Food Insecurity Drives Ohio State Student's Engaged Scholarship

By Alaina Bartel
Outreach and Engagement Communications Student Intern

Meera Nagarajan's idea of camping is traveling to the village in India where her father grew up - she calls it rustic. Her family used to visit the city for 10 days and then head to the village - an overnight train and bus-ride away - where her grandparents lived.

Although there was an initial cultural shock for her upon her first arrival to the city, it would seem that the real barrier was waiting for her in the village: her grandparents did not speak English, and she didn't speak their native language. But for her, it didn't matter.

"Despite the fact that we didn't speak the same language, there was still love there. I think we can show that without speaking the same language. It reminded me the power of connecting with people without language," Nagarajan said. "Human connection is so important."

Connecting with people has been a huge part of her life ever since. Nagarajan, a fourth-year nutrition science major and pre-med student, focuses on the issue of food insecurity in the Columbus area. Throughout her time at Ohio State, she has been extensively involved with community engagement, as well as educating students and non-students about the impact food insecurity has on our society.

Meera Nagarajan at the Outreach and Engagement Forum

Nagarajan presenting her work at the Outreach and Engagement Forum. 

Nagarajan was aware that food insecurity was an issue, but it wasn't until after she volunteered at a local food pantry, Neighborhood Services Inc., that she found what she wanted to focus on.

"I see these people at the pantry, and people in the community who want to work hard and provide for their families, and yet there's so much in their way and so much that they go through every day that I could never understand. That makes me want to try and alleviate that in some way," she said.

Volunteering there led to her research topic: examining the nutrition, food security, and health status of the people that go to NSI. She meets with people and asks them a series of questions about their home life including: Do you have diabetes or high blood pressure? How many children do you have? Is there something you don't particularly like at the pantry? Specifically, she wants to see what these people are experiencing on a day-to-day basis, and if the pantry can tailor to their individual needs.

Assisting Nagarajan with her research is her faculty advisor, Michelle Kaiser, who is an assistant professor in the College of Social Work. Kaiser has been mentoring her for four years, and said her favorite part about being Nagarajan's mentor is seeing her grow and explore how she can combine her passion, intelligence, and academic part of her work to find a career where she can make a difference in people's lives.

"I think she's one of those internally motivated people that really wants to see change happen, and see people thrive. By having those conversations with people at NSI, she's able to connect with people, understand people, and is really driven by those connections. She's not doing it to check things off a list, or to beef up her resume. It all looks great on her resume, but she is doing it out of a sense of justice and what is right. I think that gives her motivation," Kaiser said.

Along with her research at NSI, Nagarajan is the president and founder of Food Fellows, a program created to train interdisciplinary students about food-related issues through community service and research. The program leads the SNAP challenge at Ohio State: a view of what life can be like for Americans with low incomes that rely on food assistance. The main challenge for the students is to only spend $4.50 a day on food, which she hopes will raise awareness about what millions of people struggle with on a daily basis.

Picture of Meera on the Homecoming Court.

Nagarajan was a member of the 2015 Homecoming Court. 

In addition, she is the co-vice president of site engagement for ENCompass: a program that connects clients in Columbus in need of life-changing resources—like help with their utilities or school uniforms for their children—to address the social determinants of health.

Nagarajan is also one of the first 29 Eminence Fellows at Ohio State—a program aimed at cultivating "intellectually and socially engaged citizens who intend to commit themselves to solving big problems," according to their website.

Nagarajan's life experiences, along with her college experience thus far, have enabled her to spread her passion and educate, help, and inspire the Ohio State community about the issue of food insecurity and how others can make a difference.

"We don't know what people have been through, and what their lives are like, or why their situation is the way it is. Our generation has the power to do something about this. I think you should be in college to be able to make a change—it doesn't necessarily mean you have to work with underserved populations, but I think we're the future, so hopefully people can have a more respectful view of others," Nagarajan said.