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After two years with the Cornell Action Research Collaborative (ARC), Zeynab Jouzi, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow and researcher, reflects on the importance of using interdisciplinary approaches and participatory research to meet communities’ needs.

Jouzi, who earned her PhD from North Carolina State University, researched food insecurity and environmental conservation. Her dissertation explored the relationship between protected forest areas in Zimbabwe and food insecurity among young children there. While conservation efforts are often viewed positively, Jouzi’s research investigated how conservation can displace communities and deprive them of access to resources. By blocking off forest areas for wildlife, for example, families who rely on the land are left without food resources.

While Jouzi’s dissertation relied primarily on analyzing big geospatial datasets, the research made her realize the data’s limitations, since it can often be disconnected from the lived experiences of communities. This realization motivated her to pursue more engaged, participatory approaches that prioritize community voices and lived experiences.

“In academia, food security and environmentalism are often disconnected, but in real life, people experience both,” said Jouzi. “All humans are entitled to food, and conservation efforts must consider human rights.”

Her experience also highlighted the need for interdisciplinary solutions and laid the foundation for her current efforts at ARC, where she collaborates with partners on projects aimed at supporting families experiencing food insecurity.

Now, Jouzi’s approach emphasizes the co-production of knowledge, where community members are active participants in shaping research questions and interpreting results. Engaging communities in research fills gaps in literature by providing knowledge within the context of the community.

This has also informed Jouzi’s research into families experiencing food and housing insecurity in Queens. After receiving a QuIRI (Qualitative and Interpretive Research Institute) grant from the Cornell Center for Social Sciences, Jouzi led an ARC research project to understand the challenges families face while living in transitional housing, discovering that families experience difficulties navigating the support services that are available to them. In 2023, she presented her findings at the Cornell Center for Health Equity seminar series.

This co-production of knowledge, Jouzi says, is critical to developing solutions that are tailored to the unique challenges different communities face. Jouzi’s commitment to participatory research stems from her own experiences as a student. Despite good intentions, the financial support provided to her as a doctoral candidate did not always align with her actual needs: university funding awarded to students alleviated the costs of purchasing textbooks, but there was little support to alleviate food and grocery costs.

“Many times, top-down approaches can unintentionally harm people,” Jouzi added. “By engaging with communities, I aim to incorporate their expertise into the research process.”

Jouzi is also working on an ARC project to address food insecurity on a larger scale by supporting ARC’s partnership with Field & Fork Network to identify ways to improve the Double Up Food Bucks New York (DUFBNY) nutrition incentive program. In her study, she is exploring challenges and opportunities to integrating DUFBNY into Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs in an effort to increase produce purchases by Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients.

As her tenure with ARC comes to an end, Jouzi hopes to continue engaging communities in participatory action research. She plans to continue working across disciplines in environment and health.

“The goal is to protect the people and the planet by forging innovative solutions that harmonize human advancement with environmental preservation, aiming for a future where both can thrive together,” she says.


Natalia Rommen