Experiential learning encompasses any activity in which a student is actively engaged in their education inside or outside of the classroom. At Trinity, experiential learning includes undergraduate research opportunities inside and outside of the classroom, volunteer experiences, internships, study abroad opportunities, and more.

Food Matters: Eating Disorders and Food Insecurity

By Allyson Mackender –

According to the San Antonio Food Bank, a 2009 census revealed that 17.1% of Texas’ population is food insecure. This means close to 450,000 people living in the state of Texas “are so limited in resources to buy food that [they] are running out of food, reducing the quality of food that [their] family eats, feeding [their] children unbalanced diets, or skipping meals so [their] children can eat.”

Aware of these troubling statistics, psychology professor Carolyn Becker and political science professor Keesha Middlemass partnered with students Francesca Gomez ‘18, Clara Johnson ‘16, Sarah Parrish ‘16, and Brigitte Taylor ‘17 to begin groundbreaking research on the relationship between food insecurity and eating disorders. With this, the Food Matters: Eating Disorders and Food Insecurity research lab was created.

Parrish (left) '16 and Taylor (right) '17 at one of the mobile food pantries. 
Over the last year, Becker, Middlemass, and the students completed Phase 1 of their research. During this time the students created a 91 question questionnaire, in both Spanish and English, that they took to local food pantries in order to gather quantitative data on food insecure populations across San Antonio. To thank those who agreed to complete the questionnaire, the students provided $5 HEB gift cards, which were donated when the lab partnered with HEB. From these questionnaires the students were able to conclude that there is indeed a relationship between eating disorders and food insecurity.

As the level of food insecurity increased, so did the presence of eating disorders, which includes binge eating, intentionally skipping two or more meals in a row, vomiting, and others. “I was surprised by the number of people who reported that they vomit,” Johnson said, “They are hungry and don’t have a secure access to food so you wouldn’t expect that behavior.” Similarly, the students explained that weight self stigma, which they defined as internalizing society’s negative attitudes about body fat and obesity, increases as food insecurity increases. This is a troubling finding because research by other labs indicates that weight stigma is associated with negative physical and mental health outcomes.

The percentage of people that reported eating disorder pathology and weight self stigma was higher in the nearly 500 food insecure people surveyed at San Antonio food pantries than in the general population often at the focus of such studies. This quantitative result confirmed the importance of studying diverse and marginalized communities, which is a core mission of the Food Matters lab. 

“We are taught to think eating disorders are an upper middle class problem,” Taylor claimed, “But it’s just as prevalent in diverse populations.” The Food Matters lab has attempted to bridge the gap between the university and marginalized populations; the students cited the fact that 72% of their participants were Hispanic and 25% of them only spoke Spanish.

With the quantitative data collected, the Food Matters lab is about to begin Phase 2 of their research. Beginning in 2017, the students will begin to conduct in-depth interviews with food insecure, marginalized populations. They hope this qualitative data will help them to make sense of their quantitative results. 

“Next we need to see what we can do with our data,” Parrish said, “For example, we can explore what preventative measures can be taken.”

Johnson added, “The next phase is important because we want to solve the problem but to do that we must first understand it completely.

In addition to the wonderful community impact that the students’ research has had, working in the Food Matters lab has been individually rewarding as well. The students were excited by the opportunity to use what they’ve learned in class in the community.

“When you take psych stats everything is theory and numbers,” Gomez explained, “But then when you use it in research it clicks and finally makes sense.”

More so, the students agreed that their work in the Food Matters lab helped them to solidify future academic and career goals. Gomez, Johnson, Parrish, and Taylor all have goals of pursuing a graduate degree in psychology, where they hope to continue doing important and impactful research. “I feel prepared to get my master’s degree in clinical psychology,” Parrish stated, “I’ve had hands on experience in a clinical psychology lab so I’m confident I have the knowledge and skills to be successful.” 

Johnson (left) '16 and Gomez (right) '18 administer questionnaires. 
Finally, the students were excited to boast about the community they’ve created within the Food Matters lab. Professor Becker and Professor Middlemass demonstrated the importance of teamwork, while giving them the chance to work independently. This unique undergraduate opportunity has not only contributed to the Trinity experience but has clearly made a lasting impact on the students, who are thrilled to begin the next fascinating phase of research.

Interested in supporting the amazing work being completed by Food Matters: Eating Disorders and Food Insecurity? Visit tugether.trinity.edu to get more information on the research and the ongoing crowdfunding campaign. Donations will be accepted until December 14, 2016.


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