ENV Students Benefit Community Partner Through Research on School Lunches and Gardens

Carol Peters ・ High Meadows Environmental Institute
ENV 307 Presentation PhotosPictured top to bottom: Professor Morin (right) and Melecia Wright ’11; Ross Siverman 10; Angela Wu ’12 shows her poster entitled “Food Insecurity in Recessions”; Pam Flory of Real Food for Thought (left) and Kathleen Wade ’11 discuss school gardens. (Photos: Carol Peters)

Does anyone remember enjoying school lunches? Most of us have memories of lining up in the cafeteria for “mystery meat” and canned fruit. Students in the class ENV 307: “Agriculture and Food: A Foundation for Living” are hoping their class research projects will help improve school lunches and build school gardens, both for the health of the kids and the planet.

Taught by Xenia Morin, Lecturer in the Princeton Writing Program and PEI, the class explored the environmental and health impact of agriculture and food. To ensure the student’s research will be used in the real world, the course had a CBLI (Community-Based Research Initiative) component. This enables the student’s research projects to directly benefit the course’s community partner, Real Food For Thought (RFFT), based in Hopewell, NJ.

In January, the class held a “Works in Progress” poster session in Guyot Atrium, which served as the capstone of the course. It provided the students with an opportunity to discuss and evaluate each other’s work, and obtain valuable insights to incorporate into their final papers. To support RFFT, whose mission is to establish school gardens and serve healthier school lunches, the ENV 307 poster session projects were divided into two categories, school lunches and school gardens. Pam Flory, founder and director of RFFT and Gina Smith, a member of RFFT, attended the poster session in order to learn from the students and provide them with feedback about how their ideas can be applied to the public schools in Hopewell.

Xenia Morin explains, “The purpose of the CBLI component is to have undergraduate students engage in meaningful research that builds research, writing and presentation skills while at the same time serving the community. The students also learned that many health problems are intricately tied to environmental and economic issues.

“Knowing their research was going to be used in the real world pushed the students to work harder. They made recommendations and provided ideas for follow-up research, explaining what needs to be done next. The students also learned they need to know their audience, to judge how much background to give in order to contextualize their evidence. They developed new skills and honed others, and all of this meant they learned more.”

The students in the class represented many diverse majors: art history, Spanish, comparative literature, ecology and evolutionary biology, economics, East Asian studies, politics, philosophy, Woodrow Wilson, and molecular biology. Seven are working toward Certificates in Environmental Studies.

Given this diversity among the students, the class also helped the students bridge the gap between the humanities, the social sciences and the sciences, one of PEI’s goals. Morin said, “It was a challenge for some of the humanities students to learn how to integrate tables, figures, and data into their writing. They learned they can’t just drop the table into the text and think the data in the table is self evident. The author must explain the evidence and why it is important. It was a challenge for the science students to explain and interpret their research findings in a cultural, economic or policy context.

Virginia Byron ’10, whose CBLI project was entitled “Competitive Foods in Schools: Incentives, Impacts and Improvements” said about her project, “I looked into the availability and consequences of “competitive foods” in schools, i.e. food and beverage items sold outside of the National School Lunch Program, which range from vending machine items to cupcakes brought to class for a student’s birthday. I was able to get region-specific data on the regulation and availability of competitive food in schools, which enabled me to tailor my report towards local parents and administrators. Good Hopewell Valley Regional Schools are doing an excellent job combating junk food sales in schools by offering healthy vending machine alternatives. I enjoyed being able to translate the material we covered in class with Professor Morin into solutions for problems that exist right down the road (and across the country), and that my classmates and I faced growing up. In conducting my research, I became personally invested in addressing issues that are necessary in the fight against childhood obesity and in establishing general health and wellness among the population, and I look forward to being involved in this fight.”

Angela Wu ’10 explained, “My poster and research project, “Changes in Food Insecure Demographics in Recessions” focused on how food insecurity changes during economic downturns Working on this project helped prepare me for a Pace Center trip on urban food issues that I co-led in March during spring break. The social aspect of the course encouraged me to organize the trip, and Corinne Stephenson ’12 and I led a group of students to South Los Angeles to learn about urban farming and food deserts.

“All the students in ENV 307 came to the class from different majors and with different interests and Professor Morin encouraged us to share our own perspectives on everything from genetically modified organisms to the economics of organic food. As a result, we were able not only to focus on our own interests, but also to find new compelling topics in food issues. I went into the course hoping to learn more about sustainable agriculture, but found myself drawn to hunger issues, which led me to the trip in March.”