There are so many ways to look at a plate of food on a table or well-stocked shelves in a supermarket.
Some people are concerned about their diets and whether they are getting enough nutrients or too many calories. Some people working in nonprofits and in certain kinds of church ministries worry about people who are not reliably receiving food. And those who produce and harvest the food in our globalized economy have a range of other decisions and concerns to consider, from farming regulations to pricing policies.
A new three-credit course called Feeding the Planet: Challenges and Opportunities in the 21st Century gives undergraduates a rich mixture of all those ingredients and more. Dr. Patricia Campion (pictured) designed the sophomore-level course and taught it for the first time during the recent fall semester at University Campus. Eventually, the course option will be widely available, as it can be taught online and at education centers.
Further, Feeding the Planet is part of the University Explorations curriculum, a choice among the group of courses that form the liberal arts foundation required of all Saint Leo undergraduates. One of the hallmarks of a University Explorations course is that it takes a focused, topical approach to an intriguing area—like food—and delves deeply into the material so that students come to see how scholars approach the larger questions, which in this case, involve agricultural economics, nutrition, public health, and sustainability.
“To me, the planting was the most interesting part,” sophomore Giovanni Thomas said during the last half of the course, in reference to a class requirement to grow an edible plant. Dr. Campion’s students were able to share the planting beds and greenhouse typically used by Saint Leo biology students. They kept an academic journal about their plantings, somewhat in the way previous generations kept garden almanacs. Thomas, for instance, grew green beans. He and his classmates tracked watering, pests, and growth patterns, and provided photographic evidence of their attempts. A failed “crop” of a stunted zucchini or eggplant, or withered tomatoes did not result in a failing grade on the project, as long as the student was vigilant in the growing attempt and observation process.
This was literally new territory for many, “connecting students with the fact that their food comes from somewhere” and not just a supermarket, Dr. Campion said. Thomas was one of the few in the class of 10 with gardening experience. Some were initially reluctant to handle the soil. Still, by the end of the semester, several students excelled with the journals.
In another assignment, students reviewed their regular diet to identify something that might be problematic for their health (not just weight-wise), if not currently, then at some point in the future. Their regular diet was to include meals out, pre-made meals from supermarkets, fast-food meals, dining hall meals, and meals prepared at home. Dr. Campion further instructed them to research thoroughly an alternative that could be substituted, at least part of the time, and to explain their decisions in a brief paper.
The students were required to go far beyond the personal research, though, in keeping with the expectations that University Explorations courses also introduce students to probative, scholarly questions. So students took what they learned about food and nutrition personally and integrated that into readings and discussions about food production brought to scale. That meant understanding food in relation to local and global cultures, conceiving of crops as commodities that are traded on international markets, and relating agricultural practices and policies to economic and ecological considerations. (Sustainability considerations are also studied in other Arts and Sciences courses, such as Environmental Sociology, a science course called Creating Sustainable Societies, and offerings within the Global Studies Program.) It didn’t end there. The course delineated the packaging, distribution, marketing, and advertising processes that all play a part in bringing harvested foods and meals directly to consumers.
Through this, Thomas said that during the course he noticed for the first time how much he was influenced by television commercials for fast foods, enough to make him think he was hungry. “That was his ‘aha’ moment,” Dr. Campion observed. Another student, one from a family with a home garden, came to her own organic realization and told her professor that “now she wasn’t going to complain when her dad asked her to weed the garden.”
More substantively, Dr. Campion described her aspirations for the students in greater detail.
“I hope that the students have learned from this experience not to take their food for granted, and to value not only its nutritional content, but also the work and care of all the people involved in its production,” she said. “In the future, I’m looking forward to expanding the planting activity, so that we can end the course by cooking the food we have grown during the semester.”