Stanford students Michaela Derby, ’17, and Jackie Huddle, ’17, cast a wide net – on and off campus – during the fact-finding stage of a class project to create a public relations campaign designed to encourage low-income Californians to visit farmers markets.

Matt Rothe, Matthew Rusk and Kaitlin Schroeder

Matt Rothe, co-founder of Stanford’s FEED Collaborative, an academic program in sustainable food system education and innovation within the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences, meets with Stanford students Matthew Rusk and Kaitlin Schroeder. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

They spent weekends at farmers markets up and down the peninsula talking to farmers selling fruits and vegetables at nearby markets.

They consulted with food policy experts, including Christopher Gardner, director of nutrition studies at the Stanford Prevention Research Center.

They interviewed William Chen, who helps manage day-to-day operations at the O’Donohue Family Stanford Educational Farm, where students test new ideas about the biological, social and environmental aspects of farming on a six-acre site planted with more than 200 varieties of vegetables, flowers, herbs, field crops and fruit.

The interviews were part of their coursework for Farmers, Scientists, Activists: Public Discourse of Food Economies, an advanced writing class in which the students were working on behalf of Fresh Approach, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to connect California communities with healthy food from California farmers and to expand knowledge about food and nutrition.

“This course offered students an opportunity to do some meaningful work in an area that they were incredibly passionate about and, at the same time, consider multiple approaches to complex communication situations,” said Erica Cirillo-McCarthy, the Stanford lecturer who created and taught the course.

“I think what they were most excited about, though, is that they can use their final projects when they apply to graduate school, medical school or industry positions. They can say, ‘This is the kind of communication that I’m capable of and that I designed.’ That’s what I’m really excited about – that the course could have a lasting ripple effect.”

The course was one of more than 160 Cardinal Courses offered this year. Cardinal Courses, which integrate rigorous coursework with real-world service experience, are a singular feature of a Stanford undergraduate education.

Farmers, Scientists, Activists

The six students enrolled in Farmers, Scientists, Activists paired up into three teams and each team worked with a community organization. Two of the students worked with La Mesa Verde, a San Jose program that helps low-income families establish urban vegetable gardens, and two others worked with ReFED, a national network of business, nonprofit, foundation and government leaders committed to reducing food waste in the United States.

CalFresh sign

A CalFresh sign at the Alum Rock Farmers Market in San Jose indicates food stamps can be used there. (Image credit: Jackie Huddle)

Cirillo-McCarthy said the course gave students the opportunity to increase their rhetorical knowledge while studying food economies, and to “get their hands dirty” in the process.

Each team of students wrote with and for their community partners, producing a variety of communication pieces including videos, fact sheets, web pages and op-ed columns. Under Cirillo-McCarthy’s direction, each piece went through multiple revisions, with careful consideration paid to media, mode, audience and purpose.

“We didn’t want to approach our role by sweeping in and saying to a community partner, ‘We’re going to save you,’” she said. “We wanted to engage in a collaborative effort where everyone brings their own expertise to the table.”

Wearing many hats

Fresh Approach asked its student team – Derby, a human biology major, and Huddle, an international relations major – to tell the story of food stamps in a way that would help decrease the stigma associated with the benefit and increase the use of food stamps at farmers markets.

Derby and Huddle created a host of documents for Fresh Approach, including a timeline showing the history of food stamps, a well-researched fact sheet, a compelling op-ed and six short videos focused on different aspects of food stamps and Market Match, California’s healthy food incentive program. Each video included the voices of academic experts, farmers market managers, food justice activists and food stamp users.

The students said getting to know people who use food stamps was invaluable as they developed their project.

“At our first visit to a farmers market we met a farmer who also uses food stamps to feed his family,” Derby said. “His personal story fueled our passion toward this project.”

Huddle said she got to play many roles during the course.

“As a consultant, I have balanced my vision for the project with our community partner’s,” she said.

“As a rhetorician, I have contemplated how to tell a convincing narrative by using strategies like counter-stories. As project manager, I have scheduled meetings and drawn strategic plans. As a listener, I have used charrettes to conduct interviews and listen to encompassing perspectives. As team member, I have collaborated with my student partner. As a citizen, I have developed a product for the greater good of my community.”

Encouraging urban gardening

For their class project in Farmers, Scientists, Activists, Elizabeth Hillstrom, ’17, and Elise Miller, ’18, partnered with La Mesa Verde. The community group, whose name translates to “The Green Table,” helps low-income families establish vegetable gardens by providing soil, seeds and raised garden beds – and mentors who help them raise their first harvest.

Hillstrom, a mechanical engineering major, and Miller, an earth systems and history major, created a variety of materials for La Mesa Verde.

They produced bilingual video portraits of men and women who have planted gardens with the help of the community group. The students also composed a letter – written on behalf of San Jose city government – encouraging landowners to take advantage of a California tax credit by turning vacant lots into community garden plots.

“In most classes, you do work just for work’s sake and it doesn’t go to anyone else once you turn it in,” Hillstrom said.

“It changes the game to know your project will be used by an organization that will truly benefit from it. In working on this project, this dynamic has kept me accountable for doing high-quality work, but also has made it worthwhile for me to put in the time and thought to make this a project that I’m proud of.”

Miller said one of the lessons she learned was that activism is not limited to high-profile, high-turnout resistances.

“Activism can also happen every day in our own backyards, powered by our passion for growth, creativity, healing, and justice,” she said. “It can happen through storytelling or being a facilitator for someone else to tell their great story.”

Ending food waste

Stanford students Matthew Rusk, ’17, and Kaitlin Schroeder, ’19, partnered with Matt Rothe, the co-founder of Stanford’s FEED Collaborative, an academic program in sustainable food system education and innovation within the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences.

Rothe served as a liaison between the students and ReFED, a national network of business, nonprofit, foundation and government leaders committed to reducing food waste in the United States.

For the project, Rusk and Schroeder researched food waste programs at Stanford. They also interviewed campus chefs and dining administrators, as well as students who are working with local nonprofits to facilitate food donations from the university.

They wanted to dispel myths about donating uneaten food, such as the myth that donating prepared food can put someone at risk for a lawsuit or liability if a consumer falls ill.  They also wanted to find a way to easily disseminate that information to other college campuses.

Their final product was a three-minute video aimed at people working in campus dining halls, which will be disseminated across ReFED’s social media sites, and an op-ed written for university newspapers across the country. They also composed a policy memo geared towards university administrators, compelling them to adapt a food donation process on their campuses.

“The course offered the unique opportunity to have a tangible impact – something that isn’t always common as an undergraduate,” Rusk said. “Especially as a senior, I thought it would be great to leave college and move into the professional world feeling like I am leaving behind something that will continue to benefit others.”

Schroeder agreed that the project was very rewarding.

“I hope that our work is able to motivate even just one person to take action and spread the word at their university, so that more communities can get involved with food donation,” she said. “What especially encourages me is the fact that this donated food helps out the local communities immediately surrounding our campus. It is very satisfying to know that what may be a class project for us could lead to an extra meal for someone in need.”