Food insecurity is something that Drew Bonner, a second-year sociology PhD student at George Mason University, experienced before he knew what to call it.
Bonner’s interest in understanding food access was piqued during his AP human geography class in his junior year of high school, when the class studied food deserts, areas where access to affordable and high quality fresh food is limited.
“When I heard the term, I thought to myself that I live in a food desert. I realized that I grew up in one,” said Bonner, who was born and raised in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. “Even as a kid when I moved houses from one side of the city to another, I lived in a mostly black residential neighborhood where people were just above the poverty line.”
His firsthand experience with food deserts motivated Bonner to learn more about food access research.
“My family had trouble with diabetes and other health disparities related to food consumption habits and general access to healthcare,” Bonner shared. “That is a major part of what inspired my research interests.”
Bonner spent the following years heavily involved in church, charity work, food banks, food pantries, and food donations. He also volunteered with such organizations as The 6th Branch, a neighborhood development nonprofit that helps communities and schools restore and manage green spaces. These commitments helped shape his goals toward a career choice in sociology.
Prior to graduating with a dual BA in sociology and criminal justice and a minor in African and American studies from Mount St. Mary’s University, Bonner completed his senior thesis project on food access and how it impacts educational attainment. His passion to become a social change agent grew and he came to Mason to pursue an MA in sociology.
“I was attracted by Mason’s public sociology initiative and the manner they were interfacing with the community and wanted to make real change,” Bonner said.
In November 2020 in the final year of his master’s program, Bonner stumbled on a post about Mason’s Graduate Inclusion and Access (GIA) Scholarship. The competitive scholarship program is for first-generation college students who are incoming fall semester full-time students from populations underrepresented in doctoral programs at Mason and are in need of financial aid. He made the decision to apply and received the scholarship starting in the fall of 2021.
“The scholarship means everything; I wouldn’t be able to be in school without it,” Bonner said. “I thought the scholarship would help me make real-world impacts and be able to spread my research. I want to be able to get on the ground and improve people’s actual living conditions.”
The GIA scholarship allows Bonner to invest himself in the educational world, to have more time to read about his interests, and to network.
Bonner’s current research includes working with a food organization known as FRESHFARM, where he conducts program evaluations under two of FRESHFARM’s market programs, Produce Plus and GUSNIP, assessing how the nutrition and produce incentive access programs are working for participants.
“I’m able to see how other people are experiencing food insecurity or how they’re accessing food [grocery stores, food hubs, etc.],” he said. “Most of the people we work with are other Black individuals so just seeing the same experiences in another context really solidifies my work in research on how food access and food security are a systemic issue and something we need to address through policy and structural change.”
“Drew has already had a tremendous impact on our community, and I commend him for his work, passion, and commitment to helping people in need,” said Laurence Bray, associate provost of graduate education. “His interest and dedication to teaching, research, and services would make Drew a fantastic future professor in academia.”
Bonner wants to keep one foot in academia and the other in applied sociology and/or research. He wants to make a positive impact on people’s living conditions by working for a nonprofit organization, providing produce incentives to people more equitably, or being employed in government and implementing national policy interests.
He also wants to teach and welcome more people into the academic realm, specifically Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) to help them learn about food-related issues.
“I wasn’t aware of things going on in my own world. I knew something was wrong but didn’t know how to describe it. So being able to teach in any capacity would be of interest to me, specifically on food access and nutrition,” Bonner said.
Bonner’s advisor, Shannon Davis, associate dean for faculty and academic affairs at Mason Korea, describes him as a “truly public sociologist” who sees the value in developing a deep understanding of the social world and then using that knowledge to give back to society.
“He values social justice and is expanding his research skills so that he can more effectively work towards greater social justice,” Davis said. “You can see this through the classes he has taken, drawing from across multiple disciplines on campus to ensure he is framing his questions and analyses through deeply informed perspectives.”
Relationships between advisors and PhD students are critical for student success, and Bonner keeps a robust bond with Davis via Zoom and email exchanges.
His biggest and most ambitious goal is to have standardized nutrition across the country.
“I would love to have every grocery store, corner store, or anywhere that serves food to be able to access a brand that will allow them to have a sizable amount of fresh produce that also meets a certain quality,” he said, “standards that make real world impact on the accessibility of produce and how people can access healthy options.”