Community-Based Learning Tackles Food Insecurity W&L courses in economics and biology used community-based learning to engage in partnerships and make an impact on food insecurity at a local level.
“Community-based learning is about building relationships and learning together, both inside and outside of the classroom.”
~ Tammi Hellwig, director of Community-Based Learning
Although they span a variety of disciplines, community-based learning courses are connected by their collaboration with community partners and the desire to address a community aspiration or interest. Created in 2017, the Office of Community-Based Learning (CBL) at Washington and Lee has helped bolster community-based components in a number of classes all over campus.
“The work of our office is to help bring about a common vision for CBL at Washington and Lee. CBL is about building relationships and learning together, both inside and outside of the classroom,” said Tammi Hellwig, director of the Office of CBL. “CBL experiences should benefit everyone involved: the students, the community partners and the faculty.”
One of the many community issues addressed by these partnerships is food insecurity, or the lack of reliable access to healthy, affordable nourishment. This year at W&L, courses in economics and biology used community-based learning to engage in partnerships and make an impact on food insecurity at a local level.
The Economics of Social Issues
Jackson T. Stephens Professor of Economics Art Goldsmith first developed his course, The Economics of Social Issues (ECON-235), more than 20 years ago. In this course, students are matched with relevant community organizations for a few hours each week to both bolster the capacity of the organization and provide students with opportunities to connect their course material to their service experiences.
In designing this course, Goldsmith replaced a traditional textbook with a combination of professional literature and journalistic works, and he required his students to complete community service hours for credit. In collaboration with the CBL office, Goldsmith began refining his course design in early 2017. His goal was to deepen the student learning by changing the community service requirement to integrated site-based learning. Goldsmith said that Hellwig and Alessandra Del Conte Dickovick, assistant director of CBL, were integral in enhancing the class.
“They came to see me and they said ‘you know, we are here to support you and help you grow and enrich this program if that’s something you want to do,’” Goldsmith said. “Frankly, they were so engaging and supportive that I jumped in. Community-based learning, when done well, helps students recognize that learning in the classroom and out of the classroom can be seamlessly done,” Goldsmith said. “There are no boundaries to the learning process.”
Goldsmith and Dickovick spent the summer of 2018 arranging meetings with community partners to ensure that both the students and nonprofit organizations benefitted from the course placements. These conversations also helped determine the community placement options that best aligned with the course content. Students in Goldsmith’s Fall Term course chose among five different organizations in Lexington, with focuses ranging from early childhood education to food insecurity.
“I really had no idea what I was doing, but I knew that there were community partners that had a lot of wisdom and knowledge to share with me and the students, and that our students could serve those organizations and help them in many ways while learning,” Goldsmith said.
Anders Ashforth ’19, an economics major, spent his time in the course working with the Rockbridge Area Relief Association (RARA), the largest nonprofit organization alleviating hunger and addressing poverty in the Rockbridge area. RARA operates a food pantry and a helpline to assist Rockbridge residents with emergency funding requests to prevent utility cutoffs and evictions. Ashforth spent Fall Term serving in the food pantry and assisting patrons with their groceries.
“I’ve never worked at a food pantry before, so it was eye-opening,” Ashforth said. “You get to put a face to the things you’re reading about.”
Ben Capouya ’20, a business administration major and poverty and human capability studies minor, served with Campus Kitchen at Washington and Lee during his time in The Economics of Social Issues. He believes community-based learning experiences have been critical to his education.
“It helps you learn to apply the different economic principles and business attitudes that you’ve learned to help others,” Capouya said. Community-based learning “just gives you a more accurate perspective on life.”
After the course, Capouya continued to serve on the Campus Kitchen Leadership Team. He said the combination of community-based and classroom learning has given him more direction and context that helps inform his position at Campus Kitchen.
Lindsey Pérez, programs manager at Rockbridge Area Relief Association, works closely with Washington and Lee professors and the CBL office to foster a reciprocal relationship between RARA and the student to connect with the classroom experience.
“We try to figure out what the professor is hoping to get from the class and then how that will meet our needs here as well,” Pérez said.
Classes that commit students to longer-term service in the community, such as Economics of Social Issues, help to increase the capacity of organizations like RARA.
“I know if I have the student committed for the whole semester, I don’t have to look for volunteers,” Pérez said. “They have the energy; they’re always willing to help out.”
Goldsmith hopes that CBL courses like his will not only benefit students in the classroom, but inspire them to lead professional and personal lives of reflection and service.
“The firsthand awareness that they can make a difference is something that I think is a really valuable thing to learn during your college years,” Goldsmith said.
Food for Thought
Sarah Blythe, assistant professor of biology, uses her Food for Thought course as a means for students to look at social, economic and political interactions with food, something she believes could not be done with just a textbook.
“Food is an experience. I wanted them to have an experience that occurred outside of the classroom that somehow connected them with the food system” of Rockbridge County, Blythe said.
Food for Thought (BIO-275) links students with a variety of community-based organizations that tackle food-related issues, from RARA’s food pantry to after-school nutrition programs at the YMCA. Students are required to complete 30 hours of service learning with a community partner throughout the semester, and the Office of CBL and Blythe work together to create fitting partnerships.
Fon Teawadatwan ’19, a biology major with a double minor in poverty and human capability studies and education, found her placement during Fall 2018 through the Virginia Cooperative Extension. With interests in teaching and nutrition, Teawadatwan taught an early childhood nutrition education program called Organwise/Wisercize to preschool students at the Buena Vista Child Development Center.
Using Organwise Andy, a doll that has removable anthropomorphized plush organs, Teawadatwan and her partners taught preschool students about health and physical fitness through the Wisercize component of the program.
“We would have stories where we would act out the activities with [the organs], like Calci M. Bone is running around the track or Madame Muscle has a swim meet,” Teawadatwan said.
The nutritional teaching skills Teawadatwan learned during Food for Thought have created changes beyond the classroom, as well. During Campus Kitchen’s afternoon shifts at Lexington’s Office on Youth, Teawadatwan makes a point of having casual conversations with kids who show an interest in food to educate them about healthy choices.
Rebecca Wilder, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)-Ed Agent with the Virginia Cooperative Extension, approached the CBL staff to recruit students to teach nutrition education in the Rockbridge area. When Dickovick mentioned Blythe’s class, Wilder said a “lightbulb went off” in her head.
“Sarah mentioned that she had hoped her course would help students relay scientific information in understandable, lay terms,” Wilder said. “It seemed like a great fit.”
Teawadatwan was one of two students who did the Wisercize part of the curriculum about physical fitness, and two other students focused on the Organwise component, which deals with nutrition.
At the end of the term, Teawadatwan and her three peers created a training video that will allow Wilder to easily train other students to continue teaching the program. This greatly increases her capacity as one person who serves five counties.
“I cannot possibly serve all the students I want to serve,” Wilder said. “The BIO-275 students allowed me to expand my programming into a site I have not been into before.”
The CBL components of Teawadatwan’s education have been imperative to her growth as a student and her future plans.
“Community-based learning is a good bridge between academics and passions that can tie into a future career,” Teawadatwan said.
Her sentiments echo Blythe’s assertion that CBL enriches classroom learning in a way that instruction alone cannot.
“I can say Lexington’s a food desert, but it’s hard for [students] to see that because they have a magical swipe card and they can go to d-hall, or Kroger is right there,” Blythe said.
The impact of CBL on her students is evident to Blythe through improved class discussion and student journal reflections. Though biology may not be a discipline typically associated with community activities, Blythe believes this teaching method and the biology major go hand-in-hand.
“Community-based learning is going to help them become better doctors, better hospital administrators; more informed citizens,” Blythe said. “It helps you extend the learning beyond the classroom and opens your eyes to the broader world.”
Poverty and Food Insecurity
Ben Scharadin, visiting professor of economics, was inspired by his research with SNAP to create a CBL course related to food insecurity.
In partnership with the Virginia Cooperative Extension, students in two sections of the Economics of Poverty and Food Insecurity (ECON-295B) course used the Market Basket Assessment Tool (MBAT) to assess the state of food access around the Rockbridge area. Scharadin said many students went into the exercise assuming that tasks like finding fresh fruit at grocery stores would be easy, but they left the exercise surprised that there was a food desert just outside of their classroom.
“We try really hard to not have a disconnect between academia and the application, but there certainly is,” Scharadin said. “There’s a different impact in talking about and knowing an issue exists and seeing it firsthand.”
Rebecca Wilder worked closely with Scharadin and the CBL office to create and implement the course. Wilder said she first got the idea after she saw Scharadin lead a discussion about food access in early 2018.
“My brain is always working to connect my experiences and my work,” Wilder said.
She started a conversation with Scharadin about the opportunity for collaboration, and the CBL portion of ECON-295B was born. Wilder trained students in the course to conduct MBAT tests and retailer interviews in Buena Vista because the assessment tools are designed for low-income communities, and Buena Vista is the only city in Rockbridge County that qualifies.
Wilder said she will use the information gathered by students to identify the best strategies to encourage food providers and consumers in the area to stock and purchase healthy foods. Without the help of Washington and Lee students, Wilder said this work would have been impossible.
“Because of Professor Scharadin’s class, I was able to gather information on an entire area,” Wilder said. “This would have taken me months to do on my own.”
Scharadin believes the CBL component of his course was vital to students’ understanding of the material, especially on a local level.
“It certainly helps ground what we talk about,” Scharadin said. “The people aspect of economics often gets lost in the math.”
The Learning Continues
“CBL is a win-win,” said Dickovick. “CBL courses synthesize the learning that takes place in the classroom and in the community. In turn, the course outcomes can further the mission and aspirations of agencies that serve the greater good.”
An important part of the CBL office’s mission is to ensure that the partnerships have long-term goals; they shouldn’t expire once a term ends. The training videos created by Teawadatwan will help inform the next group of students to conduct the puppet shows, and the MBAT outcomes from Scharadin’s course will pave the way for new collaboration opportunities for the Virginia Cooperative Extension.
These are only a few examples of CBL as it relates to food insecurity, but the work is vast and spans many different disciplines, community partners, courses and social causes.
“This work has been going on for a long time in our community,” Dickovick said. “CBL is here because of the work that preceded us, and we want to build on the momentum that is years in the making. We’re here to help connect the dots, to provide resources and university support, and to make community partnerships the best they possibly can become.”