Service learning inspires students

by Richard Lazarus | 8/22/03 5:00am

This term, some members of Environmental Systems 39 -- "Natural Resources, Development and the Environment" -- tried something a little different: instead of just studying the problems of food security and distribution, they elected to do something about them.

Thirteen of the 47 students in the class researched and wrote an extensive and detailed plan to implement an Upper Valley food gleaning program instead of writing a final paper for the class. This fall, through the initiative, the produce that local farmers can't sell and usually leave in the field to compost will be harvested by student volunteers, prepared in to ready-to-eat meals at Upper Valley commercial kitchens and distributed to community food shelves that will sell the food cheaply to needy families.

The program will be New Hampshire's first. The students who created the report will present it early this evening to an audience not only of their peers, but of local non-profits and other organizations interested in Upper Valley food security. Even the N.H. State Agriculture Commissioner has expressed an interest.

Becca Heller '05 proposed the project to Jack Shepherd, the professor teaching the class, mid-way through the term. She wanted to do what is called a "service-learning" or "community-learning" project, where students do a community-focused project instead of just researching such problems in a library.

Shepherd agreed to the plan. "I think that the best way that students learn at a school like Dartmouth ... is to work closely on a project that is taught but is also peer-shared, that has a real outcome, that has a certain sizzle to it," he said. "That's very exciting, when you're taking the theoretical work and applying it beyond the classroom."

Heller had gotten the idea for the program from Lisa Johnson of the local non-profit Vital Communities after contacting several organizations looking for a program she could bring to her class.

She presented the idea to her class, and a small group of students agreed to do the extensive research that would lead to implementing the initiative instead.

Sally Newman '05 contributed to the "need" section of the report. Newman had received food aid when she was four years old. She said she decided to do the project because "it seemed like it had more of a direct impact ... It seemed like instead of doing another paper, it would be good to get out there, to have a direct effect on people," she said.

Over only three weeks, the class looked into every aspect of implementing a food gleaning program in the Upper Valley, from training volunteers to harvest crops to theories of need and best practice to the legal aspects of making and distributing meals.

The biggest problems many of the participants said they faced were getting in touch with the dozens of people with the information they needed to make the program successful.

Another problem the team ran in to was the question of liability -- who would be responsible if food prepared by the volunteers made someone who ate it sick.

Heller, who spearheaded the project and edited the final report, said the problem has largely been resolved. Campus Kitchens, a St. Louis-based non-profit, will help the team to negotiate use of Dartmouth's and other commercial kitchens to prepare the food.

The team decided it was best to prepare meals instead of just donating whole produce to food shelves because the largest problem with hunger in the Upper Valley is not that people don't have enough food, it is that the food they have access to is not nutritionally balanced.

This is because the cheaper diets in America contain mostly starches, like bread and pasta, and not enough fruits and vegetables, Heller said.

Already 14 farmers have agreed to donate their excess produce.

"It was a lot of work, but it was all worth it," said Arthur Peterson '05, one of the team. "I would have done a research paper on something similar. Now I have real-life experience."

Service-learning is not popular at the moment in liberal-arts centered colleges like Dartmouth. Shepherd acknowledged that such a class was harder to teach than one with an ordinary final paper, and that he would not have agreed to the idea if it had not had a real impact and an audience beyond Dartmouth.

"Theoretically, most classes have an application beyond Dartmouth," he said. "So I think this is just a variation on something that's a core theme at Dartmouth ... It just happens that this one has a public hearing attached to the end of it."

However, all of those students contacted by The Dartmouth who worked on the project said they would do a similar project again.

"I feel as if there's a certain value with hands-on learning," said Madeline Hwang '05, who worked on the food preparation section of the plan. "The one downfall of classroom learning which is most frustrating is you can't go out there and do something about a problem while you're learning."

The gleaning season lasts from June until the first frosts in early October. The group, now a Tucker organization, will gather volunteers from the BlitzMail list of Students Fighting Hunger, part of the Tucker Foundation's Food and Shelter section.

Student will present the report today at 5:30 p.m. in 101 Fairchild.