The Harvard food literacy project

A growing interest in the study of food germinates into fellowship program. This topic will be featured in an educational session at the 2015 NACAS Annual Conference.

Food has always been an important part of campus culture. Everyone eats, and shared meals provide a few moments for reflection, conversation, and rest in the otherwise busy days on campuses around the world.

In recent years, people have become more interested in where their food comes from and more aware of the intimate connections be-tween food and health. Academics increasingly study the food system and how just about every issue or area of study connects to it—from immigration to obesity, to global development, to climate change, and much more. Yet on college and university campuses, a false separation exists—the food system is something studied, explored, and improved through academic research, while food on campus is served, eaten, and often given little thought except by those who work in the complex systems of procurement, processing, and serving it to hungry students. This is changing. Programs like Harvard University Dining Services’ (HUDS) Food Literacy Project are bridging the gap between the practice and study of food.

In 2005 HUDS started the Harvard Food Literacy Project (FLP) as a response to the growing interest in food. Students were especially interested in questions about different food cultures represented by the diverse community on campus. Additionally, in the mid-2000s new dietary recommendations, fad diets, and increased allergens created an environment of interest and fear about what was in food and what was considered healthy. FLP emerged to help answer questions about the food on people’s plates, but also to inspire broader curiosity and inquiry about how that food came to be. Like peer counselors or academic tutors, FLP Student Representatives were hired for each undergraduate living community (House). The FLP Rep was an approachable peer, someone who students could ask about food. The FLP Rep worked in tandem with the dining staff to provide fun learning opportunities for their fellow students to introduce new foods and food concepts, and provide opportunities to engage with the food they ate. FLP’s focus was creating community in the undergraduate houses through fun food-related events by students and for students.

Over the decade since FLP began, food, as a topic of discussion, study, and interest, has flourished. A new generation of students wanted FLP to provide a more intense focus on learning and FLP adapted to this new desire—from organizing study breaks to formally including study opportunities in the program. In 2014 FLP transformed its Rep program to a fellowship, allowing 20 students to dive into the complexities of the food system. The fellowship program consisted of 15 undergraduate students at the college and five graduate students at Harvard School of Public Health, the Kennedy School of Government, and the School of Arts and Sciences. These students actively participated in every aspect of design-ing the program, from creating the mission statement to outlining the structure and components of the fellowship. In student forums and work-shops on program design students consistently requested: formalized learning built into the program, project outcomes with real-world impact, opportunities to interact with the community beyond Harvard, and fewer and more impactful large-scale events.

Out of these conversations with students we designed a fellowship program that expects a commitment of five hours per week for fellows. The core aspects of the fellowship are:

  • Learning. The goal is that each fellow leaves the program having developed a set of “core competencies” in the food system and has an under-standing of the complexity of the food system. Fellows do readings, attend weekly lectures and meetings, volunteer with food-related non-profits, participate in hands-on field trips, and participate in an independent team project to gain hands-on experience beyond Harvard.
  • Peer engagement. The fellows organize regular educational events for their peers (and the wider community) to introduce students to food – from farming, to cooking, to hunger relief- through events such as film screenings, panel discussions, cooking competitions,and more. Fellows are also expected to act as liaison between students and dining services and be available for student questions and concerns related to food.
  • Community projects. The fellows work in teams on year-long community-based projects. These include many partnerships with others across the university and community, such as the Just Food Conference on Food Justice co-organized by FLP and the Food Law Society at Harvard Law School.

At its core, FLP is about engaging students in all aspects of food production, preparation, nutrition, community, and sustainability. Students are the focus of the program, but building a network of staff, faculty, researchers, and the public is very important to its long term success. Many of the events we organize are open to all. These include our annual fall FLP Farm Field Trip Series and our spring FLP Cooking Class Series. FLP, and HUDS more broadly, is also an active and founding member of the Harvard-wide Food Better initiative, which is working to identify the breadth of work done at Harvard touching on Food (and bring those people together to collaborate). Under the Food Better umbrella, FLP has taken a lead on organizing university-wide events, including a 500+ person conference on Food Justice in 2015. Through the Food Better network FLP helps students find classes and connect to food-related research and projects at Harvard and beyond.

FLP offers a model of student and academic engagement in a topic traditionally relegated to the background of campus study. This model could be applied to other campus services activities, which are vital to university operations and can provide students with real applicable experience. HUDS’ commitment to growing FLP, and flexibility in encouraging its adaptation to changing student needs, has great value to the dining operation, campus operations, and the university. Engaged students are more aware of the tremendous amount of hard work and expertise that it takes “behind the scenes” to operate a campus. Engaged and informed students have greater trust, respect, and appreciation for those operations. These students can then actively participate in shaping university programs that benefit everyone.

FLP aims to increase literacy about food and elucidate the myriad connections between other fields and the food system. Our fellows gain in-depth knowledge and practical experience in the food system that they share with their peers. We hope that every student leaves Harvard with an appreciation and understanding of food that they can translate into their personal and professional lives. Food is a valuable area of study and practices, and FLP is working to engage students in food from the ground up.

Margiana Petersen-Rockney
Margiana Petersen-Rockney serves as food literacy project coordinator, Harvard University. She grew up on a dairy goat farm in Massachusetts. She studied Geology and Biology at Brown University. For four years, she had her own five-acre vegetable and livestock farm. With a Wild Gift Fellowship, she founded the Young Farmer Network (YFN) to bring together, educate, and support 300+ new farmers. She also worked with beginning and refugee farmers at New Entry Sustainable Farming Project. Over the past year at Harvard, she has been developing the Food Literacy Project Fellowship program and is working on the Food Better initiative.

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