Motivated by her initial research with community food access, Caitlin Caspi, ScD, began to take a deeper look into food access as a social determinant of health.

“It became clear that research questions were often very narrow when looking at access to grocery stores and the overall effect the social environment can have on diet,” says Caspi.

Caspi came to the University of Minnesota in 2012 to complete her postdoctoral research.

“What I found was that there were very few researchers were talking about food shelves (called food pantries outside of Minnesota) in relation to food access,” she says. “This sparked an interest in building community connections to effectively address these issues.

Creating a Conversation

While conducting research, Caspi found that the conversation around food shelves needed to be shifted from ‘quantity’ to ‘quality.’

“What we’re really hoping to do is provide evidence of what works in hunger relief systems to be able to make them places where people can access healthy and more appealing food,” she says. “The end goal is to make the nutritional quality of that food better and more appealing.”

Since then, Caspi’s work has shifted from talking about food deserts to looking at food access for communities. However, this work goes far beyond food shelves and food banks. “You also need to think about the community food environment and other social determinants of health like anti-poverty policies,” she explains.

This research has evolved into a multi-level approach to address food insecurity rather than a single focus of working within food pantries.

“The impact that I hope to have is in sparking discussion about what those levels are, who can be a player in addressing food insecurity or food access and getting the work done by creating better connections across all the players involved in that work,” she says.

Looking to the Future of Food Access

Caspi, now an Assistant Professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health, has successfully been able to change the conversation around community food access from quantity to quality, but her work does not stop there.

“Long term, I hope to disseminate my work to hunger relief nationally, and encourage the conversation on a national scale,” she says.

As far as next steps go, Caspi is looking at the effects of the fifteen-dollar minimum wage locally in Minnesota on obesity-related outcomes. “That does include food insecurity, so kind of integrating policy into the question,” she says.

Creating this conversation was just the start for her– Caspi will continue to work at solving the issue of community health and food access.

“I’m driven to carry my work outside of the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health and outside of the Medical School,” she says.