Find Your Sustain Ability: Adam Hege on Social Justice and Food Insecurity in rural Appalachia

Appalachian's Director of Sustainability, Dr. Lee Ball sits down with Assistant Professor of Public Health, Adam Hege to discuss his journey from studying exercise science to addressing issues like poverty and food security.


  • Troy Tuttle: Define sustainability. Odds are your definition is completely different from the next person’s. Appalachian State University’s Director of Sustainability, Dr. Lee Ball, sits down with his guest to explore the many ways in which sustainability affects our lives. This is Find your Sustain-Ability.

    Dr. Lee Ball: So, joining me today in the podcast studio is Adam Hege, and Adam is an assistant professor of public health in the Beaver College of Health Sciences. Adam, thank you so much for joining us today on this cold Appalachian morning.

    Adam Hege: Glad to be here. It was a good walk across campus this morning.

    LB: Yeah so, in our podcast, Find your Sustainability, we really try to mix it up a little bit and invite different types of people in to talk about different aspects of sustainability and something that I am always extremely curious about are people’s stories and their connections to sustainability. So, if you don’t mind, right off the bat here, to tell us about your story and maybe- you know just kind of how you got to where you are now and your connection to sustainability and social justice.

    AH: Okay, I guess my story kind of in this goes back to -- my early professional career, working in a local government setting and working in the parks and recreation setting. Just interacting in that with children, and seeing their lives and the challenges they go through, and working with kids was always something I was passionate about. Within this job, part of my job was really focused on kids health and well-being and giving them an outlet. A lot of the kids I was working with did not have the best home lives and those types of things and so, outside of work I’ve been very active in the United Methodist Church as some people know, and so my faith and my professional life and all those kind of things connect and then I found my passion probably in the last 6 or 7 years for public health and social justice and health equity and really striving in my professional life through my research, teaching, service to really connect those dots and really try to get -- my passion right now is really getting students engaged in that and really trying to get their passions going and seeing that there’s thing in our world and all around us that just are not just, and really helping to get their passion and fire that I’ve been able to receive. I feel like a lot of the students have similar backgrounds to me, a North Carolinian, so that’s really neat and you know connecting it to sustainability is really the world we live in, if we’re not practicing health equity and social justice and these types of things, it’s not going to be sustainable. When we think about our biggest public health challenge facing our world is climate change and if we’re not protecting our earth and protecting our citizens and striving to make a better world, its-- we’re not going not going to be sustainable.

    LB: Yeah, great. Can you tell us a little bit about your academic career and how you kind of landed here in Boone?

    AH: Yeah so, I -- so that’s, it’s a really weird story. I’m -- my wife if you talked with her, I’ve been in school a lot. So, I started out as an athletic trainer, I thought I wanted to work with sports and be around athletes, in which I still love sports and passion about it. But, I got that first job that I mentioned a while ago, in a local government setting, and that kind of directed me to go back for more schooling because I wanted to be able to affect people much more so than on the individual setting, I wanted to have that impact on community level, societal level, so I went back and actually I have my graduate degree, first graduate degree, here from Appalachian State in Public Administration and I owe a lot of my success now to Dr. Bradbury here at App State in the public administration department. Just seeing the passion, he was able to bring into class-- I could -- I think during that process I was making the connections that there was something bigger and I think throughout my education of history, I was always directed and headed towards public health and just didn't realize it. So, I think piecing all this together and I went on for my doctoral studies in public health and just was able to read and learn all the history of public health and just learn about all the things that it’s involved with. I think if people really take a step back and look at public health, it’s kind of written into our founding as a country and so vital to our world and society.

    LB: So, I find it really fascinating to hear peoples stores and how their prior work and academic positions kind of led to what tour kind of doing now. Could you expand on your, what you’re currently doing and tell me a little more about your field and your classes and how they connect to social justice and what you’re doing in the classroom.

    AH: Yeah, so I’ll speak first -- I’ll speak first about my research. I kind of-- that’s where my passion is. I have two focus areas in my research, both are focused very much in social justice and have a sustainability framework. My grandfather was a truck driver and so when I was in my doctoral studies I had an opportunity to work with a faculty member and learn about the health and equities that face long haul truck drivers, driving up and down our roads and whether it be in their employment conditions, the practices that are done by trucking companies, they face occupational hazards, it’s obviously not good for the environment, there’s a lot of environmental hazards, public safety issues that we have to factor in so I’m still passionate and engaged in that work and trying to make a difference in through research and trying to influence policies to hopefully improve the practices and policies that are utilized in that industrial sector and then there’s been a lot of discussion right now, during the current administration that’s actually-- our research is actually, hopefully going to be able to influence some decision making so I’m pretty passionate and excited about that. My other works is getting here to app state through my work in the church, through my work in communities, and just realizing in life how privileged I am, I think that’s something I haven’t really expressed very well yet. I recognize that I am a white male and I have had all of the privilege in life that one could have. And I think growing up as a child you don’t really realize that until you get to the age that I am now. And so, when it comes to research I have a passion for people that are facing challenges in particular with food because I feel like food is something that is foundational for people so, food security and hunger and those types of issues have been really something I’m passionate about and within that, sustainability is a part of it. It’s one of the sustainable development goals, it’s interesting poverty and opportunities for people around food, and -- last week I just attended a wonderful conference focused on sustainable agriculture, sustainable farming practices, and how those practices are really -- hold the answers to us addressing issues like poverty and food security that we need to address, and I bring all of this to the classroom. So, courses I teach, right now I teach a community health course and its focused in service learning and getting students engaged in the local community here to learn about the health agencies here, to learn about the complexities that go into keeping a community healthy. We often times think about health as an individual level but so many things that happen to us from a health standpoint are out of our control and -- so we talk about power dynamics and understanding communities and all the factors that contribute to one’s health. I teach a health policy course and that’s very exciting too. It’s kind of the first time I think for undergraduate students where they get into discussions around how policy -- policies that happen in Washington, D.C, policies that happen around the world are all impacting our health on a daily basis. So, to see them get that first taste of that I think and to see that they can actually be an advocate and actually as a college graduate they have a responsibility to an engaged citizen and I think that by the end of the semester with that course they really see that -- that they’re the next generation of people that can influence the world we live in.

    LB: Tell me a little more about your students. I mean, do they find sustainability an issue these days? Are they excited about what you are trying to express to them and the connections that you’re trying to make with them in the classroom.

    AH: I think so, I think so. I think that’s one thing that I’m good at is I’m really good at connecting with students, because I’m young for one thing. I’ve probably, like I said earlier, I’ve had the same background as a lot of them. I grew up in a rural area here in North Carolina. I grew up with probably some of the same things that they grew up accustomed to, so I can speak their language but then I can also talk about where I’ve gotten to in my life, how that has kind of progressed and the life stages I’ve gone through. So, really making the critically think and pull those empathy skills and critical thinking skills together to understand the challenges that our world faces and sustainability and thinking from a sustainability lens with an eye towards social justice and equity is, within the public health field and the courses I teach, that’s -- it’s pretty apparent. We’re not going to address our-- the main issues facing our country and world if we’re not coming at it from that lens.

    LB: Right. Do they respond really well to service and engagement in the community?

    AH: They actually do. Teaching a service learning course is actually the most rewarding thing I’ve ever had. We just had our final exam period last week, and for final exam period we don’t have a final exam, we have that the last day of class, but the last exam  day they come in and present about what they’ve done all semester and it is so rewarding to students when they see the syllabus the first day of class, some of them have to take the class and they’re like “awe man, I’ve got to do service outside of class” but then at the end of the semester when you see their eyes light up and how excited they were that they got to engage in the community and how rewarding it was for them professionally, I mean it’s giving the professional connections and they see that but personally, seeing their growth and seeing them get out and see challenges that a lot of them have not faced. I mean we know on our campus that we have a lot of students that have had privileges just like me so it’s good for them to actually get out and see there’s this whole other world out there that they maybe have not experienced. So, when they do service with our health department, local health department, they’re always making sure to get them connected out in the community and get them to see the challenges that they face every day as public health professionals, and then working with Hunger and Health Coalition and Hospitality House and some of the other local agencies that are addressing food security and hunger issues. It’s-- It’s kind of an eye opener for students to see this, I know I’ve had student before that have said -- they’ve told me they’ve never been to a homeless shelter, they’ve never been to a food pantry, they’ve never experienced these and so it gives them a whole new connection with the world that I think that they hadn’t experienced.

    LB: So, do you think that it gives them hope that they can make a difference?

    AH: I think so, I think so. So, I was just doing some grading before I came in here this morning. I was grading some papers that students did for my health policy class, it was built around their advocacy strategies, their particular policy issue, and it’s amazing to see this semester in particular was a really one that the students really came together in groups and had some really good, important issues facing our country, and facing our world and facing our local communities. To see them make those connections with how their advocacy can make a big difference and how they recognize that being a college graduate, how privileged they’re going to be and they are going to play this role  in influencing the society and world we live in that I think  a lot of student, most a lot like us in the general population, we feel like we can’t really make that difference but when we really read and boost our knowledge and enhance our knowledge about power dynamics and how policy plays out and how we can be that voice for the people that are often time left voiceless. I think it get us excited and gives us a little sense of hope.

    LB: Yeah, great. Okay Adam, you and I have spent a lot of time thinking about food security, food insecurity issues, we’ve worked together on project here on campus trying to help alleviate some of the pressures that our campus community are facing with faculty, staff, and student. I’m interested in your professional perspective as to how food insecurity, not really knowing where your next meal, where your next few meals are going to come from, how that affects you and other parts of your life.

    AH: When I think about that I go back to that idea of hope. When I teach public health course we start off thinking about people at an individual level, and this sits from the psychology world as Maslow’s hierarchy. We kind of think up this scale in terms of the things that people need from a physiological level, you know we need food, we need shelter, we need those basics needs and when those are missing it’s hard for an individual or person to work their way up that sense of wellbeing and who they are.

    LB: So, when you don’t know where your next meal is going to come from, clearly you are going to worry about that and we have enough pressures in this world facing us every day, whether -- how we’re going to pay our electricity bill, or thinking about our next tuition check and you know on and on. Food seems to be the last thing we really need to be worrying about. Is there a silver bullet, you know that we can utilize here in our community? I know that a lot of people are thinking about this, it’s a big problem in the high country, we have kind of the highest food insecurity levels in the whole state and probably the southeast as well, and I’m curious at least from yo9ur perspective if there’s an area we should be really focusing on or if you think there’s an area that we can really make a big difference?

    AH: I think one thing I haven’t spoken of yet that I would like to bring into this is the idea of culture. Being in a rural area and even here at a university and growing up in North Carolina that there's a culture phenomenon that we’ve grown up believing that we always have to be taking care of our own problems. People are fearful for asking for assistance and hesitant, they’re like “I’m not supposed to ask for assistance, I’m supposed to take care of my own needs” and so we deal with that and at the same they’re fearful of being judged for having to seek assistance and for facing a life challenge. I know when I’ve spoken with people about this, we’re all as human beings, that’s who we are, that’s who we are as humanity, we’re facing life challenges. It might be food for somebody, and material things for others. The richest people in the world face mental health challenges and face challenges and so I think the big thing is the culture is shifting and that notion that we’re all kind of in this together, that some of us are facing food challenges, some of us are facing other challenges then that we’ve got to really -- I think the cultural issue is an underlying issue that I think we’re, all of us, are kind of fearful to address in our society.

    LB: Right, so that makes me think of the need for stronger communities--

    AH: Yeah.

    LB: - and that’s such an, it’s such an important part of our work in sustainability and my work every day about, you know we focus on building trust and relationships and strengthening our communities within a communities here at -- in the high country at Appalachian State and -- it’s a time where we need to not worry about what color people are or sexual orientation  because everybody has something, a strength to bring to the table and we need all the help that we can get and you know if we see someone within our community that’s struggling we need to lift them up because they have something to offer as well.

    AH: Yeah, yeah so that’s very much from the public health world, getting back to the public health world. We focus now, the focus in our field is to take on this asset based approach, to focus on the assets people bring to the situation rather than going to the problems people face, we oftentimes want to be problem solvers and those types of things and often times the people that are facing challenges have the solutions, they just don’t have the capacity and ability to make those changes and so we have to take their skill set and utilize that in the proper way so I really appreciate you saying that. Going off this social cohesion, social capital idea, recently the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Appalachian Regional Commission addressed this Appalachian region of the country. And we are facing major health disparities with food security being one of the issues and what stood out to us was public health faculty when we were looking at there’s all these challenges but the one thing that stood out is we have better social cohesion in this part of the country than the rest country. So, we need to capitalize on that, building this trust, and this ability that we have the ability to help each other in a multitude of ways and that’s another thing as well is there’s not just one type of solution that everything needs to be a part of this solution. I, when I talk about food issues -- a lot of people will talk about food securities being a charity issue and a lot of people will talk about it being a social justice issue, I feel like it’s both. We’re not going to solve the issues without both. We’re facing all of things in our society in terms of people having these debates around charities, social justice, and in the real world of things it takes both.

    LB: Right, right. You know that reminds me of one of the reasons we think sustainability emerged as a strength here at Appalachian State because of the place that we’re situated. It is a place that our founders and ancestors and people that came before us here had to be very resilient, they had very strong communities, they helped each other, they knew where their assets were, and I think that’s very carried forward in the spirit of the Appalachian community and the Appalachian experience has that strong sense of community and it will help us in the future if we continue to build on that. Also wanted to ask you I guess to wrap things up, a little bit about your future and what’s exciting you these days, what courses you’re going to -- you’re excited about teaching next semester?

    AH: Yeah so, I feel like this is -- we have a lot of challenges facing us as a nation. You turn on the T.V every day and we’re talking about health insurance, we’re talking about the health of our nation, we’re talking about healthcare costs, you know all these types of things so, public health, the field that I’m apart of and so passionate about is at the forefront of what’s going to be providing that solutions. I think we’re at a very pivotal moment in our country too in terms of how we think about health. The United States, we’ve been a little but different from other countries in terms of the way we think about health we’ve historically used what many of us refer to like as a medical model, we like to respond to health issues, which we’re always going to have but, I think this public health approach is really starting to catch on and that prevention, preventing things before they happen and thinking strategically along those lines, it’s exciting to be a part of that and to be a part of conducting research that will hopefully help highlight those aspects. From teaching, I’m getting to teach next semester. I’m getting to teach, the first time I'm getting to teach introduction to public health, and that basically is a general education course that tries to attract students from all around campus and is an entry level for our major. The idea behind the course is to really get students excited about public health and about how it fits into our society and about how it fits into our world at large, it gets me very excited.

    LB: Adam H, thank you so much for joining me in the podcast studio today and I look forward to visiting you in your brand-new office in the new Beaver College of Health Sciences that I guess will be open in the fall.

    AH: Yeah! Thank you, thank you. We’re all looking forward to it.

    LB: Alright, have a great day.

    AH: Alright, you too.

    Troy Tuttle: “Find your Sustain-Ability” is a production of the communications department at Appalachian State. It’s hosted by our director of sustainability, LB. The show is produced by Troy Tuttle and Meghan Hayes. Dave Blanks records, edits, and mixes. Pete Montaldi and Alex Waterworth are our web team. Find more episodes of this and other interesting podcasts at or check us out on iTunes, just search for Appalachian State University under podcasts.