Students research local issues for civic leaders

May 1, 2014

Ron Kind speaking in front of a UW-La Crosse class.

Students in Carol Miller’s Policy & Society class listen to U.S. Rep. Ron Kind discuss The Farm Bill Friday, April 25, in class.

UW-L student researchers are helping answer local questions about everything from senior citizen’s nutrition to flood control to healthcare reform’s affect on small businesses.

In fall 2013, the university started the Research Policy Network, a network that connects UW-L student researchers with civic leaders who have policy-related questions.

To date, 36 questions have been posed on the network’s website from legislators, the La Crosse mayor, the director of public health, and other leaders of organizations and programs. Many UW-L classes are already finding answers to these questions and preparing unbiased reports. The aim is educate students while helping leaders make policy decisions for their constituents.

Carol Miller’s Policy & Society class is helping La Crosse County Aging Unit Director Noreen Holmes determine if senior citizens in the county have access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food, particularly after the recession.

“A lot of people in La Crosse County have no trouble financially. They are able to get food. We assume that’s true for everyone,” says Holmes. “Elderly people, if they are insecure about food, a lot of times don’t ask for help. It’s that independent streak.”

National trends show increasing numbers of seniors are not getting enough food because of economic constraints. About 8.5 percent of seniors nationally are at risk of not having enough food. Applied to La Crosse County, that would be 1,800 seniors, says Holmes.

“That’s a sad thing to think about. I think it is a pressing question,” says Holmes, adding she doesn’t have the money, staff or time to answer it.

In February, UW-L students took the question to La Crosse senior citizens. Students in Miller’s Policy & Society class, along with volunteers from two other classes, interviewed senior citizens at senior residential and meal sites in La Crosse with a USDA food survey, measuring food insecurity and hunger. The group collected 70 surveys, which will provide answers about who is food insecure, who is not and if meal sites are providing an important service.

“The people I interviewed seemed genuinely happy that I was there and was able to have a conversation with them,” says UW-L student Brittany Hink.

She hopes the research creates more awareness about the problem of nutrition for this population. Although she found seniors were getting adequate food, it was not high-quality food such as fruits and vegetables.

“The reduction in food stamps is not helping the aging population receive the types of foods they need,” she explains. “If people want to help, they need to figure out a way for the aging population to have enough funding for better, healthier foods.”

To aid with their research, U.S. Rep. Ron Kind visited Miller’s class Friday, April 25, to discuss The Farm Bill, which was reauthorized on Feb. 7. Students wanted to know how it compares to past bills, if subsidies paid to large farms have changed and if the bill supports production of more nutritious foods.

Miller notes that all of the research ties closely to the main policies she teaches in her class: Social Security, temporary assistance to needy families and The Farm Bill. During administration of the survey, students could hear the senior citizens report their incomes — supported by Social Security — and their food and nutrition intake, related to the food and nutrition programs supported by The Farm Bill.

“Since many of the students are planning careers in the social services, it was a good opportunity for them to sit one-on-one with people who are similar to their potential future clients,” says Miller.

Kind also visited Mary Hamman’s Business and Economics Research and Communication’s class. Through the Research Policy Network, Kind had asked a series of question related to how the new healthcare law is affecting businesses in the region. Hamman’s class is investigating some of these questions such as whether small businesses plan to eliminate jobs or adjust compensation or positions in response to the law.

Students sent surveys to more than 900 businesses in the Third Congressional District and presented the preliminary findings to Kind during his visit Friday. Hamman says it was a valuable learning experience for students to discuss their research with Kind, but it also provided valuable information for the congressman.

How do I start research through the Research Policy Network?

Instructors interested in getting involved in the Research Policy Network can contact Professor Scott Cooper at scooper@uwlax.edu