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Inside the mind of researcher Mayra Crespo-Bellido

Mayra Crespo-Bellido is pursuing a PhD in nutrition and hopes to improve the food security of Puerto Ricans. She earned her bachelor’s degree in nutrition and dietetics at the University of Puerto Rico-Río Piedras Campus and completed her dietetic internship at the University of Puerto Rico-Medical Science Campus.

At the 2014 Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences annual career fair and training conference, she was introduced to Norm Hord, head of the School of Biological and Population Health Sciences. Their conversation led to her applying to Oregon State while still completing her dietetic internship.

What are you researching?

“My research deals with the resourceful ways low-income U.S. households, and vulnerable subsets of this population, get food from their environments to meet their food needs and prevent being food insecure.

“One of those vulnerable subsets are Latino food system workers, who often have the highest rates of food insecurity and can be left out of federal food safety nets. Some resourceful ways of food acquisition include alternative food sources such as community food assistance, family and friends, and by hunting, fishing and growing food.

“I also research the association between consumer behaviors, food insecurity and obesity.”

What led you to this line of research?

“I am interested in this line of research because my family comes from humble beginnings and my grandmother managed to keep her five children nourished despite severe hardship. She worked her whole life in food service and managed to keep everyone around her fed despite having little resources.

“She later had a food truck that sold food cheaply, and she always sprang into action whenever she heard someone was hungry. She very much instilled those values in me. Abuela Monsie is my absolute inspiration for my research.”

Are you working on any specific projects related to this research?

“I am currently working on my dissertation research project to address four dimensions of creative alternative food acquisition by low-income households using a national database. These include use of alternative food sources, food quantity and quality from these sources, use of these sources over the SNAP benefit month, and the lived experience of Latino food system workers in accessing these food sources.

“I am also working on a specific qualitative study with Latino food system workers to understand how is it to experience food insecurity while working in close proximity to food.”

What impact do you hope to make with this research?

“Hopefully, this research will identify the role of these food sources in protecting low-income families from experiencing hunger and will guide creative interventions that facilitate resources to families in need so that they strengthen their networks or produce food. In addition, I anticipate that my results will be used to improve available food sources.

“For my research on Latino food system workers, we expect to be able to communicate with the families in central Oregon we surveyed, as well as food system employers and community leaders, to bring awareness of the experiences of these workers working so close to food and struggling to meet the food needs of their families. I expect these results will initiate a discussion between all parties involved to make decisions about how to address these issues.”

What is your vision for the future?

“Food security interventions need to work to improve food sovereignty, or the autonomy of individuals and communities to access healthy and culturally appropriate food produced by sustainable methods.

“Current food pantries, soup kitchens and other meal programs provide emergency food relief but do little to attack the root causes of food insecurity and hunger. I believe strengthening access to alternative food sources will help families effectively meet their food needs in socially acceptable ways.

“I would love for my research to contribute to the larger discussion of truly cruelty free and ethical foods. Worker exploitation should be included as part of that definition. Consumers need to communicate their need for ethical food that also considers human suffering, and food companies need to find a way to standardize and communicate best practices to consumers.”

What are your post-graduation plans?

“I plan to pursue a post-doctoral fellowship or legislative fellowship that allows me to keep learning about the complexities of food insecurity in the United States.

“My big picture post-graduation plans are to learn as much as I can about ways to tackle food insecurity and bring lessons learned back to Puerto Rico. Before the hurricanes hit in 2017, 1.5 million American Puerto Ricans experienced food insecurity, and after the natural disaster this number likely increased as the majority of the island was without power for six-10 months. Not having power means people were out of work and there was no safe way to store perishable foods. Puerto Ricans died from preventable diseases such as Leptospirosis and malnutrition.

“I would like to work in either academia or nonprofit organizations to improve the food security of people living on the island and find ways to anticipate and prevent food shortages in future natural disasters.”