New food systems course opens doors to community

Photo by Dave Brenner
Originally published: 
Monday, February 13, 2017, 3 pm

By Safiya Merchant
The University Record

Mike Levine represents one of the original cornerstones of the global food system: farmers.

The University of Michigan alumnus co-owns a Scio Township farm that spans 122 acres and boasts everything from vegetable seeds and a fruit nursery to shitake mushrooms.

It's a relatively young farm, Levine said, but through a new U-M Sustainable Food Systems Initiative course, he is finding another way to build his farm's community.

This semester, the initiative is presenting Food Literacy for All, a course open to both students and the general public that introduces attendees to a wide variety of food system issues, including sustainable agriculture, food policy and equity in the food system.

It's structured as an evening lecture series, with a different speaker featured each week. Upcoming guests include Kelly D. Brownell, dean of Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy, and Saru Jayaraman, co-founder and co-director of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United and director of the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley.

The course is presented with support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, LSA Instructional Support Services, the Office of the Provost, the International Institute, the Institute for the Humanities, the Institute for Research on Women and Gender, Graham Sustainability Institute, the Center for Engaged Academic Learning and the Nutritional Sciences Department.

Unlike other courses, "Food Literacy for All" is open and free of charge to the general public. It is a community-academic partnership, with U-M faculty and staff, and community members collaborating to plan the course.  

"We're trying to make sure that people have a higher literacy about the system that provides us food," said Malik Yakini, executive director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network and an organizer and co-leader of the course.

"I'm particularly concerned about people understanding the structural inequity that is built into the system and the need to create a just and fair food system."

The classes take place from 6:30-8 p.m. Tuesdays in Angell Hall, Auditorium B. Community members interested in attending must register for each session. Registration opens one week prior to each session.The larger goal underlying the course is to increase the number of, and expand the diversity of, students involved in food systems studies at U-M, said course co-leader Jennifer Blesh, assistant professor of natural resources and environment.

With that goal in mind, besides being open to the public, the course has been designed to boast a wide range of high-profile speakers from different careers.

U-M has also partnered with various community organizations in Ann Arbor and Detroit that are dedicated to food issues to get their input on the course, publicize the offering, bring more community members to the classes and find ways for the speakers to visit and interact with these organizations.

Select classes also will be shown at the U-M Detroit Center.

"We at the university are not the only ones with knowledge. This course is about recognizing forms of knowledge that exist outside the ivory tower and making those learnings accessible to everyone," said Lilly Fink Shapiro, program manager for the Sustainable Food Systems Initiative.  

"And that's part of the name of 'Food Literacy for All,'" she continued. "Everybody eats. Everyone participates in the food system. Food is the opposite of elitist."

Blesh said one of the goals of the class is to think about how people can transform the food system toward sustainability. She said that requires not just academics and academic knowledge, but better relationships between research and education and community-based efforts to address these issues.

Yakini said besides exposing community members to the rich information offered by the speakers, community members also contribute to the conversation.

"Knowledge resides in the community as well and so we want to affirm that, and so by involving community members in the course, particularly in the question and answer part of the class, we're able to make the discussion richer," he said.

Kathy Sample, co-owner and founder of Ann Arbor's Argus Farm Stop, first heard about the "Food Literacy for All" course from a student who shops at her store. She and her staff now attend the classes.

Sample said she has learned about different dimensions of local and global food systems through the course, and that when she goes back to work, she talks with her staff about what they've learned.

"We're learning in a way that will be applicable," Sample said. "I feel like I'm developing a better understanding of the whole picture."

Since beginning the course, farmer Levine has learned about how plows have caused more gender inequality, how social unrest has historically occurred when food prices rise and how thousands of farmers like himself are unable to make a livable income solely off farming.

He said the course gives him the added opportunity of connecting to others interested in food systems.

"I also really enjoy connecting with the community and I'm always looking for ways to interact with students," Levine said. "It's really great to, after class, meet people, talk to people about their opinions on what they heard that day."

"To me," Levine continued, "we're always looking for employees and interns and volunteers and people that are just interested in what we're doing. We're kind of a young farm and so we're building our community. And we feel like one of the best ways to do that is to interact with people at the university because without the university, what's Ann Arbor?"

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