Alternative Spring Break Program Exposes Students to Food Justice Issues

While their peers traveled home to visit family or flew to warm, far-away places, ten UVM undergraduate students chose to stay in Vermont for an alternative spring break experience last week. Although they came from programs as disparate as elementary education, dietetics, genetics, and nutrition, they all shared a passion for a topic of mutual interest: food justice.

The eight-day program, organized by students affiliated with UVM Hillel, aimed to expose students to the variety of programs and efforts underway in Vermont that are addressing issues related to poverty, food security, and human rights. The itinerary included visits to food shelves and local farms, discussions with local food security organizations, and many opportunities for deep discussions. Although the trip took place in Vermont, the trip leaders were careful to put the topic in the context of larger systems.


Students at the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf

I asked the students to share some of their reflections about the experience:

“This trip was a weeklong experience of grappling with new knowledge,” said Megna Senthilnathan, a junior genetics major. “We learned that hunger is not some abstract concept that only afflicts countries halfway across the world, but that so many people struggle with inadequate nutrition in our own backyard. We learned about immediate solutions, such as food banks and food shelves, as well as systematic solutions, such as decisions that leaders in Washington, D.C., can make.”

“There are so many aspects of social justice,” explained Eleni Cawley, a sophomore. “We talked about poverty, hunger, the prison system, the government—and how all those things are connected on a broader scale. Food is such a basic human need. It’s important to understand how many people don’t have access to food—not because we don’t have enough food, but because they cannot access it.”

Leah Kern, trip co-leader, reflected on one of the issues raised in A Place at the Table, a 2012 documentary about hunger in America: “How can you expect a kid to do well in school if they’re not fed? It perpetuates cycles of poverty.” Leah’s observation was especially powerful for Clare Pacelli, a senior elementary education major, as she had just completed a student teaching experience. Some of the children she grew to love during her placement in the classroom suffer from hunger and the associated challenges that come along with it.

Anastasia Tsekeris, a sophomore nutrition major, appreciated the breadth of topics covered during the week. “This trip was such an eye opening experience learning about the systems that contribute to food insecurity and hunger in Vermont and throughout the U.S.”

“I loved having the space to talk about and unpack all of the issues that I think about on a regular basis,” said Betsy McGavisk, a sophomore in community and international development and trip co-leader. “We met so many passionate people working toward food justice in interesting ways like finding leverage in hospitals or updating information technology to make it easier to access food security programs.”

One unexpected part of the week: Winter Storm Stella snowed them in for two days straight. Luckily, the trip leaders had lined up some documentaries to watch.


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