By: Sara Hoover
A map in medical geographer Dr. Esra Ozdenerol’s class isn’t just dots and lines
— it’s a roadmap to revealing the social aspects of health in a community.
Dr. Esra Ozdenerol
Ozdenerol, an earth sciences associate professor, used her graduate-level class, “GIS
Applications to Human Health,” to apply mapping techniques to real-world problems.
Taught in the Spring 2009 semester, the course was cross-listed in geography and public
health. It gave students the opportunity to focus the mapping software on community
hunger, an area served by the Mid-South Food Bank, its partner agencies and food pantries.
The class was broken up into three groups: services to seniors; services to women,
children and infants; and food pantries themselves. The groups collected data such
as food pantry locations and the number of meals and target groups served. When put
into a single database, the information revealed areas where underserved populations
existed or there were no partner agencies. The project was comprehensive. Students
covered 33 counties and pinpointed the Food Bank’s 230 agencies and 309 charitable
“Because of engaged scholarship, I wanted to do an activity where students learn the
software and then apply it to a project,” said Ozdenerol. “Also, there was an economic
recession. Lots of people were looking for food and experiencing problems. According
to USDA, from 2000 to 2007, there was a 4 percent increased living cost in the hungriest
households, so this was an important issue I wanted to work on.”
Ozdenerol met with the Mid-South Food Bank to find out their needs due to the recession
and growing number of people needing these services.
“They wanted to know areas where they cannot provide. They didn’t know where the places
were they couldn’t go or serve. They had data but it was not in a map format and didn’t
know where exactly those areas were that they couldn’t reach.”
The Mid-South Food Bank is a distribution center for a 33-county area in West Tennessee,
North Mississippi and East Arkansas. They provide food, either donated from food drives
or purchased with donated funds, to agencies and food pantries. They also have the
kids backpack program, which distributes free backpacks of food to children who get
free or reduced lunches at school with food for the weekend. The kids café program,
which provides a hot, wellbalanced meal at Boys & Girls Clubs or Girls Inc. sites
two times a week, is another one of their programs.
Students went on a tour of the Food Bank and also met with partner agencies.
“They learn by doing and help the community,” Ozdenerol said of her students. “That
was one of the most important things. They found that interesting because they knew
that they would be making contributions to change something.”
Out of these class findings, the Food Bank has implemented a new program – the Mobile
Pantry. Counties in rural areas with small agencies that don’t have adequate storage
space or funding to pay the small handling fee can utilize the Mobile Pantry. The
Food Bank loads up a truck with food based on how many families the agency distributes
to in a month and distributes it in one day, eliminating the need for storage space.
“That’s something that came out of this by us being able to identify where we’re not
meeting needs,” said Estella Mayhue-Greer, senior vice president and chief operating
officer for the Food Bank. “In some of those counties we don’t have agencies. With
doing the mapping and being able to identify social services organizations, it can
help us enhance our partnerships.”
The data is also a resource for a community action project that Leadership Academy
is helping the Food Bank with.
The U of M partnership has continued with a more narrow focus on the Food Bank’s specific
“I’m really excited about that,” said Mayhue-Greer (BA ’85, MA ’92). “Our goal is
to help agencies save food dollars, so that they can take the money that they would
be spending on food to provide to those in need to enhance their programs in other
Mayhue-Greer hopes they will be able to address the fact that many agencies do not
have Internet access or computers, and the need to link their services and information
together in an accessible way.
“There is a great need for our agencies to be able to network with each other and
be able to identify what is where and available. What Dr. Ozdenerol really did was
motivate us to look more closely at what we were doing and where we’re providing services
and how we can network to provide better services and stretch our resources. If we
can identify and link, for example, the counties where we have no agencies identified
that are underserved, we could link with agencies existing there to provide better
Nicole Amanda Smith, a master’s student in medical anthropology, already had a certificate
in GIS and took the class as an elective.
“I really love GIS and I was excited to continue working on that skill. I had never
been exposed to how it’s used in health before,” said Smith.
Smith’s group collected data on services to seniors from MIFA, the Food Bank and food
“We were told we were doing this not only so we could analyze it, but to make this
information we gathered public so that we could give that back, not only to all organizations
who had helped us, but so that future efforts trying to help senior hunger or hunger
in general wouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel.”
Smith had done spatial analysis but not “with an applied focus where you’re trying
to give back to the community.”
The course covered different sources of medical information, geographic markers and
“It was really helpful especially in health because so often people look at a problem
and think, ‘Oh well, that’s someone else’s problem. That’s not my problem,’” said
Smith. “You see on a map around you places that you live and work, and all the dots
of all the people who have this problem. It kind of makes it a community problem and
not an individual’s problem. We talked about that and how to make maps the most powerful
that they can be visually.”
Ozdenerol, who pioneered bringing the GIS technology to the U of M, has written several
grants including a challenge grant through the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act
and to the National Science Foundation with letters of support from the Food Bank
to continue their collaboration.
“It’s always good when educational institutions look out into the community to help
improve services, access in the community,” said Mayhue-Greer. “Partnerships are always
good because it makes the students more aware and it’s definitely a benefit to nonprofit
organizations who don’t have the resources to do what (the class is) doing.
“When you look at the limited resources that nonprofits have right now — and it’s
even tighter because of the economic situation — you’ve got to really stretch and
this is a great opportunity.”