Vanderbilt Magazine

C.J. Sentell, PhD’15: Food for Thought

C.J. Sentell, PhD’15, director of The Nashville Food Project (John Russell/Vanderbilt University)

The Nashville Food Project is not your typical charity. Its founder, Tallu Schuyler Quinn, set out with a simple but powerful mission: to feed neighbors in need. Starting by handing out sandwiches at Nashville-area homeless camps, Quinn eventually founded The Nashville Food Project in 2011 with a straightforward mission to “grow, cook and share nourishing food” with the community.  

The idea took root, and in 2020 the organization prepared and distributed more than 200,000 meals to Nashville residents, according to an homage written by Margaret Renkl in The New York Times. That was also the year that Quinn was diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer. By February 2021, Quinn had stepped down as CEO. 

In July, The Nashville Food Project appointed C.J. Sentell, PhD’15, a philosopher and food-focused social entrepreneur, as a CEO who would continue to grow the organization in the spirit in which it was founded.   

“Tallu built an amazing organization from the ground up,” Sentell says. “I am truly inspired to be part of the next chapter of this phenomenal program.” 

A Louisiana native, Sentell credits his graduate studies at Vanderbilt and experiences as a farmer in Joelton, Tennessee, for helping him understand the complexities of the food system and its intersection with social issues.   

“The idea for my dissertation came from a food politics working group at the Robert Penn Warren Center and courses with Angela Davis and Rev. James Lawson,” Sentell says.  

While The Nashville Food Project continues its work providing nutritious, culturally appropriate meals to individuals and families in Nashville, Sentell wants to advance the organization by creating more equitable ways for communities to access food, including through food-based entrepreneurship and urban agriculture. 

To do so, he says, The Nashville Food Project is starting to assist neighborhoods with acquiring the capital and knowledge needed to provide sustainable food in their communities—from opening new grocery stores to planting local gardens.  

“We live in a world of abundance,” he says. “And our mission is about taking that abundance and getting it to the people in Nashville who want and need it. Everyone has a right to that.” 

–Celeste Malone