Civic Science: Food Justice and an End to Heartbreak

Jessica McNeely and Mollie Sprung are doctoral students in UMBC’s Human Services Psychology program.

UMBC’s Graduate Student Association recently launched a partnership with Pigtown Food for Thought, a community organization in Southwest Baltimore, to work toward food justice Seedsand the eradication of “food deserts.” This semester’s activities, supported by a BreakingGround Community Program Grant, have included a kickoff panel discussion, cooking classes for young people in the Pigtown/Washington Village neighborhood, gardening, and workshops. The workshops—active, collaborative sessions involving students and residents—have included a shopping excursion to the grocery store to gather fresh ingredients, preparing a healthy meal, enjoying the fruits of our labors and a fun activity designed to get us thinking about our relationship with food. Graduate students from a variety of disciplines, including Imaging and Digital Arts; Geography and Environmental Systems; Mechanical Engineering; Biology; Psychology; Language, Literacy and Culture; and Modern Languages, Linguistics and Intercultural Communication, have participated in the program.  

Jessica reflects

Jessica McNeelyDuring my training as a psychologist, I have had the honor to work as a research fellow at the National Institutes on Aging on an innovative, community-based epidemiological study called the Healthy Aging in Neighborhoods of Diversity across the Life Span (HANDLS) study. I work mainly on issues pertaining to cardiovascular health disparities. I am driven by the question, “Why are so many people dying from heartbreak?” My research focuses on how poor diet and chronic stress act synergistically to cause hypertension and diabetes.Sadly, people who are living in poverty suffer a greater health burden from hypertension and diabetes.

The concept of food security is commonly defined as including both physical and economic access to food. The issue of food insecurity represents the intersection of both poor diet quality and chronic stress. I strongly believe that if we work together to eliminate food insecurity it would dramatically reduce the morbidity and mortality due to cardiovascular disease.

The BreakingGround collaborative project between GSA and Pigtown Food for Thought, provided me with the unique opportunity to transform my academic interests into social action. Because I am passionate about the cause, absolutely love working with children and enjoy gardening, I was enthusiastic to volunteer. During our first workshop, we planted seeds in peapods in small groups. I explained to the kids that seeds are little babies and we need to ensure that we give them the best opportunity to grow and thrive, so that they will be able to nurture us in return. A boy accidentally dropped a few seeds on the ground and a girl exclaimed, “You wouldn’t drop your baby, would you?” Her comment really hit home with me.

During the Food Justice panel, graduate student Charlotte Keniston proposed the question, “Can community gardens solve the problem of food insecurity?” My naïve answer at the time was, “no.” Creating a sustainable and just food system has to address the systemic root causes of poverty. But in that moment, I saw why community gardens must be at the center of our plans to work towards food justice. Community gardens provide an opportunity and a space for connection.

Dr. David Bohm was a quantum physicist who inspired my perspective and passion for social justice. He speaks about the root cause of social conflict being psychological fragmentation. He states, “Everybody is caught up in his own little fragment, solving whatever he thinks he should solve, but it all adds up to chaos.” The only cure for our social conflicts and personal problems is the return to wholeness. I now realize that the reason why so many people are dying of heartbreak is because we feel divided, alone and desperate. This desperation creates a sense of profound insecurity and people mistakenly treat this anxiety through hoarding.

The behavior of hoarding is the root cause of food insecurity globally. Everyone knows that there is enough food for every human and animal on earth, but the people with power and control hoard food and material possessions. If we were able to create sacred spaces within every community that promote true connection between neighbors and nature, perhaps we would be able to live wholeheartedly and without fear.  Perhaps, we would be able to start healing the fragmentation that crushes our hearts and dissolve the lines that separate us.

Mollie reflects

Mollie SprungWhen I heard about GSA’s partnership with Pigtown Food for Thought, my interest was immediately piqued. As a clinical psychology graduate student, I have developed a special interest in behavioral medicine, and have specifically found a niche in researching how neighborhood factors might contribute to health disparities. We talk about research findings and policy implications all the time, but I’ve never had the opportunity to experience first-hand what it is like to work within a community to address such issues as food deserts and healthy eating. Working with the children in Pigtown has really opened my eyes to the vast barriers that stand in the way of healthy eating as well as various other community needs. It has also empowered me to become more active in working to implement changes that many of us only talk and write about. This experience will undoubtedly have a lasting influence on my future research and clinical endeavors. In addition, and perhaps more importantly, it has contributed to my world outlook and will remain with me throughout life’s journey.

We are planning a community event on May 11th at 12:30 p.m. to showcase the work of the youth participants as well as to share healthy food prepared by the students with the community. The event will take place at the community garden directly across the street from 1201 W. Ostend Street. We would love to see you at the event!

Contact the authors: Jessica McNeely at and Mollie Sprung at


  1. Yay Jessica and Molly! Great article! You ladies are both great champions for healthy food and community.

  2. Great work and great article!!

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