While many college students might not think twice about where the food on their plate is coming from, one class engages students to learn the origins of their food through community service.
Follow the Tomato, a service-learning course offered through the College of Social Work, is a class offered Spring Semester to students interested in learning about food security issues and the social, economic, health and environmental consequences related to the food system.
Michelle Kaiser, an assistant professor in the College of Social Work, adapted the class from a first-year seminar taught at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina, where she was working in the school’s service-learning office. After coming to Ohio State in 2012, Kaiser began working to create an interdisciplinary class focused specifically about community food security, which was officially launched in spring 2015.
Although the curriculum is outlined to meet the criteria of social work majors, Kaiser said the course is intended for students of all majors and backgrounds.
“There a lot of people interested in these issues around food,” Kaiser said. “Whether it’s farmworker justice issues, whether it’s food waste and compost, whether it’s ‘I just want to get out and dig in the dirt and garden,’ we really wanted to honor all of the diversity of both academic perspectives (and) personal reasons and values, to get involved with learning more.”
Follow the Tomato is taught once a week in Franklinton, a neighborhood west of Downtown, at the Franklinton Board of Trade office.
Dustin Kitchen, a fourth-year in natural resource management who took Follow the Tomato in 2015, said being in Franklinton made the experience have greater impact.
“Franklinton gets a bad rep, but there are a lot of good things happening there,” Kitchen said. “Learning in a classroom can be very sterile and it can take the meaning out of what you’re learning. Being in the community, this was like seeing what you’re learning in person.”
The class also works closely with several community partners during the semester.
Franklinton Gardens, a nonprofit urban farm, is the course’s main community partner. The farm, which consists of 12 different parcels of land, grows 10 thousand pounds of produce annually, said Nick Stanich, director of the nonprofit and an OSU alumnus. The organization distributes the food grown to different outlets in the neighborhood, including food pantries and home produce deliveries.
Franklinton Gardens and a network of other organizations in the neighborhood, such as LifeCare Alliance and Gladden Food Pantry, work with Follow the Tomato to identify several themes to focus on during the semester, as well as service projects to go along with them. These have included pruning berry bushes, tilling soil, working with food pantries and delivering produce to neighbors.
“The whole purpose for students to understand is that while they’re benefitting from this experience, we always have to remember the purpose in going back to our community partners,” Kaiser said. “We do whatever they ask and we don’t complain.”
For the class’s final project, students work together to create short videos on their experiences and infographics for the community partners. Students then present their finals at a luncheon hosted at Mount Carmel Community Health Resource Center. The luncheon invites individuals with whom the students interacted with during the semester to enjoy a meal prepared with locally grown ingredients and to reflect on the students’ experiences.
Kaiser said that the purpose of Follow the Tomato is ultimately seen at the luncheon, as it brings together all of the concepts students learned over the semester in a very real way.
“When we talk about community engagement, I can talk to you about strategies and methods and theories, all of which are important,” Kaiser said. “But when you’re physically working in a garden, seeing people walking up and down the street, talking to you and asking about what you’re doing and ask to help, that’s what we mean by really being a part of the community.”
The Engaged Scholars logo accompanies stories that feature and examine research and teaching partnerships formed between the Ohio State University and the community (local, state, national and global) for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources. These stories spring from a partnership with OSU’s Office of Outreach and Engagement. The Lantern retains sole editorial control over the selection, writing and editing of these stories.