Applied anthropology class collaborates with World Hunger Relief Inc. to combat local food insecurity

An applied anthropology class has begun a research project in order to help support World Hunger Relief Inc. Photo courtesy of Sara Alexander

By Sophia Tejeda | Staff Writer

McLennan County contains a greater rate of food insecurity than any surrounding county, according to Dr. Sara Alexander, professor of anthropology with an adjunct position in the environmental science department. Her class, applied anthropology, has begun a research project in order to provide World Hunger Relief Inc. with the necessary information to establish new programs and evaluate current ones to alleviate this problem within the local community.

Sky Toney, director of education at World Hunger Relief Inc. and one of Alexander’s former students, said World Hunger Relief Inc. works to serve the community by providing education on sustainable agriculture and participating in local partnerships like those with Caritas and Waco Family Medicine’s produce prescription program, which supplies produce to patients with diet-related health issues.

“Our mission is to alleviate hunger and food insecurity through sustainable agriculture and education,” Toney said. “We are a working farm. We grow produce that we provide to the local community by selling at the local farmers markets and working with programs to provide food to people who don’t usually have access to good and healthy food.”

Additionally, the farm raises livestock in a manner that benefits the animals, the environment and the community. World Hunger Relief Inc. also offers educational programs on hunger, malnutrition and food insecurity, along with some on the benefits of sustainable agriculture.

“Our goal is to create awareness and empathy for people who suffer from food insecurity and to educate people about how to do sustainable agriculture and grow their own food, whether it’s on their balcony or in their community — to help people have more food access and food security,” Toney said.

Through her applied anthropology class, Alexander said her students’ project — titled “Using Anthropology to Address the Underlying Causes of High Rates of Food Insecurity in McLennan County” — works to utilize skills of conducting field or lab research to address contemporary issues.

Alexander began her collaboration with World Hunger Relief Inc. during its founding while she was an undergraduate at Baylor. Upon returning to Baylor after her graduate studies, Alexander reconnected with the farm.

“We wanted to coordinate with World Hunger Relief Inc. to do something meaningful,” Alexander said. “I don’t want the students to do something that will never be used. I hope the information provides enough depth that it is helpful to World Hunger Relief Inc. to secure funding for projects to address food insecurity in Central Texas.”

The project works to execute methods of research that students learn in class, especially to engage local issues.

“The purpose is to expose [the students] to the process of how we apply anthropological knowledge to a contemporary problem,” Alexander said. “In applied anthropology, we have three broad areas of work: providing an organization with information that they use for projects, advising teams that formulate policy and evaluating programs. My intent with this class this semester and working with World Hunger Relief Inc. is to introduce students to the first process and provide information to staff at the farm, who will use it to write grant proposals to secure funding and address food insecurity in Waco and McLennan County.”

North Augusta, S.C., senior Jamie Holodak said this project allowed her to apply in-class knowledge and serve her community. She said Alexander and Toney equipped students by supplying information about the farm’s mission and history as well as requiring each student to volunteer at the farm, though Holodak said she wished she could have experienced more of the farm’s interaction with the community.

“We are doing background research on Waco and McLennan County to understand some of the reasons why there is a big issue of food insecurity in the area, its causes and its history within the last 10 to 20 years so that World Hunger Relief Inc. can use the information to evaluate programs and apply for grant funding and better use their resources to better the community,” Holodak said.

Additionally, Holodak said through research, she learned a lot about food insecurity, such as discovering other Waco organizations that work to combat food insecurity and trends that affect the growth of the issue, including transportation, food deserts and the pandemic.

“A lot plays into food security,” Holodak said. “A lot of the factors are integrated; they don’t stand alone. It is challenging to address food insecurity because it takes a holistic approach; you can’t fight one aspect at a time. The cool thing about applied anthropology is that it takes everything into consideration at the same time.”

Toney said he believes the students’ work will bolster the work and efficiency of World Hunger Relief Inc.

“We are really thankful for Dr. Alexander and her students,” Toney said. “They are doing a lot of work and research for us to understand some of the issues surrounding food insecurity rates here in McLennan County. [The students’ work looks at] how we tackle [this problem], what programs do we need to put in place, how do we engage this issue. [This is something] we want to do from an informed and knowledgeable place. We want to be really effective in the programs we are offering and the solutions that we are providing and how we are empowering people in that realm.”

Toney said he encourages all members of the Baylor community to volunteer and spread the mission of World Hunger Relief Inc., whether it be photography majors capturing the work of the farm or business and environmental science majors working to implement new programs.

“Every major and every class [has] a way they can contribute to our message,” Toney said. “We are looking forward to more collaboration with Baylor.”