Food for Thought

Guest blog by Dr. Sarah King, Liberal Studies Department

“The most successful parts of community work in class overall were connecting with other people, gaining new perspectives, and being brought out of my comfort zone. The least successful part was only the time constraints. I really loved how much I was able to connect with the West Michigan community through this course. I just wish that I would have had more time to get involved even more.” (HON280 student)

Food For Thought is a three-course freshman sequence in the Honors College. The course is about food writ large—food as social, cultural and ecological system. In it, we challenge students to see food as more than something that comes from a box at the grocery store, and instead as something that connects to and is produced by our larger relationships.

Everybody eats. And teaching about food is a wonderful opportunity to connect students with a variety of communities, both on and off campus. As co-instructors, Anne Marie Fauvel and I found many variety of ways to engage students in our local food communities, including:

  • Weekly volunteer hours at the campus Sustainable Agriculture Project in the fall harvest season, which taught students about the ecological complexity—and back-breaking labor—of growing food.
  • Guest lectures from food activists here in West Michigan, including Jeff Smith (WellHouse), Jenny Jordan (Kids Food Basket) and Brett Colley (ChangeU).
  • A class field trip to Grove Restaurant, which opened for lunch just for us and invited the farmer who’d grown the food they served to join us.
  • A behind-the-scenes tour of Campus Dining.
  • Connecting with local foodways from a variety of cultures, including a trip to hear Anishinaabe activist Winona LaDuke and a visit to the West Michigan Hindu Temple.
  • Student-led research projects that initiated relationships with local vets, farmers, scientists, educators, children and the GVSU campus community.

What did this breadth of engagement mean for us as a learning community? Were the students overwhelmed, or confused? We carefully designed each element of community engagement to connect back to course material and made sure to explore these connections in classroom discussions. We often tasked the students with analyzing their experiences outside of the classroom using the course material—as in the final exam where we asked them to eat at three local restaurants and then analyse their experiences using the course material. And to assess outcomes, we worked with Ruth Stegeman and the Office for Community Engagement to pilot a new tool to assess student learning through community engagement.

We found that the students clearly saw the connections between their community-based work and the course material. We also found that community-based work strengthened student relationships to us as faculty, which is one of the key indicators of student retention and success. This isn’t too surprising—working with your professor to haul compost and plant fruit trees can really work to break down boundaries—and we clearly saw the results of this in increased classroom discussion and engagement as the semester wore on. Community-engaged learning also challenged our students to move beyond their biases and assumptions about, for example, the difficulty of farm work, the experience of childhood hunger, and about cultures and foodways different from their own, as the opening comment illustrates. Still our students wished that they’d had more time, and this was a year-long, nine-credit course. Community engagement opens new possibilities and connections for students—when it’s going well, they can never get enough, and neither can we.

For more information contact Sarah King at kingsar1@gvsu.edu.

HON280 Food For Thought co-instructors for 2013-14 were Sarah King and Anne Marie Fauvel, both of the Liberal Studies Department. Starting this fall, Anne Marie will be offering a new food-focused course, LIB342 Food Matters, which will use community-engaged pedagogy—employing action, reflection, and real-world experience.

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