Dr. Alicia Powers: Fighting Hunger and Nourishing Communities

Growing up on a farm in Alabama, Dr. Alicia Powers was raised with a love of the land and an appreciation for agriculture from an early age. While others in her family became agro-economists, she took a different path, gravitating to a career in public health nutrition: “With my strong foundation in agriculture and my desire to use the food that’s produced to improve people’s health, nutrition was a natural fit.” Cultivating an expertise in both nutrition and public health, Alicia has made addressing hunger and promoting access to food her life’s work.

Alicia’s approach to these issues is rooted in her commitment to participatory research. This method focuses on actively collaborating with communities in efforts to promote change and reflecting on those efforts, as a way of both understanding and improving the world. She integrated participatory research into her work in South Carolina at LiveWell Greenville, an organization she co-founded in order to address food insecurity. There, she collaborated with community members by conducting research and supported them in telling their own stories by helping to identify relevant policy makers who could effect change.

Alicia’s work today at the Hunger Solutions Institute (HSI) at Auburn University, an organization dedicated to building coalitions aimed at tackling food security issues, is built upon her experience in community collaboration. HSI is leading three initiatives:

She has also worked with another Refresh Working Group (RWG) member, Jimmy Wright, in developing a mobile market, called Wright2U, designed to serve community members who have a hard time getting to his brick and mortar grocery store in rural Alabama. Alicia also saw this as an opportunity to research the scalability of this model for mobile markets in rural areas all over the US: “It’s important to highlight program outcomes in order to foster other independent grocers, particularly those close to rural areas, to scale this model.” By combining new technologies with independent grocers’ connections to their communities, mobile markets can help bring people in spread out rural areas closer together.

One important technological advancement is proving to be a real boon to these efforts: the USDA’s “Online Purchasing Pilot,” which allows SNAP users to pay for online orders with their EBT cards. For Alicia, “The role of SNAP is to make food more equitable, and allowing people to use their EBT cards online is a necessary step forward in ensuring the equity of SNAP.” By expanding to online payment, more SNAP users, many of whom are underbanked, would have access to opportunities now reserved for people with credit and debit cards.

One of Alicia’s key insights is the need to focus on both “big P policy and little P policy,” working to fight hunger at every level, from the federal government to local communities. So much conversation focuses on high-level policy change. But for Alicia, a key priority for HSI in 2019 will be to help schools overcome barriers in applying for the USDA’s Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), a program that reimburses a school for providing free meals to all its students. That sort of focus, on every possible avenue of change, makes Alicia’s efforts paradigmatic of the Refresh Working Group’s approach to coalition building and advancing big and little P policies to improve the nation’s food system.

Diana Huang
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