A Hands-on Approach to Learning About Food Systems and Agriculture

Students in Professor Rich Wallace’s Food, Society & the Environment class, which focuses on the theory and practice of food systems and agriculture, had a unique opportunity to enhance their classroom learning with in-depth hands-on experience at the nearby Longview Center for Agriculture last semester.

Students at Longview Center for Agriculture

Tara Leszkowicz 2013 (left) and Rebecca Fong 2015 (right), along with Carrie Putscher 2015 (rear), process food for the winter CSA at Longview Center for Agriculture.

“The objectives of the course are to help students think about food and agriculture, learn about the food systems in which we live, and place what we learn in the context of interdisciplinary environmental studies,” says Wallace, Chair of environmental studies, who introduced the course in 2003 and offers it every other year (with a prerequisite of ENV-100 Issues in Environmental Studies). The semester began with students engaging social theory to analyze the food system, using readings (such as Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America and Thomas Lyson’s Civic Agriculture), writing assignments, and discussion.

Simultaneously, the class explored agricultural and food systems theory through the partnership with the Longview Center for Agriculture, a 120-acre farm located in Collegeville on the site of the former Willow Creek Orchards that is dedicated to using organic and sustainable practices. Operated by the nonprofit Greener Partners, Longview also offers educational opportunities to the community and runs a year-round market.

“Not only did we learn about the ways in which our food system works currently, but we also learned remedies towards producing real food that is safe for people and the land,” says junior Sarah Huang, an Environmental Studies and Sociology double major from Waterford, Conn., who was a 2012 recipient of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Greater Research Opportunities (GRO) Fellowship.

Once a week, Wallace and the students would work at Longview in several capacities that supported Longview’s mission and the class objectives. Tasks included hands-on farming, processing food, constructing hoop houses (mini greenhouses) over rows of carrots, developing and implementing educational programming, and managing commerce by representing Longview to the customers of its market and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), a farm-share program. Some of the food that the students processed in the fall was promptly frozen and is now being enjoyed by members of Longview’s winter CSA.

“In preparation for each visit, we discussed the nature of the work we were going to be undertaking, what aspects of Longview’s operations it supported (i.e., market, CSA, special event, other), and how both the tasks at hand and the connection to Longview’s operations were reflected in the food systems theory we had read and discussed previously,” says Wallace. “The connections were often direct. For example, Longview’s operations were designed to address some of the same concerns that are illuminated by studies of food systems and agricultural theory, especially when the latter is framed in a community development context.”

Separate from the weekly visits, were food-preparation tasks. Each week, one student was assigned the job of seeking ingredients from the Longview market and then preparing a dish based on those ingredients. The dish was not only brought to class for all to try, but the recipes were also provided to Longview for use in promotional materials available in the market and online.

For Rebecca Fong 2015, an East Asian Studies and Media and Communications double major, the partnership with the farm provided the type of perspective and experience that can’t be gleaned from a book or class alone. “For me, hands-on learning trumps any indoor class,” she says. “Pulling carrots straight from the ground, washing kale, and even picking strawberry weeds really makes eating these foods different. It’s one thing to talk about harvesting, gardening, and farming, and it’s another to do it. Having to put all this hard work into growing our foods is really unexpected. It is rewarding to harvest the food knowing that your work produced something profound, [and] it also makes [me] appreciate it a whole lot more knowing how hard I had to work for it.”

Environmental studies major Carrie Putscher 2015 is equally passionate about the partnership. “My favorite part of the class is that fact that we are connecting what we talk about in class with the outside world, instead of just listening to lectures, writing papers, and taking tests,” she says. “We get to see our studies in action, as well as actually help make a difference…on the farm.”

While the students’ volunteer efforts were appreciated on the farm, the partnership also fit well with Longview’s education efforts. “We hope that the students will gain a better understanding of how a small-scale organic farm and a non-profit operate,” says Education Garden Manager Sarah Groat. “Understanding the manual labor as well as the problem-solving that goes into farming is valuable for students…to better inform them about their future careers and consumer habits. We think it’s also valuable for the students to see the impacts and benefits of growing local, organic fruits and vegetables.”

The students, however, became the teachers during Longview’s second annual World’s Greatest Farmer Showdown, which is a family-friendly community festival. They hosted an Ursinus booth with the goal of doing food-based education. For the first half of the festival, the class offered three varieties of pancakes: pumpkin, carrot and black bean (with salsa and sour cream as the toppings). “The idea was to show parents and kids that pancakes could be made healthier without losing anything in taste,” says Wallace. For the second half of the festival, the UC booth featured fried polenta with onions and fresh cilantro salsa to demonstrate that even something simple made on a skillet could boast a gourmet taste.

“All of our recipes were a huge success, and we got just the sort of response we hoped for, especially [from] the kids—and parents—who would wrinkle their noses at the veggie pancakes, and then taste them and their eyes would light up,” says Wallace. “This was a really hands-on way for the class to engage in community agriculture, designed to promote food systems theory (healthy eating, local ingredients) and community agriculture and community development.”

Throughout the class, students had an opportunity to learn, think about, and apply social theory in academic and applied contexts, and gain substantial insight into how and why food systems operate the way that they do, especially in a community development context, says Wallace. “This semester I focused largely on the philosophy of sustainable food systems, and contrasted it with the industrial food system that dominates our economy and our food choices. The partnership was all about community development in the exurban Philadelphia area – a course design that turns our community and surrounding area into a living classroom in a way that wouldn’t be possible if we focused on issues further afield.”

“We not only learned about civic agriculture, but we also became a part of it through our weekly engagement at the farm,” says Huang. “Even if it was hard labor, we were working towards a bigger part of something that is civic agriculture and the future of the food system.”

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