Food Awareness

Rhodes College program shines light on food issues

By Aisling Maki

On a recent humid September morning, a group of casually dressed students sat cross-legged in a field on the Rhodes College campus, deeply engaged in a discussion about the various preparation methods and cultural associations of yams.

Rhodes College students work in an on-campus garden facing Jackson Avenue. The class is comprised primarily of junior and senior students.

(Photo: Aisling Maki)

“I’m super-jazzed about roots and tubers,” said professor Kimberly Kasper, a Mellon post-doctoral fellow who leads the Food and Culture class, which on Fridays meets outdoors.

The presentation was undeterred by neither the roar of a FedEx cargo plane passing through the slightly overcast sky, nor by the meandering bees and dragonflies attracted to the nearby garden.

The pilot class – comprised primarily of junior and seniors, many of whom are anthropology majors, and some just passionate about urban gardening – was developed to create awareness around issues of food awareness and food security.

“My anthropology and sociology department has been very supportive of this class,” said Kasper, an archeologist whose field work and research has centered on human-environmental interactions with indigenous communities, and the investigation of plant macro-remains recovered from archaeological sites.

She instructs the class using a two-pronged approach that features a classroom element focused on reading materials and theoretical angles, and a hands-on element that requires digging in the dirt.

When the discussion ends, the students set out to tend to their plot, visible from Jackson Avenue.

A nearby shed houses garden tools, which are used when necessary, but the archaeologist spirit in Kasper prefers students to use their hands, and the students seem to enjoy the tactile connection with the soil – something some have never experienced until now.

The campus community garden features typical Mid-South crops – watermelon, cantaloupe, squash, basil, cucumbers and okra – and its perimeter contains sunflowers and marigolds to attract bees, butterflies, hummingbirds and other pollinator species.

Kasper says she hopes to double or possibly triple the garden’s size in the near future, and she said she hopes working in the garden will expand students’ minds in terms of the food choices they make.

Her Food and Culture class and the community garden are indicative of the growing sustainability movement sweeping the Rhodes campus, which recently launched an onsite farmers market.

A community farmers market was recently launched on campus.

(Photo Courtesy of Rhodes College)

Open to the entire community, the market is held Thursdays from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. at the campus’ Barret Cloister walkway, near the college library.

In addition to selling produce grown on campus, the market is working to bring in local farmers and craftspeople from outside the fences of the prestigious, private college.

Kasper said that despite a 1,700-student body population, outside vendors initially expressed concern about the viability of selling to college students, a group stereotyped as littering dorm rooms with empty fast food containers and instant noodle packets.

“We didn’t really know how students were going to react,” Kasper said. “We had a sense of faculty staff engagement. We’d been hearing positive things all summer when we were talking about this project on campus, but the vendors who’ve participated have been pleasantly surprised.”

Two young women who’ve played an indispensable role in the development of the market were Rhodes College’s first Schutt Garden Fellows, Laura Brown and Taylor Sieben, who work together as ambassadors for food sustainability at Rhodes.

The pair come from entirely different but complementary backgrounds. Brown descends from a long line of family farmers in Western Kentucky, while Sieben, an environmental science major and native of Oakland, Calif., comes from a food justice perspective.

“Oakland has made a lot of progress in the last 10 to 15 years in terms of trying to improve food justice there, which is also a huge issue in Memphis,” Sieben said. “I worked with a couple of different organizations that worked in that arena and became really interested in it.”

Brown said the women’s differences “helped get our vision for the project to come to life. If we just had one side of the spectrum, it might not have worked as well as it did. I know more about farming, but Taylor knows more about the other aspects, so it was a really good fit.”

The pair is working on growing the campus farmers market, which includes adding a craft vendor component. The market has already featured jewelry made by refugee women who reside in the Binghampton neighborhood.

“That’s the community I’d like to see really getting involved,” Kasper said. “Some of our fellows have been working with some of the urban farms within those areas, so we’re attempting to build some partnerships in that area north of us and definitely within Binghampton, as well.”

A study found that the people unaffiliated with Rhodes who are most likely to visit the on-campus market are those who live closest, so the college is working to promote the market in the area north of Rhodes, which is considered a food desert.

“A huge goal for us is to break down some of those barriers and make the campus a little bit more accessible and community friendly,” Brown said. “And have this be a really great place to start some conversations with the community about sustainability in Memphis.”

The Daily News is a supporter of Rhodes College’s sustainability initiatives.