California – Los Angeles: University of California Global Food Initiative

Dr. Kathy O’Byrne

This summer, Dr. Kathy O’Byrne has created and taught a service learning course at UCLA to contribute to the University of California Global Food Initiative launched in July of 2014. The initiative joins the forces of all 10 UC campuses with one goal in mind: “harnessing the collective power of UC to help put the world on a path to sustainably and nutritiously feed itself.” Dr. O’Byrne wanted to create a new interdisciplinary service learning course for undergraduate students that focused on issues of food justice in Los Angeles and that created new partnerships with local organizations in the region as “co-educators.” The course, Civic Engagement 133SL, has a civic engagement component that requires students to think critically about issues related to food and equity in a wide range of systems, from production and distribution to food waste.

During this summer’s course, classroom discussions and readings focused on a wide range of food-related topics, including public health, the environment, nutrition, hunger, obesity, agriculture, GMOs, junk food marketing, and the cultural significance of food in diverse communities. Outside the classroom, students each worked for eight weeks with one of five community partners. They completed meaningful work in urban gardens, cooking classes, anti-poverty programs, and studying food policy. The class also had guest speakers from a wide range of disciplines to provide students with supplemental perspective on the issues. Instead of a final exam, students were tasked with a final project that was designed in collaboration with each community partner, to be given as a “gift” at the end of the course to build each organization’s capacity.

This course demonstrates the transformative nature of working in diverse communities as part of an undergraduate education. The students enrolled in this course went places they would not have otherwise gone and met people they would not have otherwise met. They got to read, write and talk about these issues, reflect on the meaning of their experiences and conduct research on a topic that will address information needs of our community partners. Over the course of ten weeks, they got to see for themselves how healthy food is or is not available in our communities, and how food choices are impacted by many factors.

When asked how teaching this course has impacted her, Dr. O’Byrne responded:
“I have been so impressed with the students in this civic engagement course and the truly inspirational people in the communities of Los Angeles who are demonstrating a commitment to social change, access to healthy food for all LA residents, and equity in our food systems. I have been pleased to see the level of passion and engagement the students have demonstrated and their interest in promoting a lifelong habit of healthy food choices and civic engagement.”

For students interested in this issue, it’s not too late! UCLA Center for Community Learning is also offering the food justice course in the Fall quarter, and again in the summer of 2016. In Winter and Spring quarters, the Center for Community Learning can help students set up internships for academic credit with these same community partners. Students can also consider the civic engagement minor, and use their interest in food or food justice to design a program of study that can be combined with any major. Non-students interested in learning more about University of California’s Global Food Initiative should check out the Best Practices and Resources sections of the website.

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