Story by Ben Michelman, Eighth-Grade Language Arts Teacher, Middle School Community Engagement Coordinator
Due to the pandemic, seventh-grade students haven’t had many opportunities to go off campus during school hours since their Lower School days. That changed in the second week of the 2022–2023 school year. Excited to provide their students with rich off-campus experiences, the seventh-grade teaching team designed a three-day deep dive into food security, which involved service-learning events, expert speakers, food preparation and simulations.
On the second day of the experience — after hearing from Durham County’s food security coordinator, Mary Oxendine — all seventh-graders went to work with area organizations involved in addressing hunger. Students helped at local farms (Catawba Trail Farm and Transplanting Traditions), worked at food pantries (Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina, Iglesia Emanuel and Urban Ministries of Durham) and delivered food to homebound seniors through Meals on Wheels Durham.
Students saw the local food system at work, from seed to waste. At one point, Durham Academy volunteers at the Iglesia Emanuel food bank handed out produce boxes assembled earlier in the day by a different group of DA volunteers at Farmer Foodshare; the produce in those boxes could have come from a farm where a group of DA students were gleaning.
On the third day, the entire grade worked together to prepare a dinner for 175 at Urban Ministries of Durham. First, they had to decide on a menu. The week before, during morning responsive circles, the entire Middle School was asked for meal suggestions. Many factors were weighed, including nutrition, cost, taste and ease of preparation. Using community suggestions, the seventh-grade team came up with a plan. They shopped and used the kitchen in the new Arts & World Languages Center to prepare and cook ingredients. Students learned kitchen safety and skills.
Betsy Brown’s advisory gleaned flowers to make beautiful centerpieces in the Urban Ministries Community Café. When all was said and done, the class made seven pans of meatloaf, potato casserole, veggie salad, cajun-spiced corn, fruit salad and banana pudding. Later that evening, a handful of students served this dinner to 175 people.
In her presentation, Mary Oxendine told the kids that “food is culture, community, medicine, capital, politics and so much more.”
Seventh-grade students will extend this lesson beyond these three days and into core academic classes throughout the year. In science, they will study nutrition; in their non-Western history course, students will examine how access to resources are driving factors in history; in language arts, they will explore their own connection to food through poetry; and students will use math in their upcoming “Meal on a Budget” activity.
After the three-day experience was finished, the seventh-grade team felt great about getting off campus, connecting with their community and helping out.
“It was fun to volunteer, and it felt really good to serve the meal directly to people who needed it,” seventh-grader Roshni Shaikh said.
At the same time, students also recognize that systemic changes are necessary to eliminate food insecurity in our community.
“The project really shone a light on how much food insecurity there is in Durham. We have a different mindset now … when I am eating and know there are people in my city who are food insecure,” said seventh-grader Joel Ryan. He continued on an optimistic note: “But, I know there is something we can do about it.”
Alex Shaikh said that “we need to draw more attention to food insecurity.”
Maybe, just maybe, one of these seventh-graders will help create that necessary change. In their eighth-grade year, these same students will be given time and taught the tools of design thinking to create projects that address a local issue that they personally care about. After their experience in seventh grade, we expect to see more than one project attempting to combat food insecurity in Durham.