PROJECT DESCRIPTION AND RESULTS
This project aimed to expand the knowledge base of students in the Upward Bound TRiO program about sustainable agriculture and food systems. The vast majority of these students had had no exposure to farming, gardening, or environmental education in any capacity. These students were hosted during a summer program at Grand Valley State University in Allendale Michigan for a summer stay to help expose them to the collegiate lifestyle as well as expand on their traditional school-calendar education. A course in sustainable agriculture was developed to provide them with an opportunity to be exposed to highly integrative and experiential learning in a subject matter that many of them had not previously engaged.
My experience teaching sustainable agriculture prior to receiving this grant was predominately with postsecondary students at the host institution. Nearly all of these students that I worked with were not interested in sustainable agriculture as a vocation or hobby but perhaps predominately as a subject area in relation to other issues covered at the collegiate level: environmentalism, local economies, loss of agrarian culture, etc. Prior to teaching this grant most of my work with these students had been on an as-needed basis.
My formal training includes a lot of time volunteering and working on local farms as well as a M.S. from Michigan State University in Community, Agriculture, Recreation and Resource Studies with a specialization in Ecological Food and Farming Systems. Because of this, I felt adequately prepared when it came to grasping the subject matter, though somewhat lacking in management and clear articulation of lesson plans, learning outcomes, and course plans. This was somewhat revealed through the first summer but addressed with significant improvements during the summer of 2012.
Per our original grant application:
Not only will students gain a larger vocabulary of food production and food production techniques, they will also gain an appreciation for the process of planning, growing, harvesting, and selling horticulture and floriculture products. Many of these students have limited or no access to agriculture, thus this experience will both provide them with a new experiential opportunity for learning, it will also teach them about the effort that goes into to healthy, local food.
Additionally, for the student who has the opportunity to intern as a part of this grant, they will gain exposure to sustainable agriculture and an opportunity to help. It is our intention that whatever student is awarded this internship continues their involvement with the Upward Bound TRIO and SAP programs into the future.
The Upward Bound TRiO Program is an established program housed internally at GVSU and with a long track record within the school. GVSU is located in a rural area and somewhat geographically removed from the metropolitan area of Grand Rapids. Thus we relied heavily on the expertise of the Upward Bound staff as they were able to provide expertise at working with student populations and provide us with readily available classes.
During the students’ 5 week stay at the campus during the summer, the course in sustainable agriculture became a part of the curriculum for all freshman students – 16 in the summer of 2011 and 22 in the summer of 2012. We reflected closely on our process for the first year to make changes in last summer which was significantly improved.
In the first summer, the internship provided was aimed at working directly with the students. However, given the interns lack of exposure to the subject matter prior to beginning, their capacity to help the students was often somewhat limited. Additionally, the student population we were working with could prove to be especially challenging at times and thus neither I nor these interns were always well-equipped to work with the students.
During the following summer, we made significant improvements. We discovered that working with a smaller group of students is far more manageable so we split the group into two classes of 11 each. A former college student of mine who had had significantly more experience in sustainable agriculture than the interns of the previous year was hired to help teach the in-class portion focusing on food systems while I ran the outdoor portion of the class. As a small aside, that student then went on to acquire a Food Corps position – largely due to her education and work in this capacity.
Additionally, from 2011 – 2012 we were able to acquire more tools and supplies, develop more processes and systems, and determine more of our approaches to running the farm so that the students’ were invited to help with already existing practices rather than manage that on their own.
This class is now a part of the program thanks to this grant and we have further plans to expand our work in future years.
This project was housed almost entirely within the institution, though individual faculty, staff and postsecondary students were instrumental in helping to write curriculum, review processes, and develop experiential learning opportunities for these students.
The following curricula did prove to be very helpful during the program in 2012: http://www.jhsph.edu/research/centers-and-institutes/teaching-the-food-system/curriculum/
The GVSU Sustainable Agriculture Project is a growing endeavor at a regional public university without a history of agriculture or food systems education. The SARE Youth Educator grant was one of many projects that has been and is being established in recent years to help define the contours of this program. The students affected by this grant were exposed to subject matter and afforded the opportunity.
Our initial efforts were likely overly optimistic and thus little to no program evaluation occurred outside of tests / papers / final evaluation. One example however is found in the words of a final project of a freshman in the summer of 2012:
“As a citizen I want to try and help people understand that sustainable agriculture is important because many people don’t know about what goes on behind the scene. They don’t know where their food really comes from so I want to help them understand.”
Though anecdotal in nature, this sort of feedback is exemplar of some of the lessons that students took away from the program. In future years, we have every intention of instituting more program evaluation measures to help us create the best possible experience for the students.
This was a great pilot project and the grant funds were incredibly helpful in acquisition of the tools and supplies as well as garnering further support from the institution for this program. As mentioned previously, many of the youth in this program had not previously been exposed to the realities of sustainable agriculture, food systems, environmental degradation, or the complexity of the agrifood system. While at points their general interest waned, the takeaway was generally good. Many of the students expressed a newfound appreciation for the
There were however a couple of open ended questions as a result of this project that I believe have no easy answer: What is the best strategy for engaging students from historically marginalized populations in a discussion dominated by the majority? How can students be faced with some of the challenges of the food system without feeling daunted or overwhelmed? What are ways in which students can be encouraged and inspired by learning about agriculture rather than discouraged? I don’t think many of these questions have a straight-forward answer, but rather will continue to be informed by an iterative process of this program in future years.
Perhaps the most helpful process that we went through (of which we only did in the second year of the grant) was to cook and share a meal together from foods that the students had helped to grow. Many of these students had never before seen a tomato plant, a recently harvested onion, or tasted garlic. Though there were a few naysayers, many of the students were encouraged by what we did.
When working with a population of historically marginalized youth, issues of sustainability, environmentalism, and economics need to be addressed with a wide scope to ensure that issues of justice are adequately incorporated. As we have continued to develop this program we are aiming to not only address issues of sustainable agriculture, but also sustainable food systems. This too is a work in process and will hopefully continue to develop in future years.
The nature of this project was predominately internal to our work with this particular demographic at the institution. Due to this, our outreach was rather limited as we aimed to strengthen the relationship between the agriculture project and the Upward Bound TRiO program.
It is possible and likely that in future years as this program grows we will seek more publicity for our work; however that seems somewhat premature at this time. Many of these students had only a partial interest in visiting a farm or learning about sustainable agriculture; some parents also had reservations about this. Thus we will continue to focus on how to integrate this work into the students’ academic and professional goals so that it not only broadens their perspectives but also is observed as enriching their other pursuits prior to sharing our successes.
This was a really wonderful gift to this organization and this project. I was particularly grateful for the opportunity to participate in the Farmers’ Forum at the National Small Farm Conference and Trade Show in Missouri in the fall of 2012. Not only to connect with other speakers, but also to personally meet and thank some of the individuals responsible for helping us with this grant.
At this time, I can think of no recommendations to help improve this program.