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Shannon O'Brien '15
Shannon O'Brien '15

Shannon O’Brien ’15, the recipient of an Emerson Grant, is spending her summer researching food justice organizations under the guidance of Associate Professor of Africana Studies Angel David Nieves. In her project titled “Examining the Community-Building Efforts of Food Justice Organizations in Philadelphia,” O’Brien hopes to determine how and to what extent food justice organizations actually contribute to the sense of community in Philadelphia.

Food justice organizations work toward providing communities with access to fresh and affordable produce, often through the support of local food-growing efforts and the creation of community gardens. They also strive to educate members of the community about the health and sustainability benefits of eating locally grown produce.

O’Brien emphasizes the importance of food justice organizations in promoting healthier eating habits, especially in low-income urban areas: “One of the major issues with the American food system is that processed and packaged (junk) food is much less expensive than fruits and vegetables — especially organic ones. We should focus on the source of the unhealthy American diet: our corporate, chemical-ridden food industry.” O’Brien notes that people often overlook the limited availability of healthy, affordable options for low-income individuals, especially in discussions of the “obesity epidemic.” Food justice organizations aim to solve this availability issue.

O’Brien chose to research Philadelphia in particular because of the strength of its food justice movement. According to O’Brien, Philadelphia birthed many of the nation’s largest food justice and urban garden organizations and its sustainability movements are rapidly gaining support across the city. Furthermore, O’Brien states, “Philadelphia is known for its neighborhoods. Since a large part of my project will be focused on the concept of ‘community-building,’ Philly’s distinct and colorful neighborhoods seemed like a perfect field site for research.” O’Brien plans to take an ethnographic research approach to her project by interviewing local farmers, employees at nonprofit organizations, and volunteers at community gardens as well as volunteering at several food justice organizations.

The term “community” can often be thrown around loosely, which O’Brien acknowledges in her plan to “unpack” the term and its particular meaning in the context of nonprofit initiative. “Specifically,” she says, “I’ll be looking at different programs and events that nonprofits create in their attempts to bridge economic, racial, social, and spatial divides across different areas of Philly.” She has already identified several food justice organizations whose models for community development she will analyze. One interesting difference she has found between these food justice organizations is their level of explicit community involvement: “Some focus more on policy change while others practice direct community service exclusively.”

O’Brien notes that she has always been passionate about social justice and community service, but that she only recently became interested in the role of food in society after studying abroad in India last year. While in India she researched food and globalization, which O’Brien says, “made me realize how central food is to our lives. It really reflects greater political, economic, and social attitudes at play in the world. I find it incredibly interesting.” She hopes to continue her research on food justice for her American Studies senior thesis next year, perhaps switching her focus from Philadelphia to rural areas of the U.S., like Appalachia. “And as for post-grad plans,” O’Brien says, “working for a food justice or environmental sustainability nonprofit is definitely something I’ll be looking into.”

Shannon O'Brien is a graduate of Bay High School in Cleveland, Ohio.

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