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Monday, July 22, 2024

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.

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