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Studies aim to help the hungry in Bay Area

Thomas Mantz, executive director of Feeding  Tampa Bay, helped distribute backpacks of food at Foster Elementary School on Monday as part of a program that is starting to evolve due to USF research. Special to the Oracle

One in four children and one in six people in Tampa Bay struggle with hunger, according to Feeding  Tampa Bay. This is a fact the organization and USF researchers are working to combat.

Thomas Mantz, executive director of Feeding  Tampa Bay, is leading the organization’s collaboration with USF through anthropology professor David Himmelgreen and the College of Public Health to study how hunger affects the 700,000 food insecure people in Tampa Bay. 

“The ongoing challenges presented by hunger in the community are persistent, pervasive and growing,” Mantz said. “The long term issue of people not having enough food in their lives will, we think, have a significant downstream effect on the future. 

“A child who doesn’t have enough food to eat obviously can’t develop physically, emotionally, mentally. A senior who doesn’t have access to food will have greater health care issues. That problem is growing.”

According to Feeding Tampa Bay, people who are food insecure have limited access to enough food and at times experience changes in diet or reduced food intake as a result of that insecurity.

As part of the collaboration, the university conducts research and provides the data to Mantz and his team to apply it in their relief programs.

The team of graduate and undergraduate students helping with the research has already completed two studies focused on elementary and middle school kids in food insecure families. 

One focused on a “backpack program,” which provided kids with a backpack of food for the weekend while the other focused on a similar concept during summer.

The backpack program has been used by Feeding  Tampa Bay for several years. Each backpack would include enough food over a weekend for two small meals per day that were nutritionally normal for the age group. 

What the research found is that the child wasn’t the only one eating the food. Rather, the bag’s contents would become more of a meal substitute for the whole family.

“That changes what a weekend backpack means and what those food products need to be,” Mantz said. “Our target previously was the small child but it appears to us that our target is, in fact, the entire family. That’s a substantial change.”

The research also found that some backpacks were going home to families of different ethnic backgrounds, according to Mantz, and the food they were provided weren’t attractive to some groups. 

As a result, the team learned that, in order to properly implement a backpack program, the organization needs to be contientous of the families’ varied ethnic tastes and prepare backpacks accordingly.

Despite the general conception that food insecurity derives from low income, homelessness or a lack of higher education, research has proven otherwise.

Forty-nine percent of those seeking help from Feeding  across the country have a high school diploma, 29 percent have some level of college education and more than 90 percent either rent or own their home, according to the most recent Hunger in America study conducted once every four years.

Mantz said the team received funding for more studies. According to a press release, other studies currently in planning include examining the health impact of mobile food pantries that provide fresh fruits and vegetables to people in areas where fresh produce is scarce.

“What we do here in Tampa is translatable nationwide,” Mantz said. “If a child or senior is hungry in Tampa, it’s the same information and same circumstances that would likely be seen in Albuquerque, New Mexico or Traverse, Michigan.”