MSU master’s student named James Beard Foundation National Scholar

Vanessa García Polanco is the first James Beard Foundation National Scholar from Michigan and Michigan State University.

Vanessa holds colorful cherry tomatoes in her hands. She is wearing a shirt that says,

Vanessa García Polanco, a master’s student in the Department of Community Sustainability, has been named a James Beard Foundation National Scholar. The scholarship was awarded in honor of her work in community agriculture and food systems.

Since 2016, the James Beard Foundation (JBF) has selected 10 scholars from a pool of national applicants to receive $20,000 to pursue culinary school or food systems education. One student from ten geographic regions is selected each year. Vanessa is the 2019 Scholar for the Great Lakes region, and the first JBF National Scholar to be selected from Michigan and Michigan State University.

Vanessa’s research is centered on the experiences of refugee and immigrant farmers and gardeners in urban Lansing. The goal of her work is to better understand how community gardening programs can become more inclusive and how urban agriculture can become more equity driven.

She hopes that this scholarship from the James Beard Foundation will help her continue to research and advocate for food justice, now and post-graduation.

“I hope to continue what I am doing now, but on a larger scale, by being a speaker, writer, researcher, and organizer,” she says.

Vanessa notes, “Agriculture has been practiced in my family for generations in the Dominican Republic, but it was originally not a path encouraged by my family when I migrated to the United States.”

Now, her family embraces her chosen path and is excited about the ways that she connects her work to their agrarian roots and Dominican identity.

Vanessa’s family ties to agriculture and her experiences as an immigrant have informed the research she is being recognized for. She hopes her work will encourage other immigrants and people of color to share their stories about food, culture, and agriculture.

“As an Afro-Dominican immigrant pursuing higher education, I have privileges that many other people of color do not have. I want to use my privileges to help uplift our collective voices and changes the narratives in our food systems.”

Vanessa’s work now and in the future will address racial and economic inequalities in food, agriculture and national systems. “I hope to work with regional and national food justice alliances and coalitions to use systematic approaches to build a just, equitable and sustainable food system.”

She says that being recognized by a national foundation like JBF encourages her to continue with her scholarly pursuits.

“It shows more than ever that as researchers and scholars, our work is needed to build a more equitable society, starting with the food system.”

Vanessa invites you to reflect about food justice and racial equity in the food system with the hashtag that she created, #foodjusticefriday. You can see her reflections on Twitter every Friday at @vgpvisions. You can also learn more about Vanessa’s work on her website.

Read the announcement from the James Beard Foundation.


Vanessa García Polanco is a master’s student in the Department of Community Sustainability. Vanessa received a B.S. in Environmental and Natural Resource Economics from the University of Rhode Island with minors on Hunger Studies, Leadership Studies and Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems.


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