Autonomy, Knowledge, Community: Food Justice and Group Home Living in Massachusetts

Hayleigh RockenbackEmerson, Field, Updates

Above: Hayleigh Rockenback, 29th Class Emerson National Hunger Fellow, at the Massachusetts State House.

Working in the anti-hunger space was something I have always been drawn to. For multiple summers prior to college I would stay at my aunt’s home in Northern Arizona, planting and harvesting fruits, vegetables, and herbs into her magnificent garden. In the summer before I started the Bill Emerson National Hunger Fellowship I farmed in the mountains of Northern Italy for a family that was almost completely self-sufficient off the land.

A facet of farming or gardening that is often overlooked, in my opinion, is how much of the work you’re doing is looking towards the future. Yes, I spent days harvesting vegetables in the garden to be eaten for dinner that same night, but I also spent days collecting wood and maintaining land for the seasons to come. The actions we complete in each day make up our lifetime, and if we don’t plan accordingly – to some extent – we won’t have correctly prepared for the future. It would be silly to think that we can just begin harvesting the fruits of our labor if we have no labor to begin with.

Really, I think that is what policy work embodies. There is a need, a current need, for infrastructure that lifts people out of poverty, that feeds the hungry, that houses the homeless. But this need wasn’t created in a vacuum, and it cannot be fixed without addressing and investigating the systems that uphold it.

When I received the email about my field placement for the Massachusetts Developmental Disabilities Council (MDDC) and the South Shore Community Action Council (SSCAC), I’ll admit I was a little bit nervous. I knew virtually nothing about disabilities, and the idea of moving across the country from Southern Arizona to Boston was daunting to say the least. But I knew that just like gardening, it was going to be imperative that I start on the ground, and that I talk to invested parties about their lives and experiences in order to better understand policy implications at the state and local level.

In order to understand this background, I wanted to perform a needs assessment. I gathered a snowball sample of individuals in the developmental disability, anti-poverty, and anti-hunger space along the South Shore of Massachusetts and asked them questions about their experience at the intersection of hunger and developmental disabilities. What I learned was that very, very few people understood the operations of group homes for those with developmental disabilities. In fact, in many conversations stakeholders would go out of their way to emphasize how little they knew about group homes, as if they’re some exclusive club that nobody was invited to; information that felt private and gatekept from the developmental disability world.

As much as I felt intimated by the prospect of going straight to the source, I knew that the project I would complete would not only be irrelevant if I made any assumptions, it could also perpetuate a harmful narrative if performed incorrectly.

After I interviewed over 30 community stakeholders, I was taken aback by the lack of consistency in group home settings. Residents were not always included in the grocery-buying, dinner-making, or meal-planning process. They were restricted by institutional barriers, financial barriers, social stereotypes, that often lead to an air of condescension and restriction. For people with developmental disabilities, group homes are intended to be spaces of support without the tradeoff of personal freedom, and listening to those associated with group homes infantilize adults with developmental disabilities is a harmful narrative to perpetuate.

For example, following my field placement with MDDC and SSCAC, I was introduced to the concept of “The Burrito Test.” The Burrito Test is a thought experiment designed to determine whether or not one is institutionalized. To put it simply – if you cannot get up in the middle of the night, go to the kitchen, and microwave yourself a burrito (assuming you have the necessary ingredients), you are in an institution. Without knowing it, I had written extensively on the burrito test for my Hunger Free Community Report titled, “Food, Freedom, and Choice: Balancing Nutrition and Independence in Group Homes,”  I had written about group homes, places where one can have their autonomy taken from them, their freedom limited, and their voice hindered.

I would like to think that in this (relatively) post-pandemic era, everyone has good intentions: the housing providers, state agencies, disabled people and their families. But intent does not equal impact, and the normalization of this narrative and these restrictive policies was discouraging.

We often talk about food insecurity and hunger exclusively through the lens of lack of physical food, a family that does not have enough food to meet their nutritional needs or a child who has school lunch debt. But there is so much more nuance to food justice than is generally discussed: not having access to culturally appropriate foods, facing lunch-shaming in primary schools, or lacking the power or resources to plan, prepare, or cook your own meals.

In the same way that I think people can overlook the amount of foresight and preparation necessary to begin harvesting a garden, I think they can also overlook this nuance of food justice, and what it gives to people in addition to actual, physical food: autonomy, knowledge, and community.

I am grateful for my experience, and I feel fortunate that I was given the flexibility and encouragement to perform this work. I want to give my utmost gratitude to both MDDC and SSCAC for aiding and supporting my research on group homes, as well as educating me on how we can uplift equity for those with developmental disabilities throughout the United States.

About the Authors

Rockenback headshot

Hayleigh Rockenback

Emerson Fellow

Hayleigh is a recent graduate of the University of Notre Dame where she majored in Sociology and minored in both public policy and Italian. During her time at Notre Dame, Hayleigh was a student affiliate at the Klau Center for Civil and Human Rights and a member of the Alpha Kappa Delta Sociology Honors Society. Her interest in sustainability and public policy also led her to write her senior capstone, a policy memo on water conservation in Arizona. Originally from Tucson, Arizona, Hayleigh’s passion for social justice stemmed from her culturally diverse upbringing and lived experience, leading her to a summer of service work in Camden, New Jersey. Her experience working at a nonprofit dedicated to environmental transformation through sustainability in food insecure neighborhoods, as well as her commitment to those suffering from drug and alcohol addiction ultimately became the catalyst for her dedication to breaking the cycle of injustice in the United States. Following the Bill Emerson National Hunger Fellowship, Hayleigh hopes to advocate for those on the margins and create meaningful change throughout the world.

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