Each year the rates of food insecurity in Canada surpass the highest rates ever recorded before with one in six households with children being food insecure. Like most others, this insecurity impacts more those already marginalized, such as people identifying as queer. Ryan plans on bringing together and working with community members to illustrate communal solutions and improvements to food security challenges, and contribute to better policy making and sustainable urban development.
Honouring the legacy and years of graduate support from one of my intellectual mentors and friends, the late Dr. Sinikka Elliott, I embark on a new line of sociological inquiry we started together but got cut short—identifying mechanisms and barriers associated with queer food in/security and food sovereignty. I bring the training I have as a sociologist who studies queer social spaces and sexual health into the realm of food. I am learning that our food choices deeply depend on the social forces that enable us to provide for ourselves and our families. I am curious about food’s ability to congregate people, as well as how it enables community formation and sustenance. Our food choices and preferences communicate so much—our cultural, regional, and racial upbringings, our social status, class positions, and our experiences with colonization and intergenerational trauma. Food stories can reveal the social supports we have, or have not, received, and the character of neighbourhoods we live in. In short, the food we consume is fastened to a buffet of social factors beyond our individual consumption choices. Those privileged enough to be food secure might rarely think about these larger social forces that sustain their eating habits. By contrast, those who are food insecure, that is having unreliable and insufficient access to food to satisfy their eating preferences and dietary needs, worry about where their next meal is coming from. Dr. Elliott asked one food-insecure child what she does when she’s hungry, and she replied, “I go to bed and think about eating.”
Each year the rates of food insecurity in Canada surpass the highest rates ever recorded. In 2020, data from Statistics Canada revealed that one in six households with children reported being food insecure. The Covid-19 pandemic has dramatically worsened food access and provisioning. Food insecurity is one form of poverty tightly tied to the health and development of adults and children, yet we know little about how these effects influence queer, trans, non-binary, and gender-expansive individuals and their families, who are poorer on average than cisgender heterosexuals in North America (Waite, Pajovic, Denier 2020; Badgett, Choi, Wilson 2019). The limited evidence available shows that food insecurity impacts queer families at higher rates than heterosexual ones and that there are different barriers to food security for queer-identified individuals. Through mixed-method analyses, my work investigates how institutionalized urban spaces of work, housing, and community-making contribute to the food security and wellbeing of diversely situated queers. I plan to analyze the Canadian Community Health Survey to estimate how chronic health conditions, employment stability, and community connectedness impact queer food security. Inspired by intersectional feminist practices of local capacity building and aided by the generous support of the Public Scholars Initiative, I plan to work with community partners to develop workshops around food access among queer-identified communities. These workshops promise to open a dialogue on queer rights to food in Vancouver’s increasingly unaffordable and isolating urban milieu. In keeping with public scholarship approaches of learning from and within communities, my project seeks to understand how community connectedness and capacity-building respond to issues of food, housing, and job insecurity in Vancouver. Drawing on my ongoing activism within field sites, combined with innovative quantitative analyses of nationally representative data, my research will re-frame conversations on food security with the goal of informing public policy, community advocacy, and sustainable urban development.
What does being a Public Scholar mean to you?
A public scholar breaks through the siloed specialty knowledges created through the disciplined boundaries of academic ‘fields’ to produce work in the service of strengthening civil society. To me that means engaging with organizations that advocate on behalf of communities—learning from them, working with and within them—to co-construct ways of understanding the issues they face while mobilizing resources for them to amplify their grassroots initiatives. My goal is to promote collaboratively generated knowledge to a range of academic and non-academic audiences. The work of a public scholar first starts with the relationships forged with people who dedicate their time and labour to alleviating pernicious and enduring social inequalities like food insecurity. I feel privileged and honoured to gain the trust of community members, and to work alongside them.
In what ways do you think the PhD experience can be re-imagined with the Public Scholars Initiative?
The ways we represent social issues in scholarship change when we are in community with others—the Public Scholars Initiative facilitates this genesis. PhD students engaged in this professionalization cluster can better align themselves with pressing social issues such as the ongoing climate catastrophe, myriad reconciliation projects, and settler commitments with Indigenous communities. We are facing urgent and forceful calls for racial justice amid ongoing acts of police brutality, settler violence, and displacement. I believe that PhD students can uplift those engaged in social protests for rent strikes, equitable and affordable healthcare, or those creating more inclusive urban spaces. I appreciate that PhD students are determined to represent these issues using diverse knowledge-production forums like op-eds, zines, journals, and public talks. Through the support of the PSI, I am able to partner and work with organizations seeking to advance agendas of food justice, security, and sovereignty among 2SLGBTQ+ low-income individuals, which I would be unable to do otherwise.
How do you envision connecting your PhD work with broader career possibilities?
I see my community-based work on queer food security leading to larger, grant-funded projects co-managed by myself and other community-partners and academics. Going forward, I anticipate exploring mechanisms of poverty and its imbrication in sexualities and other intersectional social cleavages in a variety of geographic regions, and with a variety of community-based stakeholders. Becoming a post-doctoral fellow, and eventually a professor, I seek to deepen my theoretical commitments to queer, feminist, anticolonial, intersectional sociological perspectives. Along my path, I hope to train the next generation of academic-activists committed to meaningful research and policy implementation.
How does your research engage with the larger community and social partners?
By design this research is collaborative and co-produced with community partners. I have the privilege of working with two organizations in Vancouver addressing food security among queer and low-income folx—the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood House and Saige Community Food Bank. I plan to put the PSI funds toward event-based activities or “pop-ups” that we will jointly host among their service recipients. Additionally, I will be able to provide an honorarium for interview participants who take time to talk with me about their experiences with food provisioning, housing, and work in Vancouver.
Why did you decide to pursue a graduate degree?
Long ago I decided that instead of pursuing law school I wanted to become a professor. I was an undergraduate at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA (USA) where I met an all-star cast of academics—Drs Vera Fennell, Janet Liable, Brian Pinaire, Robert Rozehnal, Chava Weissler, Khurram Hussain, Richard Matthews, Edward Morgan, my advisor Nandini Deo and others. These role models had an indelible impact on me at a young age and got me excited to learn. Most crucially, they supported me when I began to research Afghanistan. I did so because my younger brother, at the time, was a marine stationed there and his return was uncertain (thankfully he is now home safe). Through Dr. Deo’s support, and a video camera she lent me, I travelled to three cities in India—Mumbai, Delhi, and Pune, to work with the first and only all women-led think-tank in India, Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. Here, I was able to develop a thesis on Afghanistan from interview-based stories shared by Afghan students and refugees I met while publishing a series of blog-style research pieces on my travels. Those experiences were transformative and humbling. I often credit that solo trip with giving me the courage to later come out as gay while fortifying me with the knowledge that I could survive graduate school. That was an optimistic time. Reflecting on these events now, given the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, is especially hard. I took time off from higher education after my bachelor’s degree, came out as a gay man in Philadelphia. While working for an online company remotely, I spent two years there during my ‘coming out’ excursion. I joined a gay men’s chorus, became flush with musical queer friends, and quickly learned about the sexual health issues that unfairly impact our community. Returning to graduate school took a new direction—I wanted to study STIs and HIV/AIDS. Arriving at the University of Chicago, I spent my master’s degree studying pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) use and knowledge among gay men and providers about this new and revolutionary sexual health intervention that promised to drastically reduce new HIV infections among HIV-vulnerable populations. I then worked at NORC at the University of Chicago with Stuart Michaels on a series of US-government-funded community-based HIV prevention studies conducted on the South Side of Chicago while participating in a sex-positive sexual health campaign run by Jim Pickett of the AIDS Foundation of Chicago. I took the leap, after being offered a promotion and full-time employment with NORC, to enrol in a PhD program in Sociology at UBC in the sub-field of queer and sexual health. Though my journey has, at times, been perilous and unmooring, I find myself now surrounded by incredibly supportive mentors and positioned to do important work on queer food security.
Why did you choose to come to British Columbia and study at UBC?
Meeting Kaitlyn Jaffe at the University of Chicago during my master’s program drew me to apply to UBC. I knew from the work I did after my master’s degree that I wanted to continue working in the fields of medical sociology and queer sexual health. So, when selecting Sociology Departments, I chose ten that had strong medical sociologists and sexualities scholars. I also needed to be in a city, and I only applied to programs that were in cities with robust queer communities. After a winding journey, I am incredibly grateful to have the support from my ‘dream-team’ dissertation committee—Drs Becki Ross, Thomas Kemple, and Elizabeth Hirsh. Dr. Sinikka Elliott was also a part of our committee, and her death in May 2021 has been devastating for all of us. I was Dr. Elliott’s first TA at UBC in 2017, and we worked together the year after on her pilot project on food insecurity in Vancouver. We volunteered weekly together at a food bank. This new direction in my research and community-based work honours our friendship and commitment to the work we started and that she supported, and that our committee will see accomplished.