In redesigned service learning class, students contribute to Greater Capital District Food System Assessment and make meaningful connections with recent immigrants

“People love to talk about food,” said Eileen Lindemann, RD. It’s one of the reasons Food, Culture & Nutrition – a Humanities elective that relates to several liberal arts and health sciences majors – has been a popular course at The Sage Colleges for years.

A food-based English language lesson for children at the Refugee Welcome Center in Albany.

A food-based English language lesson for children at the Refugee Welcome Center in Albany.

Lindemann saw the connections that students built in class as they researched and shared family food traditions, and she believed that on a larger scale, Food, Culture & Nutrition could be a powerful link between campus and the community. When Nutrition Department Chair Eileen FitzPatrick, DrPH, asked her to work with the Office of Service Learning to add community service to the syllabus, Lindemann was excited. This office, made possible by the Sparrell Service Learning Fund, was new in Fall 2017.

In fall 2018, members of the redesigned class contributed valuable information to the Greater Capital District Food System Assessment conducted by local non-profit Capital Roots, and in the process made meaningful connections with recent immigrants. When complete, the Food System Assessment will help local communities improve access to affordable, healthy food for all residents.

A Sage student and English language students at the Refugee Welcome Center in Albany.

English conversation partners at the Refugee Welcome Center in Albany.

Several Sage students previously contributed to the assessment by collecting data on grocery items and prices at corner stores in downtown Troy, but Capital Roots was missing information about the availability of culturally-appropriate food in our diverse community – presenting an ideal opportunity for the Food, Culture & Nutrition class, said Director of Service Learning Ali Schaeffing. The students volunteered as English conversation partners at several agencies that serve refugees and immigrants, and after building rapport over several visits, interviewed the new community members about their ability to buy the food they prefer in the Capital Region.

English language students at the Refugee Welcome Center in Albany.

English language students share their food traditions at the Refugee Welcome Center in Albany.

“Professor Lindemann began the first class by asking, ‘Can food bridge the gap between cultures?’ I thought that was great. We have a lot of gaps to bridge in this world,” said Melovee Porter, who enrolled in the M.S. in Nutrition and Dietetics program at Sage after a 27-year career in the U.S. Army. She described meeting women from Syria, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo at The Refugee Welcome Center in Albany, using the internet and informal interpreters to overcome language barriers, and sharing the Syrian woman’s homemade baklava. “I really appreciate the service learning portion, and am excited to be part of the first Food, Culture & Nutrition class experiencing this,” she said. “We’re trailblazers for community service and the data we collected is being used for a good thing.”

A two-week long collaboration with Sodexo to offer dining hall meals based on the traditional foods of cultural groups immigrating to the Capital District was another major assignment. Menus included chicken pulao, lentil stuffed peppers, gulpea and halva recipes from Afghanistan, tamarind pumpkin curry from Burma, caakiri from DR Congo, as well as dishes from Guatemala, Guyana, Nepal, Sudan and Syria.

“I am hooked,” said Lindemann of her first service learning class. “The immigrants I’ve met are a beautiful group, warm in the face of tremendous challenges.” She added appreciation for her students who were open, enthusiastic and flexible about the out-of-the-classroom elements of the course.

Capital Roots is wrapping up the Greater Capital District Food System Assessment at the end of 2018, but Lindemann and Schaeffing intend to continue to include community service on the Food, Culture & Nutrition syllabus. “The organizations are grateful to work with a local college and Sage has a goal to continue these relationships through other projects,” said Schaeffing.