Graduate student aims to reframe views on food in Kentucky

Alisha Mays, a graduate student from Richmond, is completing her master’s thesis under the supervision of her thesis faculty chair, Associate Professor in the department of Sociology, Dr. Nicole Breazeale. Mays studies self provisioning, reciprocity and community in Eastern Kentucky’s local food system. She spent the summer exploring the current social relations around home gardening in Appalachia.

A recent hunger study, “Map the Meal Gap 2016” by Feeding America, reports that food insecurity levels remain high since the 2008 recession. Food insecurity rates are especially high in Eastern Kentucky. Local organizations including Community Farm Alliance, Grow Appalachia, Appalachian Roots, and others are working on innovative approaches to expanding access to fresh, local food for hungry, low-income families–particularly by expanding gardening and farmer's markets. Sociologists such as Mays are contributing to these efforts through research that explores the current social relations around home gardening in Appalachia.

In her research, Mays looks at the motivations behind the choice of self-provisioning and the factors that determine what self-provisioners do with the fresh food produced. Her research involves observations and interviews with self-provisioners in Eastern Kentucky, an area known for high rates of poverty, food insecurity, and strong traditions of home gardening.

“We live in a state marked by food insecurity, but we don’t know enough about what happens at the ground level. This research will reframe how we look at food in Kentucky,” said Mays. “My hope is that it will provide organizations like the Community Farm Alliance and Grow Appalachia with the information they need for programming.”

“Many of us have tried very hard to get back to the way of life that involves producing our own food or purchasing food from a local grower, and it’s because of the realization that the formal food system is terribly flawed,” said Mays. “This research matters because Kentuckians are important. Kentucky growers are important. Food is important. We need to learn about both the formal food economy and informal one.”

Dr. Breazeale said that there are many people in this state who are very excited about the practical implications of Mays’ research. 

“The Community Farm Alliance has been working tirelessly to strengthen the local food economy of Eastern Kentucky. One strategy has been to expand the scale and capacity of local farmer's markets, but it appears that small-scale producers are often reticent about redirecting their excess produce towards the formal market, in part because they are used to giving it away,” said Dr. Breazeale. “Alisha's research will help us understand the social relations around gardening, what is done with the fresh food, to what extent the sharing of that food embedded in networks of reciprocity, and how it varies across social class. Researching how the informal market for fresh food operates in Appalachia helps us to understand how families and communities function in their efforts to combat food insecurity, but also to maintain social ties — or, alternatively, how this food is embedded in processes of social division/separation. Either way, it is a very interesting topic that stands to make an important contribution to both theory and practice.”

Dr. Breazeale said that she is impressed with the research that Mays has completed so far.

“Qualitative research is hard, and I am very impressed with Alisha's work this summer. Despite many obstacles, she was able to build rapport with many gardeners and learn a great deal from a combination of participant observation and in-depth interviewing.  I'm looking forward to her analysis!” said Dr. Breazeale.

WKU has afforded Mays many opportunities to pursue her passions. Her research was made possible by a research grant awarded by the WKU Graduate School. To add one more opportunity to the list, as a graduate assistant for the department of Sociology, Mays is teaching an introductory Sociology course at WKU this semester, her first time teaching at the college level and a fulfillment of a dream she has had for many years. Mays hopes to eventually earn a doctoral degree, become a university professor and continue her research with a focus on Kentucky.

Posted with permission from WKU News