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Arnold School of Public Health


December graduate fights food insecurity by addressing barriers to affordability and accessibility of healthy local food

January 8, 2019 | Erin Bluvas, bluvase@sc.edu

Rebekah Laughridge has always been passionate about health and fitness. Though she grew up outside of Orlando, Florida, Laughridge’s family had significant ties to South Carolina. In fact, she was born in Columbia. Right after high school, she enrolled at USC, but it wasn’t an easy decision.

“I come from a long line of Clemson tigers and was accepted there as well,” she says. “But I ultimately chose to attend USC because of their public health program, as it is the only one of its kind in the state.”

Public health’s focus on prevention appealed to her, and she liked the fact that public health employs a combination of behavioral and natural sciences to find long-term solutions to current and emerging health issues. Laughridge felt that understanding why people make decisions is imperative to creating lasting behavioral change.

Laughridge completed her first two years at the Arnold School as an exercise science major but had to medically withdraw due to health complications. After taking time off to focus on her mental and physical health, she decided the time was right to complete her education. Returning to USC in 2016 as a single mother, meant balancing school, work and parenting, yet she was up for the challenge and has managed to earn all As in her coursework.

Once again at the Arnold School, Laughridge changed her major to public health (with a minor in food systems and nutrition) so she could focus on preventing disease through proper nutrition. “A common saying in the gym world is ‘you can’t out train a bad diet’,” says Laughridge, who worked for CrossFit Inc. between her tenures at USC.  “Arguably an overly simplified statement, but I continued to observe the power of nutrition for disease prevention in scientific evidence and my own experiences, which gave me the desire to become a registered dietician.”

Her goal to become a dietician stemmed from her interest in educating people about healthy food, specifically what to eat to prevent disease and achieve optimal health. However, through her own efforts to provide her family with healthy food, especially her now five-year-old son, Laughridge became frustrated with the significantly higher prices. Through her program she learned about the underlying factors which create barriers to behavior change.

“I realized the solution to solving food-related health issues must have a more systematic approach,” she says. “People need knowledge, skills, support systems, and resources like accessible and affordable food in order to make positive long-term behavior changes. From a public health perspective, this involves addressing barriers to nutrition-related health issues through the implementation of policy and programs at the community, state and federal level.”

Laughridge deepened her understanding of how to facilitate these types of changes through her practicum experiences—both of which focused on addressing barriers to food insecurity. Working with Healthy Carolina’s Gamecocks Eat Well program, which provides free cooking classes to students to help them develop the skills they need to prepare healthy, affordable meals on campus, Laughridge made informed recommendations to incorporate more local ingredients from the USC Farmer’s Market into the class menu. For her practicum at Woodland Valley Farms, Laughridge learned about small-scale permaculture farming and explored the ways it could be used to decrease food insecurity through local agriculture.

Inside the classroom, Laughridge connected with health promotion, education, and behavior (HPEB) instructor April Winningham. “I have never had a professor who dedicated so much of her personal time to the development of her students,” Laughridge says of her mentor. “She had high expectations, but always set us up for success academically, personally and professionally. She always said she was giving us ‘tools for our tool kit,’ and sure enough, I have used more skills from her class in the real world than any other.”

HPEB associate professor Sonya Jones taught several of Laughridge’s food systems classes and was also an important role model who helped change the trajectory of Laughridge’s career and cultivated her sense of civic responsibility and intentionality. “Dr. Jones truly opened my eyes to the scope and severity of food-related health disparities. She challenged me to think creatively in order to find alternative solutions that create healthy communities and bring about social justice in the food system. This involves thinking systematically and understanding how decisions affect everyone and everything in our food system, not just the elements I interact with,” Laughridge says. “Lastly, and most importantly, Dr. Jones taught me the importance of humility and active listening as a public health professional in order to give vulnerable populations a voice.”

Now that she has graduated, Laughridge is pursuing a position that combats food insecurity by focusing on increasing the accessibility and affordability of local foods through the use of best community-based, economic, and sustainable practices. Once she gains more experience, she would like to complete a master’s degree and become a registered dietician. 

“I am confident my background in public health will make me a more effective dietician because of my knowledge of behavioral sciences. Understanding the underlying drivers of behavior change, on a macro and micro level, is an essential part to influencing them in a positive way. I now understand, people need more than nutritional knowledge to make long-term behavior changes, they need to be educated, equipped and empowered,” says Laughridge. “This involves making sure individuals have nutritional knowledge, food preparation skills, like minded support systems, and constant access to affordable, nutritious food.”