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food for thought Helping young minds challenge assumptions surrounding national food insecurity

By Lauren Hicks

Photos by Akintunde Akinleye

The Politics of Food

Every Saturday, nearly 90 volunteers meet at Parkdale United Church in Hintonburg to prepare a nutritious meal for over 120 churchgoers, community members and guests experiencing poverty and other challenges that inhibit their access to sufficient sources of food. The weekly In From the Cold program, which has been in operation since 2002, offers guests a healthy four-course meal as well as packaged meals to be taken home.

One of the volunteers who attended the dinner on January 19 was Carleton University student Natalie Pressman. Pressman was volunteering as part of the newly established community-engaged learning portion of Carleton’s Politics of Food course offered by the Department of Political Science.

The Politics of Food course, open to third and fourth year students across all disciplines, urges students to think about how food is political and critically analyze policies and solutions surrounding Canadian food insecurity.

The community-engaged learning program, implemented in the Politics of Food curriculum at the beginning of the winter 2019 term, is a collaborative effort by the Department of Political Science and the University’s Student Experience Office (SEO). The pilot program allows students to go out into the community to lend a helping hand to one of three local organizations: In From the Cold, The Ottawa Mission or The Ottawa Food Bank.

Politics of Food students volunteering through Campus to Community at the Ottawa Food Bank.

Each volunteer day is facilitated by a “team lead” from the SEO. Following the program day, students are asked to send in a detailed reflection of their experience as a course assignment.

Participation in the community-engaged portion of the class is optional. Students can opt to write a research paper instead. Still, the program has been very successful in its first year with 40 out of 60 students choosing to volunteer.

Dr. Peter Andrée, the Politics of Food instructor and the chair of Carleton’s committee of Community Engaged Pedagogy, says he is a fan of experiential learning and the valuable new experiences it gives his students.

“The study of politics is historically tied to the study of and not the doing of, so this course pushes those boundaries a bit,” explains Andrée. “My goal with this experience is to have students humanize the statistics they see on Canadian food insecurity, gain an appreciation for what these organizations do and get them to critically analyze whether this challenge can be successfully addressed through ad-hoc, charitable approaches.”

Canadian Food Insecurity

Household food insecurity – the inadequate or insecure access to food due to financial constraints – is a serious public health problem in Canada. According to the last national survey in 2012, one in eight households across Canada qualified as being “food insecure” – amounting to more than four times the total population of Ottawa.

Food insecurity negatively impacts physical, mental and social health. For example, a Canadian family who is considered severely food insecure will face total healthcare costs that are, on average, 121 per cent higher than their food secure counterparts.

“It was amazing to see the good work these organizations do for the people of Ottawa,” says Pressman. “But at the end of the day, it is only one meal. Those families still need to eat six other days of the week. Seeing the problem in front of me made me realize that Canada’s current solution is inadequate. One meal a week is not going to make or break someone.”

From Campus to Community

The Student Experience Office is an on-campus resource that offers several programs involving student development and student leadership. The collaborative changes to the Politics of Food curriculum are an extension of an existing SEO initiative called the Campus to Community program. The program, up until this point, has functioned as a co-curricular activity separate from academics.

Chiara Webb, a staff member whose portfolio includes the Campus to Community program, says she believes this new partnership with Dr. Andrée enriches the student experience and allows participants to connect to their course work and community in a new and exciting way.

“Part of community-engaged learning is providing a mutually beneficial relationship between students, our institution and the community,” explains Webb. “The program creates an open space for dialogue between the organization leaders and the students. Our partners are really appreciative of the groups we have sent.”

Carleton Cares

Dr. Andrée and the team at the Student Experience Office are looking forward to discussing participant feedback on the pilot program in hopes of expanding future experiential learning initiatives within course curricula across faculties at the university.

“Carleton works for good in our community. It is through our work and collaboration with community partners, both internal and external, that we can work towards being able to run more programs like this,” says Andrée.

Carleton’s innovative Politics of Food curriculum and the dedicated personnel behind the initiative are, by their very nature, Here for Good. Dr. Andrée and the Student Experience Office are devoted to creating experiential learning programs for Carleton students, urging future policy makers to challenge the status quo on food security issues in Canada and fostering mutually beneficial connections with the community both on and off campus.

For more Carleton University community engagement news, including success stories and partnership opportunities, visit the Hub for Good!

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