Where’s All The Toilet Paper? Fitzpatrick Discusses Fear and Food Insecurity During Pandemic
Sarah Brown: Hello. Welcome to Short Talks From the Hill, a podcast of the University of Arkansas. My name is Sarah Brown. I’m a communications assistant here at the university. Today I’m talking to Kevin Fitzpatrick, professor of sociology and criminology in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences. Previously Dr. Fitzpatrick has conducted and contributed to several studies regarding homelessness, poverty and food insecurity in the Northwest Arkansas region. Today we will discuss his most recent project concerning global pandemic. Immediately after the coronavirus outbreak in the United States, Fitzpatrick and his colleagues obtained a special grant from the National Science Foundation to study several sociological outcomes of the pandemic. Welcome Kevin and thank you for being here.
Kevin Fitzpatrick: Thank you for having me.
SB: What was the inspiration for this study?
KF: So the initial inspiration was a rather practical one that happened a few weeks before… maybe a week before we actually sat down and decided to go ahead and look at this from a scientific perspective. I had gone to Sam’s, and in the process of going over there… I’m doing everyone else was doing. I’m gathering up my toilet paper in my paper towels, and I went over there and I was shut out. I didn’t get any of either. They were cleaned out. And I guess I was surprised. I guess that I had expected that while things were clearly developing both here in the country and around the world in terms of the supply chain, I had not expected that. So I came back and just casually began a conversation with Dr. Harris, Casey Harris, and we started talking about what’s going on, why we thought it was going on, but not necessarily from a supply chain perspective. It was really more… is there a level of fear that’s creating what we might consider maladaptive behavior. For example… and clearly, anecdotally, we had heard plenty about it, but we just had lived it. And then I went back and we continued that conversation, and I went back a couple days later, and I saw a different version of it. Now they had toilet paper, but the poor guy on the forklift who was moving it from one point of the store to the other, kind of had a trail of people behind him and literally were waiting until he got there and didn’t even wait for him to drop the forklift and started grabbing enough of the pallete. And one woman said to the to the forklift operator, “Are there any limits to how much I can take?” and he said… you know, he looked a little confused… he said, “I don’t think so,” and then she proceeded to take like 20 and put them in – you know – she had two carts. So I managed to get some, barely, and then I went back and we dove it. I am not a researcher of fear, but what I am is a researcher of place, and I really felt like… what I didn’t hear people talking about at that time was how these two factors intersect with one another. You know, what is the relationship between fear and place? And so we began to sort of walk through what was interesting to us and then in the meantime Dr. Drawve also came in on the conversation and he has a great expertise on grabbing large, big data and managing big data, as well as but being able to really merge that data with geo-coded and geospatial data because we really wanted to be able to try and document as best as we could this interrelationship. So we began to think about what are some of the factors that drive fear, but then what are some of the consequences of that? And we began to compile a rather large… at every time we met the questionnaire became… the survey became larger and larger. Finally we settled on a survey that was about 20 minutes long. And we then field tested that and sent it out to all of our graduate students and we asked them to not only keep track of what they saw as some of the problems with the questions, but then we were able to keep track of how much time it was taking, that we asked them to do it in one sitting, so we got it down to about 17 minutes. After field tests needed revising it and reworking, we settled on it, we then contracted with Qualtrics. Qualtrics is a national firm that does really large national sampling here in the U.S. And our expectations were that in order to be able to talk about statistical significance and generalizability and all these higher-level methodological issues we felt like we needed 10,000 respondents. They said no problem. Then we said well, we’d like them as soon as possible, and they also said no problem. And so we went ahead and contracted with them to do the initial data collection, and then also to do what is called a post-stratification weighting of those responses, you know. I mean there’s a ton of different ways that we collect data in in the U.S. when we’re trying to better understand a process, but here we have a process that has created a whole layer of complexity unlike any that we have seen before, and it’s time-sensitive you know, if you go back to your question, how did you get this so quickly. If the National Science Foundation would not have had this kind of mechanism available, we’d still be waiting to hear. And you know it’s only through the rapid format that we’re able to do something like this. I mean I think I might have remarked about this to you earlier and that was, that from the point that we submitted the grant to the point that the money showed up it was less than a week or two, so I mean that’s pretty remarkable for science.
SB: Fitzpatrick and his colleagues are also looking at food insecurity in the wake of the covid-19 pandemic. In an online survey of 10,368 adults taken the last week of March, nearly half of all respondents in some states reported food insecurity. Respondents from Southern and mid-Southern regions reported being more food insecure than the U.S. average. In a recent news article on the university’s website, it says that regional variations appear to track closely to previous work on food insecurity, but there appear to be some important pockets of need that are unexpected and certainly will require a finer-grain analysis to better understand the differences. So my question is, Dr. Fitzpatrick, have you identified the pockets of need that call for further analysis?
KF: Yeah, I think… So, at this point, what we identify are pockets that are, initially that description at the state level. We have not drilled down yet to look at this data at a level any lower than that, although that’s why we got the food insecurity data from Feeding America, which is at the county level. I will tell you, just on a quick scan of, that that Feeding America data, that is estimate data all right. That is estimates of food insecurity at the county level, which is different than our data, which, even at the county level, would not be an estimate. It would be an actual number of persons who responded to the survey and their subjective-felt food insecurity, but so those are those are two very different… that’s apples and oranges, and so we’ve got to be careful about how we compare this individual-level data to the aggregate estimates that come out of the USDA or Feeding America. I will tell you that I already have been in conversation with both of those organizations, and they’re saying how could who’d insecurity be so elevated, because it’s not that high at the national level? And of course my response is two-fold. Number one is we’re in the midst of a pandemic, of course it’s going to be elevated. There already was food insecurity in America; we’re just putting more food insecurity in, right? The other one of course is that we’re looking at food insecurity at the individual level, a much finer-grain analysis than the USDA or Feed America that makes estimates at county level. And they are estimates so… but you know, even if you look at the estimates, I think that on average… hey, again Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama all the places that we would expect that food insecurity would be high, it’s higher. And do we need to look at it more carefully? Absolutely. And we want to… in the state of Arkansas and we’ve reached out to some people here in the state and some folks down at Little Rock to really see if whether or not we can replicate the study here, because I think it’s important that, you know, as you bring up, the whole notion about if they’re pockets, you have to drop down… we need to drop down, we need to look at it a little bit more carefully and so in that case, you know, in the case of doing an Arkansas study, we really want to try and, as best as we could, obviously captured the big pockets central Arkansas the Delta and Northwest Arkansas, but we really would like to be able to try and refine it at a level where we could see differences between rural and urban, because I think those are dramatic.
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