back to news Dec. 21, 2020

Christina Allen puts food security on the menu for Columbus residents

Christina Allen’s hunger for learning about food started when she was diagnosed with celiac disease at age 10.

“That was a pretty formative experience for me,” Allen said. “I was like, ‘Wow my diet has such an integral impact on my life,’ and I wanted to explore that.”

A decade later, and after years of study and advocacy dedicated to understanding food security in Columbus and abroad, Allen will launch Food Leads, a program that will partner with doctors and physicians to make nutrition a central part of treatment for Type 2 diabetes.

Allen, a senior majoring in international development from the College of Arts and Sciences and human nutrition from the College of Education and Human Ecology, recently received the President’s Prize to launch Food Leads. This highest university recognition provides a $50,000 stipend and up to $50,000 in startup funding for exceptional students committed to social change. Dominique Hadad, an industrial and systems engineering major in the College of Engineering, also received the President’s Prize this year.

Allen has been immersed in issues surrounding development and food security — having reliable access to enough affordable, nutritious food — since her senior year of high school when she went to an international food conference that solidified her interest in the subject.

“Food connects to so many other social justice themes and issues of equity,” she said. “That's why I think I'm motivated to address food security, because it's so important to who we are as people, and it can only make us stronger when we have good, healthy food.”

Since then, she’s done field research on agricultural worker migration through an education abroad program in Kenya, and she spent two summers interning at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and its Africa bureau. She’s also co-president of the nonprofit Best Food Forward, a student organization that provides affordable and accessible healthy food for students and the greater Ohio State and Columbus communities.

“My mom actually works for USAID, and I feel like I've just always had this international-facing lens on how I view things,” Allen said. “When you're working internationally, you're just working in a different community, so I think by having the more grassroots and community-based approach through Best Food Forward, I will be able to translate that with the help of some of my academic classes.”

Allen has known that rather than go straight into graduate school, she wanted to spend a few years applying what she’s learned inside and outside the classroom in a professional capacity. Her next initiative with Food Leads will support local Black and low-income residents by making food an integral part of doctors’ visits while providing recipes, nutrition education and check-ins to help patients stay accountable.

“During my time at Ohio State, I have learned the power of community and connection, so multiple stakeholders are involved with this project because collaboration amplifies impact,” she told Ohio State News.

Since her freshman year, Allen said she’s been mentored by fellow students, faculty and staff who have supported her as she’s grown and stepped into leadership positions.

Along the way, she said she’s learned to stop comparing herself to others, take advantage of opportunities and try new things, even when that means exploring organizations that don’t look like her. She’s the only Black person in Best Food Forward, and although they’re trying to recruit a more representative population of the university, she said someone always has to be the first to open that door for others join.

“It can get exhausting being the voice, but also I think of it like if I wasn't there, then certain things wouldn’t be taken into consideration and maybe the students of color that we serve, they just wouldn't benefit as much.”

That willingness to try out groups and activities of interest is especially important for new students this year, she said, since many may feel more disconnected than usual.

“I've had a unique experience as an out-of-state student and also as a student of color who is a woman,” Allen said. “To any student from a minority population who might read this article, I think that we have such a great, supportive community here, but also don’t be afraid to go for things that are out of your comfort zone because you might not see someone that looks like you in that space."