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Food Systems Teach-in: A Day to Act

May 11, 2022 — During the NMH Food Systems Teach-in, all classes focused on engaging students in the work of becoming responsible citizens through their food choices. The teach-in, which returned to campus this year after a two-year hiatus, was the culminating event of the yearlong learning theme of citizenship and environmental stewardship. 

“The goal of the teach-in is for us to take a day to swim in it together and learn about food systems from every angle,” Becca Malloy, NMH’s sustainability director, said. “You are what you eat, and every bit of who we are is reflected in how we make our food choices.” 

Classes welcomed local farmers, restaurant and business owners, and representatives from nonprofit organizations focused on sustainable farming, nutrition, workers’ rights, and waste management. 

Students explored citizenship and environmental stewardship throughout the year, and the teach-in brought all the pieces together. In the fall, Catherine Coleman Flowers, international activist for equal access to water and sanitation, and environmental activist Erin Brockovich engaged students in conversation during visits with classes and an all-school question-and-answer session. During the winter term, Winona LaDuke, an activist for Native American rights and environmental justice and two-time Green Party vice presidential candidate, and Dr. David Raglan of the Truth Telling Project and Grassroots Reparations Campaign sought to empower students during a visit to NMH. 

“The Food Systems Teach-in was our day to act,” Malloy said.

Some students got their hands dirty on the farm. As part of a lesson about religious traditions around planting and growing food, students in a Creative Impulse course — which blends performing arts with religious studies and philosophy — grew squash from seedlings. “Our final unit was [on] Buddhism, so the last religious prayer we looked at was a mantra for the growth and well-being of plants,” teacher Jennifer Keator said. During the teach-in, students recited the mantra, if they chose, over their plant in its new home in the greenhouse. After that, students got to work helping NMH farmers weed around newly planted apple tree saplings.

In an Evolution of Hip Hop class, teacher Sheila Heffernon and her students discussed a Johns Hopkins study on Baltimore youth that found that males exposed to persistent food insecurity had a 96% higher misconduct rate than males who were raised in consistently food-secure households. They also talked about how many hip-hop artists — Hippy Junior, Jwaves, Gunna, DJ Cavem, Eminmen, and others — use their music to advocate for these communities. “Where do people in communities that lack grocery stores get their food?” Heffernon asked. “Convenience stores. Pizza places,” said Rowan Brumbaugh ’22. 

The Humanities 1 class was visited by Shelby Holton, who works for the Badger skincare company in the area of community involvement. “We make products that soothe and heal for the people we love, we use money as a fuel not a goal, and we cultivate good through our actions and advocacy,” she said. Teachers Meg Donnelly and Lori Veilleux challenged students to imagine businesses with similar models. “Your relationship between humans and nature — and between humans and humans — matters, and you have power over that,” Veilleux said.

Between classes, students visited interactive stations under a tent. There they planted herb seeds with science teacher Mary Hefner, saw a multimedia storytelling class presentation about the story of food at NMH — from the farm and outside food suppliers to the NMH dining hall — and learned how the history of our land has impacted food and people. “Who owns land, especially in farming, has been integral to our food systems in our society,” said Izi Vandelvit ’25, who ran a station titled “40 Acres and a Mule,” a reference to a post-Civil War attempt to make reparations to newly freed slaves by redistributing formerly Conferate-owned land. However, the attempt failed, as the land order was reversed in 1865 by President Andrew Johnson, Abraham Lincoln’s successor. “Land ownership is an important part of the story of our country since the very beginning,” said David Massaro ’25.

In addition, Mona Seno, chair of the visual arts department, and her students sold ceramic bowls that they’d made to benefit “Empty Bowls,” which supports food-related charities. The money raised went to the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, and visitors to the Empty Bowls table were invited to use their new bowls — or a compostable bowl provided — to sample gazpacho made by NMH Dining Services using local ingredients. 

During meals in Alumni Hall, menus highlighted local and sustainable foods including polenta and popcorn, as well as hamburgers, french fries, and gelato. And as a special surprise for students, the Bart’s ice cream truck set up next to the tent, offering free local blueberry sorbet and strawberry, peach, and maple ice cream.

See photos from the Food Systems Teach-in.