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A Perfect Day of 'Engaged' Learning

One Book initiative sends students on learning excursions in Chicago and Evanston

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October 7, 2013 | by Wendy Leopold

EVANSTON, Ill. --- On the last Saturday in September, Northwestern University junior Christine Gou discovered what it’s like to try to feed a family of two on food stamps for a week. Not easy.

Gou was one of about 200 Northwestern undergrads exploring issues of nutrition, food policy, urban agriculture and other topics in nine faculty-led “learning excursions” to Chicago and Evanston locales as part of NU’s First Season, a day of experiential learning organized by One Book, One Northwestern.

This year’s One Book selection -- “The Last Hunger Season” by Roger Thurow -- chronicles a year in the life of four small-scale Kenyan farmers who transcend poverty and hunger with help from an organization founded by a Northwestern graduate. The day of exploration was designed around the book’s themes.

In a trip led by Professor Kara Palamountain, Gou toured a repurposed meatpacking facility on Chicago’s South Side before she and 11 other undergraduates broke into teams of three. Each team was given $63 -- roughly the amount the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides a family of two for a week’s worth of groceries. The groceries were donated to an Evanston women’s shelter.

Planning and shopping for 21 nutritious meals was “eye-opening,” said Gou. “But it was depressing to be forced to put (items) back on the shelf after (discovering they) would exceed the $63 limit.” The teams shopped at Jewel, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s or CVS Pharmacy.

“It’s one thing to study the origins and demographics of the SNAP program in a classroom and another to experience first-hand what it’s like to grocery shop on a SNAP budget,” said Palamountain, who directs Kellogg’s Global Health Initiative. “The students became more aware of an issue affecting millions of Americans and how scheduled reductions in the SNAP budget could affect families’ choices at the grocery store.”

To learn about refugee resettlement, Northwestern senior Stephanie O’Connor visited an urban farm and farmer’s market. “Seeing generations of refugee families hanging out at the farm and talking to customers at the market was not just a break from classroom learning,” she said. “Hearing from professors (and) people who work hands-on with refugees was something I definitely couldn’t have learned from a book.”

Learning about entrepreneurship and microfinance, students and faculty leader Mark Werwath visited four Evanston businesses – Ebony Barbershop, Hewn Bakery, Hip Circle Study and See Jane Sparkle – where the owners talked about the importance of microloans.

While lunching at Curt’s Café, where at-risk youth learn restaurant skills and gain real work experience to help them secure future employment, some of the undergraduates offered to volunteer at the restaurant while others resolved to frequent it and place catering orders there when opportunities arise.

In a trip about leadership and activism, undergraduates explored the Edible Acre, a small plot of land across from Evanston Township High School, where teens once smoked before starting their school day. Today, high school students grow organic food there for consumption in the school cafeteria and, in summer months, sell their produce at a farmer’s market.

One Book coordinator Nancy Cunniff and One Book faculty director Brian Hanson constructed the day of exploration in a way that “encouraged faculty and students to look at hunger, poverty and health from a global and local perspectives, and to consider what each of us can do personally,” said Michael Diamond, who teaches in the global health studies program.

Diamond, whose courses focus on managing global health challenges and achieving global impact through local engagement, led a session on health and poverty. In Albany Park, a highly diverse Chicago neighborhood, he asked students to walk a specific geographic area and identify its health assets.

Too often people think of communities such as Albany Park as poor and under-resourced, Diamond said. By looking for potential health-related resources, the students learned an asset-based approach to community development that was developed by Northwestern faculty Jody Kretzmann and John McKnight and that usefully promotes community development. 

“Saturday was a perfect example of engaged learning that reflects Northwestern’s strategic plan goals of integrating learning and experience and of connecting with the community and world at large,” said One Book coordinator Cunniff. “Students weren’t just exposed to information. They were involved in real-world, hands-on learning and discovered how they can make a difference in the world.”

For more about the One Book initiative and upcoming events, visit the One Book website.

Topics: Campus Life