Formerly Berkeley Food & Housing Project
We are thrilled to welcome anthropologist Tamar Antin to our board of directors! She is the founder of the Center for Critical Public Health, where her research focuses on the role of stigma in public health practice and policy making. Tamar is committed to research that draws attention to the structures within which health practices are embedded and highlights the social processes that lead to inequities in health. We are happy to have Tamar’s expertise in the field as BFHP continues to grow and serve more people in our community.
Learn more about Tamar’s story and her fascinating research from our interview below.
I was always the outsider in my hometown growing up, so I think I was very interested in understanding the other, just because I had been the other for a very long time. So that attracted me to the field of anthropology, which I majored in at the University of Texas. After graduating, I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do so I moved to Paris for a couple of years and worked in a bar, which is kind of like field work for an anthropologist (laughs).
From Paris, I was accepted into an applied anthropology program at the University of Maryland and found myself working with this nutritionist doing a study on food accessibility. I always thought I would do something on cultural tolerance or acceptance, but then I found myself working on this project in Baltimore examining food deserts. I interviewed women with children living in Baltimore on low or fixed incomes to figure out how they were accessing food, and specifically fresh food, for their kids. It was a fascinating project to work on.
Not only because what these women were doing with extreme barriers was simply astounding, but it made me really question how public health problems are defined. In this specific project, for example, a fresh food store in their neighborhood wasn’t necessarily the solution – many of these women didn’t have electricity in their homes so they couldn’t preserve fresh produce in their homes, nor would only eating fresh fruits and vegetables keep their children’s bellies full. They had a lot of strong opinions about these definitions that public health just took for granted.
Critical public health is a type of public health that really talks to various members of the public to understand how they conceptualize and think about public health problems. This contrasts with the top-down approach, where we define a public health problem and then try to investigate it, which introduces a tremendous amount of bias right into the research process. And of course, I don’t mean to say all public health is problematic, but I believe there is an important need for this critical public health approach to complement these more top down public health approaches.
Becoming passionate about this sphere of public health led me to Berkeley, where I worked at the Prevention Research Center and then going back to grad school at Cal where I received my Doctorate in Public Health and worked with several wonderful mentors and colleagues who led me more into critical thinking and understanding bias in research.
About ten years ago, I started the Center for Critical Public Health. It’s been a slow growing process, because we’re really researchers at heart, not people who start non-profits (laughs). But it’s drawing attention to critical public health issues and allowing us to have a branding for the research that we do.
Oh my goodness, there’s so many. Likely the ones that are clearly connected to my interest in substance use. People would identify me as a tobacco researcher because I’ve done a lot of nicotine and tobacco studies, also some alcohol use studies. We often have substance use as the outcome angle, but really our projects are focused on understanding the structures that create a salience of substances in people’s lives.
The number of tobacco projects we’ve worked on has really drawn our attention to housing as the single most important structural issue that creates a need for substances to cope or substances to experience pleasure. When you don’t have access to a lot of resources, substances become an easily accessible coping mechanism for people. And it’s also an extremely pleasurable experience. And we tend to not talk about that in public health. It’s like, pleasure is a bad word, but it’s not in people’s everyday lives.
A lot of these studies pointed to the fact that this is a symptom of a much bigger problem, specifically inequities in housing, housing instability…issues where the details are really different depending upon the populations you’re working with. For example, LGBTQ+ participants in some of our studies who talk about not being able to access stable housing for any number of reasons, may be related to lack of support from family. The cost of living around the Bay Area and in California is a huge problem. This is even true in many places in California that you wouldn’t expect, even in some rural areas that are also tourist destinations where people who live in those places still can’t afford to live.
It’s clear there is a structure where even things we think of as being basic needs are not available to people and then create this reliance on substance use. And in our work on substance use, we see housing come up again and again, and again and again across many different studies with many different populations of people.
My husband and I have always been passionate about these kinds of issues, my husband specifically on hunger related issues. When we found BFHP, we were really excited to be able to try, in whatever limited ways we can, to support the organization. We’ve been following the work the organization has done over time and been so impressed to see the growth in such a short amount of time. My entire family has become sort of fan girls and boys about this organization (laughs).
Just the idea of bundling services at The Hope Center… I have in my interview transcripts where people are asking for that very thing, right? Accessibility to services that are all bundled and the specific needs of those populations. The fact that it’s all here at The Hope Center feels unusual, yet it shouldn’t be. That was so exciting to me – connecting food, housing, and services together under one umbrella where you’re providing those resources to people under one roof.
Well, actually – when I wrote my statement of purpose for graduate school to Cal, I talked about the problem-oriented approach to public health. I wanted to study non-problems because sometimes, when you study things that aren’t the problem, you really learn about whether the problems we identify are actually the problems that are important to be studying. It’s very similar to what you’re doing at BFHP.
When we interview people for our tobacco studies, for example, we’re like “Tell me about who you are, what’s important to you? What is your community like, what is your family like?” And then you start to get at structures in people’s lives that promote their sense of health and structures that compromise their sense of health. Then at the end of the interview, you start to talk about tobacco and suddenly people are drawing on all these things that we talked about previously that relate. So you get a much bigger picture of the context that surrounds a particular problem.
We talk about social determinants of health all the time, but we don’t necessarily intervene on them. And BFHP is intervening on a really important social determinant of health. And that’s what really makes me excited about what you’re doing. Because so often in public health, the focus isn’t there – it’s all very intimately connected and housing and public health up to the state level just tend to be very siloed.
It takes a tremendous emotional toll. Not even stressful, it’s traumatic. If you don’t know where you’re going to put your head down that night, that’s super scary. Or if the only place that you can go back to is an unsafe situation for you, that’s really scary. But it depends on the population. For some of our interview participants, they might be able to couch surf for extended periods of time in a place that feels safe. But the lack of a place to call your own where you can, you know, leave some stuff behind and kind of settle in…that creates a type of uncertainty about the future that is really hard and cascades into an inability to resolve other issues that have to be resolved. It’s a form of traumatic stress that permeates everything else.
This topic has come up so much in my own work, but it’s not what we study directly. So to have the opportunity to learn or maybe support organizations like yours with the research that we’re conducting. I feel like I have so much to learn in that way. Just being a small part of it feels really exciting. So thank you. And thank you for the work that you’re doing.
Hmmm. I’ve actually been thinking about this a lot recently. Home is where you’re safe. Where you’re surrounded by people who love you and who you love. I want to say that home is like a community, but that can be different in a small town versus a city like Berkeley. so I don’t think home or community is necessarily sort of like the people who are in proximity to you. I think it’s the people who you bring into your safe space. And a roof over your head.