Students take to hills  in California. Photo by Barry Allen.

Photo by Barry Allen

Food and Sustainability

By Leigh Brown Perkins

Rollins students follow the food chain to its source during a yearlong immersion course

When life gives you lemons, make lemons aid your understanding of sustainable agriculture.

That lemon was the starting point, figuratively speaking, for environmental studies faculty Lee Lines and Barry Allen when they developed the first-of-its-kind experimental immersion curriculum for first-year students, entitled Down to Earth or Out to Lunch: The Unseen Landscape of Food in America.

Students learn about food sustainability.

“When you hold up a lemon in class, it’s something tangible, something directly in their experience,” Lines said. “When you start asking questions about the lemon, students are inherently interested: Where were lemons first domesticated? What is the carbon footprint to get that lemon to the grocery store? It’s just a lemon, but it’s rich with questions. It’s natural to link food with the study of sustainable development. Everyone can relate to food.”

Thirteen first-year students, hand-picked from 60 applicants, participated in the project. Not only did they study the material for the entire semester and travel together, they also lived together in Ward Hall. They shared the same two professors, too: Lines and Allen composed the entire faculty for the semester.

“The idea was to create an interdisciplinary learning community that could focus on one overarching issue for a whole semester,” Lines said “Everything we learned about agriculture and geography and politics relates to a larger set of ideas, all going back to sustainability.”

They concurrently studied Landscapes of the American West (Lines is a geographer), Culture and Agriculture, The Environmental Crisis, and Political Economy of Food in America (Allen is an economist). Senior Kassy Holmes, one of the course’s peer mentors, said the range of topics encouraged her to think more deeply: “I now see the link between what is on my plate and the social, economic, political, and environmental implications of its ingredients more clearly.”

Our Contemporary Crisis

Green Thumb

Leslie Kemp Poole

Leslie Kemp Poole ’91MLS
Leslie Poole, an adjunct faculty member in environmental studies in the Hamilton Holt School and a member of the School’s Board of Advisors, is pursuing a Ph.D. in history at the University of Florida. Formerly a reporter for the Orlando Sentinel, where her portfolio included some environmental coverage, Poole is focusing her doctoral thesis on the role of women in 20th-century environmental activism in Florida. “Women were doing behind-the-scenes work, as well as standing in front of the organizations,” she said. “There were women on the executive committee of the Florida Audubon Society very early on, for example.” Poole was one of the founding board members of Equinox, an environmental documentary-film company whose current project, the film In Marjorie’s Wake, in which Poole and writer-composer Jennifer Chase track the travels of writer Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings ’39H on the St. Johns River, is earning rave reviews.

A graphic image of a leaf.

It’s the catchphrase of the decade and the heart of this curriculum, but just what is sustainability?

According to Lines, sustainability is a way of life or of doing business that doesn’t compromise the ability of future generations to have a clean, healthy, rich environment. Rollins incorporated sustainable development into its curriculum as a minor in 2000, pairing environmental studies with international business.

“For the first time, we brought together students who would not ordinarily be together—international business students and environmental studies students—and we developed coursework that meshed these two of their interests,” Allen said.

It is that interconnectedness that makes sustainable agriculture compelling enough to fill an entire curriculum for students with disparate backgrounds and academic interests. But Allen thinks today’s generation of students also understands the urgency of the topic. “This is the most important issue for the world right now; it’s our contemporary crisis,” Allen said. “If you scratch deep enough and hard enough, the environmental crisis is at the root of almost every global problem we’re facing. Our students understand that you can’t live a moral life if you’re not trying to make the world a better place.”

And so our lemon metaphor becomes a moral concern when the questions begin: Were the farm workers treated ethically? Was the landscape treated with fertilizers and pesticides? Do policies benefit large-scale agriculture to the detriment of small growers? How do rising shipping costs affect the American diet? And on and on the questions come.

Sarah Griffis ’10 said she began to ask herself these hard questions, and not just about the material related to the course, “but almost everything, including the social constructs that have made us who we are.”

Field Study, Literally

Often, the big field trip takes place at the end of a course, leaving little time to discuss its impact. The centerpiece of the Rollins College Conference (RCC) course, The Environmental Crisis, was a trip to California—the epicenter of sustainable agriculture in America—and it was taken early in the semester. The class visited organic farms and orchards, the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco, Point Reyes National Seashore, and Muir Woods National Monument. “This trip grounded everything we were learning in a direct set of experiences,” Lines said. “Students were digging in the soil and pulling up potatoes. Real field work. Some students had never picked a fruit off a tree before that trip to California. We visited organic vineyards and an organic dairy. It took the theoretical and made it concrete.”

Even though traveling in a small band automatically creates a certain level of familiarity, the two professors had opposing views about how much to share with students on the trip. Lines kept his personal convictions private, not wanting to make students feel as though he was proselytizing to them about the “right” way to live a sustainable life. “I even tried to hide the fact that I was a vegetarian,” he said, “because my goal was only to have them be more mindful of food and to have an awareness of how food gets from the farm to the plate, not necessarily to change the way they live.”

Professors and students in California.

Environmental Studies professors Barry Allen (left) and Lee Lines (center)
in California with students in the experimental course
Down to Earth or Out to Lunch

Allen, on the other hand, felt obligated to share his environmental ethic. “That’s one of the reasons why Lee and I are an effective team,” Allen said. “We take very different approaches and we even disagree in class, but we make it clear that we want the students to feel free to argue with us, and with each other, too. That’s a great learning strategy.”

This RCC was not a tag-teaching experiment; it was actual co-teaching and, therefore, co-learning. When Lines was handing out his syllabus, Allen was just another student highlighting the reading list. When Allen lectured about the impact of cheap energy, Lines was taking notes just like all the other students. “I learned a lot about food,” Lines said. “I had never read the things Barry wanted us to read and I had a lot of questions. It injected a lot of energy into the class, because the students jumped into the fray. They were actively shaping the course as it was unfolding because it was built around their questions, and our questions, most of which didn’t have easy answers. There’s an intrinsic motivation for students to stay interested until they can find those answers. We had some really stellar conversations.”

That Lines-Allen chemistry is born of more than 50 off-campus trips (14 taught together) with students over the three collective decades the professors have taught at Rollins. Both said the RCC course stands apart as extraordinary. “I’ve never had a teaching experience like this before,” Lines said. “It shows that you don’t have to teach the traditional way. If you experiment and provide a sense of adventure, you can create really valuable learning experiences.”

Planting a Seed

So did the lemon metaphor change students’ lives? Many have soured on eating meat (too heavy a carbon footprint to justify a hamburger any more). Many have taken to locavore eating (choosing food grown or produced within a 100-mile radius of home). And all have become more mindful of where their food comes from. “I am more inquisitive about food and our food supply in the U.S. and I often find myself asking the questions we talked about in class when I am at the grocery store, a restaurant, or even a family meal,” said environmental studies major Rachel Almengual ’09, who was a peer mentor for the course. “I also make my friends and family more aware so they can make more educated choices in the future.”

“Eating is a political act,” Allen said. “Changing our eating habits is one important way to make a difference in the world.”

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