LETTER FROM NORMAL
By JAMI SPENCER
Jami Spencer, a regular contributor to Community Works Journal, is an Assistant Professor of English at Heartland Community College in Normal, Illinois. She is also an alumnus of Community Works Institute’s (CWI) Summer Institute on Service-Learning. Jami is a veteran educator and practitioner of service-learning, incorporating place-based education, service, and sustainability in her work with college students. She is also a professional free lance writer whose work focuses on place based education, nutrition, and food themes. Jami and her husband home school their young children.
For the past several semesters I have taught English composition at the college level with a focus on the American food system. Students reflect on their own food philosophies, examine the interconnectedness of various elements of our food system, watch documentaries like Food, Inc., and conduct academic research in preparation for their final argument paper centered on a food topic. In previous semesters, students have lost interest by mid-semester or gone through the motions with no real indication of a change in attitude about their personal food philosophies, despite their admitted disgust with the lack of food integrity plaguing America. This led me to the incorporation of a garden project, providing students with hands-on experience growing food, in an attempt to determine if service-learning might impact attitude and lifestyle changes missing in previous semesters.
Last Spring, I taught the same food-themed composition course I had in the past, but added a garden project. My students were paired with preschoolers at our college’s Child Development Learning Lab where we met once per week for four weeks to plant raised garden beds on the playground. Each visit with the preschoolers was focused on a particular garden task: starting seeds, prepping beds, transplanting, taste tests and take-home projects. Prior to planting, I worked with the preschool teachers to plan our visits, assess the educational needs of the children, and determine individual responsibilities in the maintenance of the garden. The teachers used our visits as a starting point for appropriate classroom curriculum. My goal for the preschool children was simply to provide exposure to fresh vegetables, give them hands-on experience growing their own food, and provide access to organic vegetables to be used for snack at school.
For my college students, I wanted to make connections between the food issues discussed in class (GMOs, pesticide use, environmental footprint of food transportation, animal welfare, etc.) and our local community that resulted in a newfound appreciation for local food. My hope was that the partnership with the preschoolers would show my students that growing food was really rather simple and rewarding, perhaps leading to fewer visits to fast food restaurants and a few new visits to the farmer’s market. After each meeting with the children, students were given a writing assignment that asked them to reflect on that day’s experience, make connections to course content and set goals for the next visit.
As part of the educational preparation for my college students prior to gardening, I invited a local, organic family farmer to speak to us about his sustainable practices. His experience, food values, success and photo tour of the farm left those in the room filled with a profound respect for the local organic farmer. Students wrote in reflective journal assignments that they were excited to plant their first seeds in our upcoming garden project. The farmer’s visit was a motivational illustration of potential answers to the food problems that frustrated my low-income community college students, but for which they previously saw no alternative solution. Before each visit to the childcare center, I prepped my students in the classroom for the activity that day.
Our first visit focused on planting tomato and pepper seeds in early March. The children kept these seedlings in the classroom under a grow light purchased through the National Gardening Association. They were responsible for watering the plants as needed and observing growth for a month. We used organic potting soil and a variety of heirloom tomato seeds and bell peppers. Many of the children had never tasted either of these vegetables before, so we started our day with a taste test. The preschoolers were asked where the vegetable came from that we held in our hand (first a pepper, then a tomato), and we cut each open to see the seeds inside, comparing those to the seeds we would plant. I was shocked at the number of college students that had never processed the fact that a seed led to a vegetable full of more seeds. This simple visual was a lasting learning experience for a few generations of eaters, all of which tried 3 different colors of peppers and a slice of tomato. Even I learned that I prefer an orange pepper to a green one, and by the end of this first visit, one of the preschool teachers that had never planted a seed before, shared with me that she was going to start a garden of her own this year after working with us at the college. Preschoolers concluded our first visit by journaling about their activities.
At the second visit, we checked on the seedlings and determined they weren’t quite ready for transplanting, but did discuss the need to gradually move them outdoors to toughen them up for their new homes. Before planting our radishes, carrots, herbs and lettuces, we had another taste test featuring the veggies we would plant that day, along with cilantro as our feature herb. The children again closed the day by journaling.
Our third visit was focused on transplanting and our final visit was a celebration that we had hoped would feature some vegetables out of our garden, but because they weren’t ready yet, the children decorated individual pots and chose to plant either cilantro, spinach, lettuce, carrots or radishes. They took these pots home with an instruction sheet in the hopes that their parents would share in this new food interest being developed at school.
This service-learning project included both successes and room for improvement. Our garden produced some great radishes that the children enjoyed eating. Many were surprised at how spicy they were. Unfortunately, the beds weren’t deep enough to encourage tomato or pepper growth and the bunnies ate the rest of our produce, but the teachers now have established garden beds to cultivate in future seasons. We have already discussed plans for a fall planting, to deepen the beds for next spring and put up a barrier to keep the rabbits out.
Experiments with seed planting and plant growth exploded in one of the preschool classrooms where I was greeted by a row of potato plants hanging above a table and a window filled with different types of seeds in a variety of growing conditions: no soil or no water, no light, etc. I heard from a few parents that the excitement of seeing the take-home seedlings sprout became a family affair that spread into more container gardening. One of those parents was also a student of mine in the same composition class that worked with the preschoolers. She had a son in that class, so they got to work together on our project. Her story was the most encouraging to me.
As a single mother on food stamps, working and going to college, Danielle began the semester with a kitchen full of heavily processed foods and a reliance on a microwave. She, like most of her peers, had never thought about what she ate, so the readings, documentaries, farmer visit and class discussions were enlightening for her. Danielle slowly developed a passion for change, but faced with a tight schedule and small budget, it wasn’t until we completed our garden project that she saw one small way she could provide her boys with healthy food: container gardening. The very fact that our seedlings grew gave her courage and confidence to try it on her own. Her written reflections stated a desire to also pay more attention to the food she buys and feeds her sons, to choose organic whenever possible and gradually learn how to live a lifestyle that matches her revised food values.
At the conclusion of the semester, students reviewed the food philosophies they had written at the beginning of the course and wrote a new piece explaining how and why (or even if) those attitudes about food had changed. Specific classroom experiences and material were to be cited in the discussion. I was encouraged to note that 100% of students stated they thought more about what they ingested than before and all of them made note of the garden project and visiting farmer in one way or another. For many, the fact that a four year old could grow a plant made them feel like they certainly could, as well. At the very least, every student left the classroom more mindful of food. Even more encouraging, 95% of students claimed a desire to implement a lifestyle change at some point in the future. Many of those 18/19 students felt they were too busy or too young to do anything different at this point in life. A few, however, were already making strides to pack lunches rather than eat fast food during a busy school and work filled day. Of the 19 responses, 74% not only experienced a change in attitude about food, but made lifestyle changes, as well.
In teaching, we often don’t truly know the impact of our practices until years later when a student contacts us with an update or message of gratitude and success. This project resulted in some promising immediate feedback, but the seeds of change are sometimes slow in growing. At the very least, awareness about local food, organic practices, the pleasures of gardening and benefits of hands-on educational experiences were established at Heartland Community College.
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