Hoosier hunger: IU researcher Mecca Burris examines food insecurity close to home


Mecca Burris, an associate instructor and a Ph.D. student in biological anthropology at Indiana University is collaborating with the Center for Rural Engagement to conduct a 12-month research project focusing on food insecurity among teens in rural Indiana communities.

Burris’ work with food insecurity began as a graduate student at the University of South Florida. While in Florida, Burris had participated in two very similar studies focusing on teens and older adults primarily in the city. When Burris began her studies at IU she knew she had to get herself involved with another food insecurity project. Her current project focusing on food insecurity in rural communities is a new direction for her and she expressed the importance of having rural areas a priority by saying, “there is a gap and there is a need to know what life is like in rural America and what the challenges are in rural America.”

Mecca Burris discusses the importance of studying food insecurity and shares her research goals.

Description of the video:

Slide 1:

Mecca Burris, a Ph.D. student at Indiana University is conducting a 12-month research project on food insecurity among teens in rural Indiana communities. 

Slide 2:

Why is food studying teen food insecurity important?

Slide 3:

Mecca: “This is another very critical period of the life course where nutrition and access to food is very important because it is the only other time besides infancy when your growth rate accelerates and so adolescents need more food than adults and younger children and they have increases appetites and this can be a burden on the household”.

Slide 4:

Burris grew up in Mitchell, Indiana, a small town where she witnessed poverty and food insecurity.

Slide 5:

Mecca: “Growing up my mom was a single mother. She was nurse and until she became a nurse practitioner, we were, I would say, probably food insecure. We didn’t have a lot of money and we definitely ate the way that we notice now the parallels and patterns that people who are food insecure eat”.  

Slide 6:

Why is it important to focus research on rural communities?

Slide 7:

Mecca: “Because they have been left out and I feel there’s a gap and there’s a need to know what life is like in rural America and what are the challenges in rural America because so much has been focused on the cities and urbanization and the challenges that come with, even food desert research is primarily focused on inner city food deserts. So yeah, I think that it’s important for us to not forget about this part of our country”.

Slide 8:

What is the research project’s end goal?

Slide 9:

Mecca: “The goal is change. The goal is to try and show the barriers and vulnerabilities that teens face. But also take their recommendations, from the teens themselves to the community, to the schools, to the pantry’s, whoever is involved in making change in a way that can target teens, then we want that message to get out and we hopefully want to work with them to apply the research”.

Raised in a rural community, Burris is from Mitchell, Indiana, a town with just over 4,000 residents, about 45 minutes south of Bloomington. She recalled what life was like for her and her family living in a rural community and some of the struggles they faced.

“My mom was a single mother, she was a nurse and until she became a nurse practitioner I would say we were probably food insecure. We didn’t have a lot of money and we definitely ate in the way that we notice now the parallels and the patterns that people who are food insecure eat,” Burris recalled.

While living in Mitchell, she witnessed firsthand businesses serving as key community employers shuttering in the rural community, which lead to more poverty and food insecurity. Growing up, Burris didn’t realize just how much food insecurity was around her until she began to understand the signs as an adult. This sparked her interest in inequality and poverty.

It hits home and it makes it exciting to go back and have that insider’s perspective when you’re doing research.

Mecca Burris

During a trip to Costa Rica, Burris saw the global impact of food insecurity. Burris said, “It’s not just about the local issues, it stems from international and global structures and systems.” This trip inspired her to return for her doctoral degree to study anthropology with a focus on food insecurity.

Food insecurity, Burris points out, is something that affects more than people experiencing homelessness and unemployment. “It is also your neighbors, your family members, and the people that work every day and work hard,” said Burris. She emphasized that it’s important to change the image of food insecurity by addressing the stereotypes and mitigating the judgment that comes along with it.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food insecurity as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life.