Hunger in the Golden State: Food for Thought on the Health Beat
Multimedia journalism doesn't get much more ambitious than this. "Hunger in the Golden State," a sweeping examination of rising rates of hunger in California, formally launches March 19 in print, broadcast and online media outlets.
The 20-part multimedia project was produced by USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism graduate students and the Center for Investigative Reporting's California Watch.
Hunger and food insecurity can be a key issue for the health beat, just as environmental concerns are.
Professor Sandy Tolan's students worked with senior journalists from California Watch and the Los Angeles Times to produce pieces for the project on food stamps, food insecurity in economically-stricken Mendota and wasted food in supermarkets among other topics.
"It just seemed like an issue that was becoming more and more pertinent and pressing with the recession," Tolan said. "One of the things we were all struck by was just how many families sought food assistance last year and how many families are in so-called 'food insecure' households."
Here's an excerpt from an introductory story by Tolan and student Dianne de Guzman:
The number of Californians fighting to ward off hunger, already at a crisis level, is worsening in the face of the lingering recession and high unemployment. Now, the problem may grow as the state faces a new round of budget cuts.
Over a six-month period, California Watch and the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at USC interviewed scores of county, state and food bank officials and dozens of Californians who face food shortages. The reporting found that record numbers are overwhelming food banks and county social service offices in every corner of the state and that the crisis is accelerating
In Los Angeles, 983,000 individuals sought food assistance from soup kitchens, shelters and food pantries in 2009 – the highest number ever, and a 46 percent increase since 2005. In some wealthier counties, such as Monterey, the numbers nearly doubled, an indication of the recession's impact on formerly middle-income Californians.
Of particular interest to reporters interested in health are a print story examining how hunger affects students' health and ability to learn and a narrated photo essay on the lack of healthy food options in Watts, a topic recently covered in our recent seminar for California Endowment Health Journalism Fellows.
Tolan said the project did not explore the health impacts of hunger as much as he would have liked, but a number of health angles came up that would make "great stories" for an enterprising health reporter.
People facing food insecurity are "going to reach for cheap calories," Tolan said. "That might be the dollar menu at Wendy's or in a food desert where there's no nutritious food available, so you're creating a situation where people are at risk of hunger and obesity. What appears to be a contradiction is in fact a result of poverty."
Other issues include the relationship between mental health/stress and hunger, and the politics and economics of nutrition, Tolan said.
You can see the project in full at its website now and pieces of it in various news outlets, including the Los Angeles Times, KQED's California Report, and KPCC, starting March 19.