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 [Read more…]

Community Program Grants Awarded, Next Deadline 2/15

Sara Leidner is coordinator for student organizations and involvement in UMBC’s Office of Student Life.

Sara LeidnerThe deadline to apply for BreakingGround Community Program Grants has been extended to February 15, 2013. All UMBC offices, departments and recognized student organizations are eligible for this award, funded by the Provost’s Office. Three innovative community projects have already received funding:

Accessibility Hack Day: UMBC’s Prototyping and Design Research Lab (Department of Information Systems) will engage students in a competition to develop and test ideas for making video games that are accessible to people with various disabilities. Participants in this daylong event on campus will form project groups, propose ideas, build prototypes and submit their designs to a panel of expert judges, including representatives from nonprofit organizations serving people with disabilities. The goal of the project is to spark students’ interest in developing innovative technical solutions for people with disabilities, not just in the context of voluntary service but in their careers in technology-related fields.

Community Arts Projects at UMBC Professional Development Schools: UMBC’s Teacher Education Unit (Department of Education) will support UMBC students aspiring to be teachers as they develop community arts projects with teachers, students and parents at selected local elementary schools (most of which serve families living at or below poverty level). The projects will be designed to deepen cultures of collaboration at each school site; increase UMBC students’ awareness of, and experience in, working with racially, ethnically, economically, and linguistically diverse populations; and enhance all parties’ awareness of the role of the arts in teaching, learning, and community building.

Food for Thought: The UMBC Graduate Student Association will work with local partner Food for Thought to address “food deserts”: urban neighborhoods in which residents face significant challenges in procuring healthy food. UMBC graduate students will teach young people in Pigtown/Washington Village about healthy choices, introduce them to the local community garden, help them plant container gardens of their own, provide cooking classes, and help them become advocates for themselves and their communities in connection with food issues. Participating graduate students will gain connections with each other and with community partners, reflect together on food justice issues, and consider how to integrate lessons from their experiences into their lives.

Contact the author, Sara Leidner, at

UMBC Civic Innovations @ Graduate Research Conference

Romy Jones, a doctoral student in UMBC’s Language, Literacy & Culture program, is Community Liaison for the Office of Graduate Student Life.

 Romy Jones (Square Photo)The Graduate Student Association (GSA) is hosting its 35th Annual Graduate Research Conference on Wednesday, February 20, 2013. This year’s main event is a civic engagement panel consisting of UMBC graduate students, faculty, and administrators. Panelists will discuss various efforts currently underway to foster civic engagement among UMBC graduate students, including graduate level courses featuring a community engagement component, GSA’s Food for Thought project, and Dr. Shaun Kane’s Accessibility Hack Day. These efforts aim to connect theory to practice and move from a paradigm of instruction to one of collaborative, experiential learning. This approach affords graduate students the ability to construct their own learning environments in and outside of the classroom and to reverse the shift from “disciplinary professionalism” to “civic professionalism.”

Meet your panelists:

Philip Rous, Provost
Jill Barr, Assistant Dean of Graduate Enrollment
Steve Bradley, Graduate Program Coordinator, Imaging and Digital Arts
Denise Merringolo, Associate Professor, History
Romy Jones, Graduate Student, Language, Literacy and Culture
Dorothy Alexander, Graduate Student, History
Charlotte Keniston, Graduate Student, Imaging and Digital Arts
Shaun Kane, Assistant Professor, Human Centered Computing

For conference registration, please complete this form: The civic engagement panel will be featured from 1:30 to 2:15 p.m. in the University Center Ballroom. You are welcome to join us for lunch at 1:00 p.m..

Contact the author, Romy Jones, at