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Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Food Justice – Looking at the food supply in the Brazos Valley through a cultural lens

This project intends to document food insecurity and racial inequities in access to food through photographs. It examines the cultural appropriateness of food offered by charitable food assistance programs such as food banks and pantries. The project also documents food diversity in a few grocery stores in different neighborhoods.

Looking at the Food Supply in the Brazos Valley through a Cultural Lens

2020 Student Media Grant Program

Research by Nicaise Sheila Sagbo


When I came to the United States of America, the first cultural shock I experienced was related to food. Though I really liked some of the food I had to eat, I missed the ones I grew up eating. Because I did not own a car back then, I could only go to the same grocery store my Caucasian roommates shop at. In Lexington, KY, and many places in the country, standard grocery stores do not carry much ethnic or international food. I remember being so happy when I was finally able to buy and cook some African food. Just the smell of it brought me back to my childhood; it brought me so many memories of my country and my life there.

Later, I married someone from my country, and sharing food from our country has always been important to us. Today as a mother, I feed my toddler food I know she might never eat outside of the house. However, I take comfort in the fact that she can have a taste of her origin even though she has not had a chance to visit yet. Her passing this food to her own children is the ultimate goal and would mean so much for our African heritage.

I hope this brief experience of mine gives you an idea of what food justice represents and means to minorities in America. Food is a central attribute of identity. For many cultures like mine, food is a social and a cultural statement; it is part of how you identify, how you communicate, and share love. Even the time spent cooking has so much social meaning and implications.

Unfortunately, the food system in the US does not accommodate enough all ethnic groups and minorities living in the country. The US food system was built in large part on centuries of exploitation and oppression of minorities, mainly people of color (Native Americans, enslaved Africans, farmworkers from China, Mexico, etc.). As a result, low-income communities of color are the most adversely impacted. They cannot always afford healthy and culturally appropriate food.

What is food justice?

Let me wear my researcher hat for a moment to provide some background and definition of food justice.

                                                                                                                                       Food Justice = Food Security + Social Justice

The Food Justice movement has emerged as a community response to food insecurity and economic pressures that limit access to healthy, nutritious, and culturally appropriate foods (Alkon and Agyeman, 2011). The lack of access to good food is both a cause and a symptom of structural inequities. In the US socio-economic system, the lack of healthy food in low-income communities is the continuation of historic structural inequities. In addition to poverty, the contemporary racialized geographies (Kobayashi and Peake, 2000) through which institutional racism shapes the physical landscape prevent many minority communities from purchasing the quality of food they once produced. Lack of geographic and economic access restricts their choices to processed, fast, and commodity foods.

Race plays a key role in food justice. The movement recognizes the food system as a racial project. It also regards the influence of race on food production, distribution, and consumption as a problem that requires a solution. Food justice is not only about food security. It includes environmental justice, public politics, farm labor work, land disputes, issues of status and class, as well as advocacy (Alkon and Agyeman, 2011).

Why is food justice important?

Social injustice and food insecurity are fundamentally important issues. In 2018, 11.1% of households were food insecure in the United States (Coleman-Jensen et al., 2019). This statistic means that due to a lack of resources, 14.3 million households (low and very low food security) had difficulty at some point during the year, providing enough food for all their members.Food insecurity is associated with many adverse health outcomes. The issues of food insecurity and social justice are even more relevant today in the wake of the novel coronavirus. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the vulnerability of the most at risk. Since the pandemic onset, food insecurity has increased in the country. All statistics also show that minority communities have been the most affected. According to Feeding Texas, (2020), minority groups such as African-American and Latinx communities face hunger at a much higher rate. The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified the economic and social gap between minorities and White communities. Black and Brown's communities are shown to be disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has exposed long-standing inequities by race, ethnicity, and income (Getachew et al., 2020).

Several organizations work for a more just food system in the US. The National Farm to School Network is doing a noticeable job. Here in Texas, the Sustainable Food Center is also working to support local farms and access to healthy food in Central Texas.

Food Bank – The Brazos Valley Food Bank

It is essential to highlight the outstanding job done by food banks in our communities, especially when talking about food insecurity and social justice. Though I have been in the United States for eight years now, I have never heard of a food bank until this year. I am very blessed not to need their assistance, but many people do. Individuals and households, who have never needed food or help in the past, had to rely on food banks and pantries this year for their next meal. With the novel coronavirus pandemic, many have lost their job and face food insecurity at unprecedented rates. 

More than ever, food assistance organizations and programs have become even more vital to many food insecure, especially minorities. To learn more about the vital work of food banks in the community, I visited the Brazos Valley Food Bank (BVFB) located in Bryan, TX.

Shannon Avila, the BV food bank’s Programs Manager, had a very enlightening conversation with me. Here is a summary of what I have learned. 

The Brazos Valley Food Bank serves six counties in Texas: Brazos, Burleson, Grimes, Madison, Robertson, and Washington. This area is 92 miles long and 87 miles wide. It has over 335,000 residents. Outside of Bryan-College Station metropolitan area, the area served by the food bank is very rural.

70% to 80% of the food is channeled through the food bank’s “partner agencies”. These are non-profit or church-based organizations that get food from the food bank and distribute them for free to those in need and their households. As of today, the BVFB has 34 partner agencies, including 21 food pantries and 13 on-sites. The latter are organizations that cook meals or snack on-sites to feed their clients/users. The remainder 20 to 30% of the food distributed by the BVFB is directly given to beneficiaries via the food bank's programs such as the Senior Outreach Program, the Backpack Program, the School-based food pantries.

During our discussion, two facts have struck me. Most of the food distributed by the food bank is deemed nutritious and healthy. This is good news given that we often think of food banks’ food as canned and high-calorie food that is only chosen for its shelf life. Also, in its effort to address food insecurity, the BVFB develops several programs to cater to different demographics and ensure sustainability. For example, the BVFB has a hands-on program called together we grow, which teaches participants to grow their own food.

The food bank donations come from various sources. The food bank receives donations from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Houston Food Bank, food stores, local farmers, and individuals. All donations are inspected to ensure safety before they are distributed.

The Brazos Valley Food Bank is doing a fantastic job in fighting hunger in the Brazos Valley. You can read more about their work on their website.



A Produce Pantry

After my discussion with the Brazos Valley Food Bank, I was really touched by the work of food assistance organizations. I wanted to help beyond raising awareness about food justice. That’s when I heard of the fresh food drive-through pantry of the Peace Lutheran Church in College Station. The Peace Lutheran Church pantry is a partner agency of the Brazos Valley Food Bank. Every Friday, the drive-through pantry distributes fresh vegetables and fruits on a first-come-first-served basis. Clients can also pre-register.

The church also has a small donation box where anyone can bring and grab any food they like, at any time.

When I discovered the fresh food pantry, I thought it best exemplifies food justice (social justice and food security). I decided then to volunteer there to gain more insight into their work.

The first time I volunteered at the pantry was emotionally difficult for me. I was moved by all the people coming for food. I was moved by all the people in very nice cars, who are now unable to put food on their table. I was touched by these families and their children that we had to turn out because the food ran out. In the end, when I got to my car, I sat for a long moment, still processing what I just experienced.

Other weeks have been similar. In fact, when I came to the pantry the second time, I could not even get on the parking lot because several cars were already in line, waiting because they knew the food run out very quickly.

Food Diversity in Grocery Store Chains

H-E-B Grocery Company LP has the largest market share in Supermarkets and Grocery stores in Texas. I decided to visit three stores of the company in the Bryan-College Station area and focus on a few aisles.

The stores visited are:

-       H-E-B located in Tejas Center at E Villa Maria Rd

-       H-E-B located in I Heart Mac&Cheese at Wellborn Rd, and

-       H-E-B located at William D. Fitch Pkwy

In each grocery store, I focused on the flour aisle as well as the fish section. In Villa Maria, a very diverse neighborhood with more Latinx residents, I could find a section (fridge) with frozen whole mackerel, frozen whole salmon, and other frozen crustaceans in the fish section. I could not find those products in the other two locations after multiple visits. In the flour aisle at Villa Maria, I could see various corn flour brands and types, several spice flours, corn husk, etc. Though I could find similar products at Wellborn and William D. Fitch, the aisle did not have all the products found at Villa Maria.

I, myself, live close to the H-E-B located at William D. Fitch, but I often go to Villa Maria for grocery shopping because of the more diverse food sold at that location.

However, it is important to acknowledge that all three stores visited offer a wide gamut of food consumed by different cultures. The international food aisle offers multiple products and ethnic food.


Some Final Thoughts

My project's primary goal is to document food insecurity and racial inequities in food access through photographs. To do so, the project examines the cultural appropriateness of food offered by charitable food assistance programs such as food banks and pantries. Also, the project documents food diversity in a grocery store in different neighborhoods.

Food is such an essential attribute of cultural identity that providing culturally appropriate food will help grocery stores, food banks, and pantries better serve their clients. For the food banks and pantries, this will help them better combat food insecurity as well as racial inequities.


I would like to thank the Student Media Grants Program of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation Chair on Conflict and Development at Texas A&M University (TAMU) for giving me the opportunity and the privilege to do this work. I am also grateful to Shannon Avila and all the amazing people at the Brazos Valley Food Bank for answering my questions and helping me. Additional thanks go to the Peace Lutheran Church and the 12th Can Pantry of TAMU.


Alkon, A. H., & Agyeman, J. (2011). Cultivating food justice: Race, class, and sustainability. Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press.

Coleman-Jensen, A., Rabbitt, M. P., Gregory, C. A., & Singh, A. (2019). Household Food Security in the United States in 2018 (No. 270; Economic Research Report, p. 47). United States Department of Agriculture.

Feeding Texas. (2020). Learn About Hunger. Feeding Texas.

Getachew, Y., Zephyrin, L., Abrams, M. K., Shah, A., Lewis, C., & Doty, M. M. (2020, September). Beyond the Case Count: The Wide-Ranging Disparities of COVID-19 in the United States. The Commonwealth Fund.

Kobayashi, A., & Peake, L. (2000). Racism out of Place: Thoughts on Whiteness and an Antiracist Geography in the New Millennium. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 90(2), 392–403.

Conflict through the Lens of Student Journalists

Blog by Johanna Roman
Student Media Grant Manager, The Center on Conflict and Development (ConDev) at Texas A&M University

Travel and photography go hand in hand. For many students who dream of visiting foreign lands to capture amazing moments with their lenses, the opportunity to win a travel grant to move their photography skills forward is very appealing. Students competing for the Center on Conflict and Development’s Student Media Grant are not necessarily wanting to photograph beautiful scenery or take portraits of people smiling. They do not want to document moments of happiness. They want to capture the effects of conflict on places and people.

Since 2013, ConDev’s Student Media Grant Program has served as a launch pad for aspiring young photojournalists to explore different corners of the world that have been affected by conflict issues. ConDev has funded a wide variety of projects. Young students from around the world have completed programs focusing on topics like the injustices of food insecurity; the devastating effects of war; the hardships of migration, and other critical issues affecting fragile communities in the developing world.

Photo by Ruth Matamoros, SMGP Grantee

Photo by Ruth Matamoros, SMGP Grantee

As a practitioner of international development who grew up in a small country in Central America affected by over three decades of civil war, I know that it takes a special kind of person to have the sensitivity needed to witness and moreover, take pictures of other people’s sufferings. It takes courage to capture the devastation and hardships of the aftermath of insurgency or war through a lens. Young students must be brave to be able to chronicle critical issues that global communities are facing such as the migration or refugee crisis; political and domestic violence; and so many other types of problems stemming from conflict. I think it even takes more courage to set the camera aside and listen to peoples’ stories. 

The Student Media Grant Program offers grants for student photojournalists to cover difficult topics in conflict-affected countries through compelling photo stories. As the SMGP Program Manager, my favorite part of this experience is when students return from completing their projects and submit their work. I am amazed by their ability to capture the world as it really is. Their cameras might be focusing on a particular person or scene, but their eyes are scanning what really is happening before and after and their minds take mental images of those moments. Each picture can open discussions about the students’ experience engaging with real-life characters being protagonists of situations that are sometimes very difficult and so very different from their own.

ConDev has funded over thirty SMGP programs, each very unique. Below are some highlights of recent successful projects completed by several students. 


Maryanna Nascimento from Brazil received a Student Media Grant in 2018 to travel to Guatemala to conduct her Photo with Coffee SMGP project. She traveled through this multiethnic and pluricultural country to offer photography workshops for kids.

"In 2018, I received a Student Media Grant from Texas A&M University’s Center on Conflict and Development to develop the project Photo with Coffee: Guatemalan Children telling their Stories. For two months, I conducted analogue photography workshops in schools in vulnerable neighborhoods in Guatemala. Around 35 students, from 7 to 14 years old, were part of the activities. It was the first time that I worked with participatory photography. The experience made me understand the career path I wanted to follow. Consequently, I applied for a master's degree in Media and International Development at the University of East Anglia. During my course, I gained knowledge to analyze more critically the work that I conducted in Guatemala. For my dissertation, I decided to reflect on this experience based on literature in participatory communication. The dissertation will empirically analyze the practical challenges of participatory communication and the impact on the participants’ lives three years later, giving particular attention to critical awareness and empowerment subjects. The Student Media Grant was the first step I gave to a career path that I didn't even know could be named and was waiting for me."

Jorge Choy from the University of Texas at Austin completed his project in the Southern border in Mexico. His lens captured images of migrants crossing the river into Mexico, and he was able to learn about the struggles that migrants face and their desire for a better life as they escape from high poverty rates and violence. Jorge produced award-winning photos that provide a glimpse into the migration crisis.  



“The Student Media Grant from the Center for Conflict and Development at Texas A&M University funded my photo essay. This funding allowed me to capture some stories amid the increasing restriction in the Central American - US migratory corridor. Since policies and practices have exacerbated vulnerabilities of migrants as they journey north, these photographs help to understand some of the many faces and stories that transit and reside in this part of the Guatemala-Mexico border.”


Alexis Aubin from University of Montreal, documented the impact of landmines on survivor's from the Colombian war. Through his pictures he raised awareness about the collateral damages and long-term effect of war in Colombia.

“Landmines are different from every other weapon. They are not made to kill but to mutilate, to dismember, to generate fear... They are the only weapons activated by the victim. A Wounded Land explored the landmine issue in Colombia and how it affected the local populations and their relationship with the land. When we think about war we usually think about the fronts, but wars are much more complex and affect people in many ways and for many generations after the cessation of hostilities.”

Those are just a few examples of the good work produced by young photojournalists. We are hoping to inspire more students to apply for this grant program.

Our Student Media Grant Program's application period opens each September. This year we want to particularly encourage students from universities within the Texas A&M System to apply. After these past months of confinement and travel restrictions, we cannot wait to support their dreams of visiting foreign lands and make a difference through the art of photography. 

Need inspiration? Visit our SMGP section to read about all the wonderful projects that have been completed through the years.

This photojournalism grant is funded by the Howard G. Buffett Foundation Chair on Conflict and Development.

For more information about the SMGP, please visit:




This website is made possible by the support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development. The contents are the sole responsibility of ConDev, and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.





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