Professor Brian Chen and Food Insecurity

‘Tis the season of giving, and many of us think about those less fortunate, perhaps donating to a food pantry. But Dr. Cheng-Chia “Brian” Chen studies food pantries throughout the year. He is an assistant professor in the Department of Public Health at UIS. His research topic, “Nutritional Epidemiology Research in Food Insecurity and Hunger,” has been conducted in collaboration with the FriendBrian Chens of Champaign County Food Pantry, an outreach of the Central Illinois Mosque and Islamic Center.

A food pantry is defined as a charity food-assistance program. Champaign County has a relatively high concentration of low-income families, relative to the state, and low public transportation, and is thus considered a food-insecurity area. The Champaign-Urbana Public Health District (C-UPHD) has partnered with the Food Pantry to help alleviate this public health issue. The health professionals from C-UPHD also provide public health and dental programs to the food pantry participants.

An additional partner in the Food Pantry is the University of Illinois Extension office. They have a nutritionist on site every week, providing a nutrition education program. To increase the nutrition content, the Pantry provides fresh produce, year round.

UI Extension booth

Donations to the Pantry are from local stores (Meijer, County Market, Schnucks, and Walmart) as well as Eastern Illinois Foodbank and C-UPHD Give Back Garden.  Part of the UIS study is to track the nutritional content of the food being provided.

Dr. Awais Vaid, the co-founder of the Pantry, is a medical doctor and a collaborator in this research. The Food Pantry was started in Feb. of 2016, and Dr. Chen got involved right away, initiated the research project in May.  The initial results (presented at the 2016 Illinois Public Health Association conference) found that participants from Rantoul had transportation challenges, so the C-UPHD began to use their branch office to reach families with the food.

Dr. Chen’s research project has demonstrated an innovative and sustainable academic-community-health department partnership/initiative that allows local multi-cultural communities and University of Illinois-Springfield (UIS) faculty, students, and alums to collaborate with local public health professionals to alleviate food insecurity among underrepresented minority groups.


UIS student involvement:

The current Administrator at C-UPHD is Julie Pryde, a UIS MPH alum (2017). And a current MPH student, Hinal Patel, is working on this project for her preparation to apply for a Ph.D. program in public health. She conducted a literature review, developed the protocol, helped train other MPH students to assist with collecting data. There are still opportunities for UIS students to join the project (to be eligible, students must have personal cars/driver’s licenses). The goal is to continue collecting data for an entire year in order to identify trends.

This study is an example of community-based participatory research (CBPR). Through mixed-methods (semi-structured interviews of participants, volunteers, and staff as well as paper-based/online surveys), the researchers and participants interact closely and evolve the research design. In fact, the research students help out at the Food Pantry.

The objectives of the study are to research food insecurity vs. food pantry program effectiveness, investigate barriers and incentives to utilize a food assistance program, and assess effects of food pantries on health outcomes, such as obesity.

So far the team has found that food insecurity has decreased for participants, and the variety of foods provided are an incentive for participants to return. The research team recently presented their results at the 144th American Public Health Association’s Annual Meeting in Atlanta, which is the oldest and largest gathering of public health professionals in the world and attracts more than 13,000 health professionals from more than 40 countries.

Hinal Patel, Brian Chen, Julie Pryde

Hinal Patel, Brian Chen and Julie Pryde at APHA Conference 2017

Dr. Chen earned his MS and PhD from Indiana University-Bloomington. He describes his research program as Innovative Health Inequality, Policy and e-Education Research (iHIPER):  He has articles in peer-reviewed publications such as the International Journal of Health Services, the Health Education Journal, E-mentor Journal, and a chapter in Contemporary Issues in Public Health in North Africa and Middle East.


Dr. Chen is currently a Faculty Fellow in the Center for Online Learning, Research and Service. He is originally from Taipei, Taiwan, and is initiating a public health study of the “Praise Dance” exercise program that is popular there. Using the CBPR model, he will interview the trainers, coaches, and participants.

Dr. Chen teaches courses in Health Economics, Biostatistics, Food, Health and Public Policy, and Human Well-being. In 2017 he received the Burks Oakley II Distinguished Online Teaching Award. Learn more about Dr. Chen at his professional website


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