Communication and Contemporary Issues Capstone Class Collaborates with the CAIN organization

In Spring 2016, Dr. Shaunak Sastry taught a section of an undergraduate Communication capstone course as community-partnered and research-intensive. Thanks to some great connections fostered by The Cincinnati Project leadership, the class partnered with the Rainbow Choice Food Pantry operated by the Churches Active in Northside (CAIN) organization.

The research problem

The administration of the Rainbow Choice Food Pantry had a pretty direct problem for the class to solve: How could they encourage their clients to make more nutritious choices during their monthly trip to the food pantry?

CAIN’s Rainbow Food Pantry

CAIN’s “rainbow” choice food pantry uses the colors of the rainbow to earmark different food groups that shoppers can choose from. For instance, an individual shopping for a family of four could hypothetically choose two “red” [meats] items, six “green” [fruits and vegetables] items, three “blue” [dairy] products, and four “yellow” items [cereals/starches]. Color-coded shelves and labels facilitated shoppers’ decision making, and a personal “shopper” [usually a CAIN volunteer] walked along with the shopper to help them navigate the system.
Our “communication challenge” was to create messaging around nutrition, so as to enable the clients to make nutritious choices within this environment. How could we enhance the nutritional benefits of certain foods, and use communication to enhance effective choices? In other words, how could the state of existent research in health communication messaging be leveraged to getting customers to make nutritious dietary choices?

Class Structure

Each student-consultant received a minimum of four hours of on site at the pantry and with the clients. Many students exceeded that amount. Student activities:

  • Volunteer
  • complete tasks
  • conduct participant observations and elementary qualitative interviews with the volunteer staff, administration and the shoppers.
  • Write detailed reflection papers around their experiences with CAIN.


  • Class discussions around privilege, and working around/through/despite one’s privilege dominated the conversation after the initial fieldwork days. Visiting the food pantry, and speaking to the volunteers and clients, and “seeing” the phenomenon of food insecurity allowed the class to connect the seemingly abstract data about entrenched food insecurity within the US to the real-life implications and the importance of the emergency food system.
  • As Maria, a Communication major, said:

“Initially I walked out of this experience and wanted to cry. My heart hurt for the people who had to live this way. Looking at the big picture is extremely overwhelming and almost disheartening. What can I do as a broke, over-worked college student to improve the well being of these people? After taking more time to reflect and step back from the situation, I was able to compartmentalize the problem. Again, the number one issue [for us] is helping the customers at the food pantry make healthy choices.”

Another student, Trevor, spoke about how visiting the site allowed him to “see” what the class had read about place-based health disparities and food desertification in class:

“The day prior to my visit to CAIN, completed an annotated bibliography of Darcy A. Freedman and Bethany A. Bell’s “Access to Healthful Foods among an Urban Food Insecure Population: Perceptions versus Reality.” In summary, the article details how access to healthful foods is most limited within racial and ethnic minorities and low-income populations. These populations also are faced with the highest rates of obesity and food insecurity. Reading that article was eye opening as it demonstrated to me how systematic the United State’s are within the healthcare industry – in this case nutrition specifically. It’s my belief that a lack of proper nutrition is a detriment to anyone who is working towards escaping poverty.
While it was impactful to read about food insecure populations, it was another experience entirely to actually meet the people who deal with food insecurity. It was extremely humbling to speak with a woman, probably the same age as my own Mother, who was at CAIN shopping for food.”

Tailoring nutrition messages: Our qualitative data

Students in the class conducted short, informal qualitative interviews with key staff members, volunteers and clients at CAIN to understand their perspectives on the importance of nutrition messaging at the pantry. We created audience-specific interview guides. Clients were asked about their nutritional preferences, and what led them to make specific decisions at the pantry.
In addition, we asked questions about the kind of food practices and facilities they had at home, and if the food choices available at the pantry were coherent with their preferred cooking methods. Volunteers, who help clients navigate the pantry and facilitate nutritional choices, were asked about potential avenues and spaces where we could enhance nutritional messaging.

Through a series of interviews, coupled with the observational data gathered by students as they volunteered at CAIN, we made a list of key insights that were relevant to designing a nutrition-focused communication intervention at CAIN.

  1. Nutrition messaging exposure ought to begin before clients started making food choices. Given the physical layout of the space; we realized that clients spent quite a lot of time in the front lobby area before they entered the actual food pantry. Here, clients had access to services like tax preparation, haircuts and other miscellaneous services. The front lobby area also had a large LCD TV (which, as we learnt, was a result of a grant that CAIN won), but was not being used. This represented an opportunity for us to introduce nutrition messaging while clients were waiting in the lobby.
  2. Live food demonstrations were a favorite, when they happened. A “live food demonstration” counter, in the middle of the pantry shelves, served as a place for volunteer nutritionists to demonstrate how to convert the fresh ingredients available at the pantry into healthy meals. Our team found that while this desk was not consistently staffed/active, it was an immediate draw for clients during the times that it WAS active.
  3. Perceived quantity of food was important. Most client reported that they enjoyed stopping at the demonstration counter and learning how to use new ingredients, but their choices were also constrained by the need to “maximize” what they could get from their mandated once-a-month shopping at CAIN. In that sense, and understandably quantity of food was as important factor as quality/novelty.
  4. Nutrition information was important in homes and kitchens too. Clients reported that one barrier to trying out new foods (especially vegetables as a substitute for meats) was that they did not always have good recipes/knowledge of how to cook those foods. In that sense, it was important for clients to “take away” some information with them.

Student-led nutrition interventions

Based on the insights derived from the qualitative research, students worked in teams to come up with different approaches to enhancing nutrition-based messaging at CAIN. I am sharing two intervention ideas in this post.

  1. Integrating nutrition messaging throughout the food pantry:Students worked to integrate insights 1 and 2, to create a more consistent nutrition-messaging environment. One student team took a short video of the nutritionist demonstration and recipe presentation, and used a simple editing template to include text-based recipe information next to the video. This team also uploaded the demo video on the CAIN front-room television to show our partners what the video would look like. The idea here was that clients would watch the video, played on loop before the entered the pantry, and then would be guided by volunteers to visit the demonstration counter to try the recipe, thus reinforcing the nutrition messaging. During their final presentation, the team shared a “how-to” manual to our CAIN community partners, that included details on how to record/edit the video, and how to upload the recorded video on the television. The video presentation below offers more details.
  2. Taking nutrition messages outside the pantry: Based on our finding that clients found it difficult to connect nutritional messages in the pantry to food choices they made at home, another team focused on creating a customized, monthly recipe book based on the current inventory of the food pantry, that each client could take home with them. Here again, we shared templates, instructions and how-to plans with our community partners so that the intervention was implementable.

What we learned from the class

Doing community-based research in a classroom environment is both tremendously challenging and gratifying. Here is a list of things that summarize my personal reflections and student evaluations for the course:

  1. It was eye opening for students to see the pervasiveness of food insecurity in the United States, and the invisibility of this pressing issue disturbed them. Students read a lot of literature on food insecurity in the US, taking in perspectives from health policy, nutrition, communication and social work. Students were motivated in solving a problem that was local, and focused on the immediate aspects for this one pantry, rather than focusing on the structural causes of food insecurity as a process.
  2. When the class DID develop an appreciation for the deep entrenchment of food insecurity in the US, its systemic causes and enduring presence, it allowed them to see the very limited (but simultaneously very important) role of food pantries in addressing systemic food insecurity. This was an important learning moment for students of Communication: that even a well-designed intervention may have the tiniest (or no) impact, given certain structural problems.
cinciprojectCommunication and Contemporary Issues Capstone Class Collaborates with the CAIN organization