Faculty Spotlight: Cindy Leung

Cindy Leung | Faculty Spotlight

Date: August 7, 2020

Community nutrition advocate, native Californian, and mom, Cindy Leung, is interested in understanding the implications of food insecurity, especially on our very own campus. 

What sparked your interest in food insecurity?

I’ve always been interested in nutrition. Food is such an important part of every culture.  Being Asian American, I would eat the foods that my parents ate when they were kids, while simultaneously learning about new American foods my parents had never seen before. Developing my own food preferences across different cultures was very interesting to me. Then, I took my first nutrition course in my first semester of college and I enjoyed learning about the field so much that I ended up getting a minor in Nutritional Sciences at UC Berkeley. 

However, I didn’t get into food insecurity work until after I graduated and went to work at a local food bank in Oakland, California. I spent over a year working there and learned all about community hunger issues. It was working here that I saw this disconnect between what we are taught is a healthy diet in an academic setting and what is actually attainable for a large proportion of our community. I was continually inspired to work on these issues with fellow advocates to expand healthy eating options for everyone and this is when I decided to go back to school to focus on the intersection of public health and nutrition.

What is one of your strongest food memories?

The strongest food memory I have is learning about the food guide pyramid. The one one and only time we talked about food in the classroom was in third grade, where we learned about food groups for the first time. Eventually, I learned about the food pyramid and I remembered seeing the recommendation to eat 6-11 servings of carbohydrates. This was obviously flawed but I learned that there were government guidelines for healthy eating and wanting to learn more about what they were and how they were created.

What are your research interests and how do they relate to a sustainable food system? 

My research program mostly centers around food insecurity. For the past 3- 4 years I have been focused on student food insecurity because it has become such an emergent issue around college students’ health and wellbeing. In 2015, many of us studying food insecurity in the community pivoted to looking at college food insecurity because it was hard to ignore what is happening on our own campus. It felt like it was our duty to use our research to improve the situation in our own classrooms. Food insecurity on college campuses is still a relatively understudied phenomenon and I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out what is happening here at U of M. One of the first projects I led when I came to Michigan was to conduct a survey on student food insecurity.  We found that food insecurity impacts about ⅓ of our students, that food insecurity among students is associated with poorer diet quality, higher body mass indices, and lower cooking efficacy, and that food insecurity intersects with financial and housing insecurities, so the more of these insecurities one experiences, the greater the negative impacts on their physical health, their mental health, and GPA.

What is the University’s role in providing food and basic needs of our students, especially in the midst of a pandemic? 

Since Maize and Blue Cupboard opened in December 2019, they have had over 15,000 visits and that really speaks to the needs of our entire U of M community. Maize and Blue cupboard is a wonderful and important resource, but it shouldn’t be our only solution for students who are struggling to access healthy food – there needs to be higher level interventions led by the University. Given the current COVID-19 pandemic, I think these services that are secondary to education have taken a backseat to the primary goals of the University to provide education. However, I can imagine that for any students who are still on campus or will be moving to campus soon that food insecurity has gotten worse. The whole process of grocery shopping is more unsafe now than six months ago. We have seen the national rates of food insecurity triple as a result of COVID and I can see how this would translate to our university community as well.

Do you have any influences and particular authors, articles or documentaries of importance to your area of research?

The most recent book that comes to mind is $2 a day, written by Luke Shaefer, who is a Professor of Public Policy and Social Work. The interviews in this book are very similar to the interviews that I conducted with food insecure families. It is a good introduction to the lived experiences of people in poverty to better understand their day-to-day struggles and provide a human aspect to the statistics we hear often. I would also recommend Sweet Charity by Janet Poppendieck and Food Politics by Marion Nestle. 

For updates around current food and anti-hunger policies, I follow the Food Resource and Action Center (FRAC) – they are one of the leading anti-hunger advocacy groups in the US. The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice (#RealCollege) is another wonderful resource for learning about food and other basic needs and insecurities among college students. They conduct their own research and also advocate for a lot of important resources for college students across the U.S.

What is your outlook/vision for an equitable, healthy, and sustainable food system?

My broad (and very unrealistic) vision is that we would have a food system where food is sustainably produced and provides a conduit to a variety of healthy foods that sustains  our individual needs, cultures, and preferences. These foods need to be available and affordable in their communities. We don’t have anything close to that right now. We have disproportionate access to unhealthy foods that are intentionally marketed to low-income and minority racial/ethnic communities. Not surprisingly, we see higher levels of chronic disease related to poor diet in these communities. We need to focus on healthy equity and sustainability from every level of the food system from production to consumption. 

My role has been to better understand the thesis of food insecurity and propel it as a social determinant of health, using this research to inform higher level solutions or strategies to promote food security. It is easy to blame the individual for lack of personal responsibility, but if you think about how the environment is set up and systemic barriers to healthy food access that have existed for decades and across generations, these cannot be fixed at the individual level with education. It has to be addressed top-down with policy and structural solutions. That would be the goal of my research.

Cindy Leung is an Assistant Professor of Nutritional Sciences at the School for Public Health. She is also a lecturer for the School of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley, and a Faculty Affiliate of the UM Sustainable Food Systems Initiative. To learn more about her work please click here