Investigating Food and Health in Durham Reminded Me of the Real Reason I Came to Duke

October 18, 2019

By Meghana Sai Iragavarapu ’21

Meghana Sai Iragavarapu

I have struggled to manage my relationship with food for as long as I can remember.

Growing up, my family moved every four years. Every place we called home, we volunteered at food shelters and soup kitchens serving adults and children who suffered not only from hunger but from conditions including heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol. Across the world, when I returned to India during school breaks, malnourished, hungry children surrounded my grandmother’s house depending on her leftovers and single rupees to sustain themselves. In both these populations, the absence of and search for nutritious foods and lifestyles hindered people’s ability to become independent, self-sufficient, healthy individuals.

The paradox between myself and the conditions of people around me led me to ask how and why people had such varying relationships with food and food access and how those relationships influenced their health and life outcomes.

Dr. Jeffrey Baker and Dr. Robert Korstad gave me the chance to answer that exact question by exploring the city of my new home for the next four years – Durham.

My Bass Connections project sub-team focused on the history and perpetuating factors of diabetes in Durham. We interviewed employees from the Durham Public Health Department, historians, community health workers, and most importantly, Durham residents living with diabetes. We visited grocery stores and homes in neighborhoods only two miles apart and found shocking disparities.

Poster excerpt.

We were attempting to tell a story – one that addressed the complicating factors of racial discrimination, socioeconomic factors, language barriers and neighborhood segregation. Why do some residents in Durham have access to healthier foods than others? Why do some Durham neighborhoods have double the diabetes rates of others?

We presented our findings as an exhibition open to the general public, Duke community and healthcare institutions, like the Lincoln Community Health Center.

Diabetes sub-team
Meghana Sai Iragavarapu ’21, Sujeiry Jimenez ’20 and Brian Rhee ’20 at Documenting Durham’s Health History: An Exhibition in the Trent Semans Center for Health Education, April 22, 2019

Bass Connections allowed me to take a deeply personal interest of mine and turn it into an academic passion. Applying a critical lens to the disparity of diabetes in Durham encouraged me to work towards a sustainable version of myself.

Bass Connections challenged me to grow in discomfort, surprised me with its findings, invigorated me with curiosity, but most importantly, reminded me of the real reason I came to Duke – to develop the necessary skills to take steps toward a positive social impact.

Meghana Sai Iragavarapu is a Program II major, “Intersection of Food Availability, Nutrition and Health Outcomes.” She was a member of the diabetes sub-team of the 2018-19 Bass Connections project team, Documenting Durham’s Health History: Understanding the Roots of Health Disparities. The team’s exhibition is on view at the Durham County Department of Public Health through October 31.

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