By Kellen Gilbert, David Burley, Bonnie May, Timothy McCarthy, Sole Sanchez, Erica Dickerson, Danate Moses and Benny Milligan (Southeastern Louisiana University, Hammond, Louisiana)
Last fall, the students in a graduate class in Applied Environmental Sociology at our university took on a food-based project that has outlasted the one semester class. The instructor, David Burley, an environmental sociologist interested in sustainability issues, and his students saw this class as an excellent opportunity to put applied sociological (and anthropological) concepts and methods to work on a very local issue: the campus cafeteria food.
One of the graduate students in the class, Bonnie May, was the president of Reconnect, a campus organization for students interested in environmental and sustainability issues. Reconnect had been a part of the national program, The Real Food Challenge (RFC) since the previous semester. The RFC’s goal is to have local, sustainably and justly produced food in campus cafeterias instead of industrial agricultural products. RFC is a student created and run organization that engages students on their own campuses to organize “real food campaigns” and other activities on campus to educate and implement change.
At the time, Reconnect was a small and dedicated group but limited in terms of time and energy its members could spend. Finding time for extracurricular activities is an ongoing challenge for many of our students in part because so many commute to campus and work full time or, at the very least, part-time jobs. So a student-led project to change the campus cafeteria food was perfect for our applied graduate class.
The graduate students prepared by reading articles about urban agriculture and food justice, ecological identity, and seminal works like Mary Hendrickson and William Heffernan’s (2002) article on locating weaknesses in the global food system and yes, of course, Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Then, the class employed information from the readings, consultation from RFC coordinators via Bonnie May, and advice from independent market consultant Darlene Wolnik, to develop a university community outreach plan. Students took on individual tasks such as designing attractive educational pamphlets and information cards. Others put together a presentation on local, sustainably produced food and spoke to over 30 undergraduate classes and student organizations. The students also gathered over 1000 signatures on campus in support of the “real food” project with over 600 email addresses of students who wanted to stay informed and over 100 who said they would volunteer in some capacity.
But the biggest part of the class’s project was planning a farmers market to raise awareness and build support in coordination with National Food Day on Oct. 24th. This would become not only the first ever farmers market on our campus but, at least according to our research, the first on any Louisiana college campus.
To be continued…
Next: The Farmers Market—farmers cooperatives versus corporate intruders.