to school with their lunchbox full of Mountain Dew and Doritos,” Chua said of selecting Mountaineer Food Bank for her field experience. “So many people struggle to feed their families in this state, and if I can help even one family, or even one person to live a happier, healthier life, I want to do so.”
Strong foundation, broad-based learning
The Public Health undergraduate program’s strong foundation in the core disciplines of public health – biostatistics and epidemiology; occupational and environmental sciences; social and behavioral sciences; and health policy, management and leadership – have served Chua well during her field placement experience and prepared her for a future career.
“I think the broad-based learning Public Health offers is fantastic,” she said. “Being able to go into the workforce and effectively get a job in marketing, data analytics, research, project management or health care, the School produces incredibly well-rounded applicants for any graduate program or professional position.”
At Mountaineer Food Bank, a member of Feeding America, Chua is gaining additional research experience through her work with its nutrition and local food programs. Each year, Mountaineer Food Bank distributes over 17 million meals to individuals who are food insecure in 48 of the 55 counties in West Virginia. As part of her practice-based experience, Chua has been supporting that vast network of programs by researching farmer’s markets across the state to help build partnerships with local produce and protein sources.
Her research on community partners and opportunities for expansion has also extended to the organization’s meal boxes provided to families, children, seniors, veterans and individuals at risk of hunger.
“I have been helping develop menu plans that follow Healthy Eating Research nutrition guidelines that can be distributed with the meal boxes that Mountaineer Food Bank creates,” she said. “I’m also tracking market prices of food that can commonly be found in the food boxes so the purchasing department can be sure that they’re getting a fair price from producers.”
In addition to her work in the Morgantown community, Chua has had the opportunity to travel to food deserts throughout West Virginia to volunteer with mobile pantries supplied by Mountaineer Food Bank.
Gaining new perspective
Nesbitt also says the classroom lessons rooted in real-world application built a solid knowledge base and skillset to apply during her field placement experience and after graduation.
“My experiences in the School of Public Health have prepared me professionally and academically,” Nesbitt said. “The coursework pertains to important topics that can be applied to the real world, and with professors and staff that help guide you along the way, I definitely feel confident about my time spent at WVU.”
When the time came to choose an organization for her applied field placement experience, Nesbitt knew she wanted to work with a community partner that addresses food insecurity.
“I have always had an interest in the topic,” she said. “Without secure access to food, an individual cannot reach their full potential. Research clearly demonstrates that food insecurity prevents social, physical and economic achievement. Working to alleviate food insecurity provides the necessary foundation for people to reach their full potential. No one can thrive if they are reduced to trying to survive.”
A nonprofit organization operating food pantries, food giveaways, and health and wellness programs across Monongalia County, Pantry Plus More allowed Nesbitt to gain additional experience in public health education through its in-school support for elementary and middle school children.
“I have helped decide what items go into the special menus for schools in Monongalia County. These special menus are bags that contain food for children who have allergies and cannot eat what is given to them on the regular menus,” Nesbitt explained.
She has also developed recipes that contain canned or packaged food items for the Pantry Plus More cookbook that is distributed to clients.
“This experience has opened my eyes about the number of individuals who are battling food insecurity,” Nesbitt said. “Just because an area may seem ‘better off’ than others does not mean a significant portion of individuals in that area is not struggling.”
Looking ahead: Helping people by keeping them healthy
Armed with classroom and experiential knowledge, Chua and Nesbitt are ready for the next chapter of their journey following graduation in May.
Chua was inspired to pursue a second major in animal and nutritional sciences after learning about One Health – an approach to balance and optimize the health of people, animals and the environment – in a public health course and would like to attend medical school to round out her education.
“Growing up, all I wanted to do was help people, and when I found out that there was an immediate, tangible way to do that with this degree, I leapt at the opportunity,” Chua said. “I think the semester that really changed things for me and the way I saw public health was spring 2020. It was a unique experience, being a freshman when COVID-19 shut down the world. Ironically, I was in global health with Dr. Gross at the time and in every class period, she would update us with the most recent COVID data and help us make predictions about what was going to happen next.
“I think that experience made me realize that public health was not only a tool to help people in the moment, but also a preventive measure. It was really interesting, and I think if I had been a student at any other time in history, I wouldn’t have had the same experience, for better or for worse.”
Nesbitt is interested in expanding her knowledge of other cultures by studying abroad in Spain and traveling throughout Europe before continuing her education with a master’s degree in public health or a related field.
“To me, public health means so many things,” Nesbitt said. “When I think of public health, I think of prevention, promotion, equity, education, sustainability, social justice and so much more. I love how public health encompasses so many aspects of health with the main goal of keeping people healthy.”