By Olivia Peña
A group of 14 UVM students traveled to Kenya for 12 days in January to apply hands-on nutrition, food systems, and community development skills they learned on campus.
Students from several majors participated in the Sustainable Development and Education in Kenya winter session course. They came together in a transdisciplinary environment to gain real-world experience. The class, led by Community Development and Applied Economics Professor Dr. Jane Kolodinsky and Nutrition and Food Science Professor Dr. Farryl Bertmann, implemented three projects: water quality and systems, women’s health and empowerment, and community entrepreneurship.
“The experience took everything we learned in school and challenged us to use our knowledge in an on-the-ground experience. I was able to see the cross section of food systems, nutrition, and community development in the field,” said Amanda Falkner, a senior studying Community and International Development. “Everyone on the trip had different majors and backgrounds, but had a common goal of working hard to build an international partnership and help build capacity in the community.”
The Vermont team worked with two different communities in Kenya. The first destination was Saint Charles Lwanga School, a high school for underprivileged youth in Ruai, Nairobi. Upon arrival, the UVM group built trust and a partnership with the school’s administration and students. Mary Lynn Riggs, a project partner from Go Global Vermont, also joined the group to support the work between UVM and the communities. Despite the different projects, there was an overarching theme of capacity building and food systems development.
Food systems junior Jessica Giordano participated in the water quality team, guided by Peter DeGraaf, a UVM alumnus and civic engineer with water system experience in Vermont and abroad.
Contributing and Collaborating
“I came in thinking I wasn’t qualified to work on water quality. But water is a huge part of the food system—it’s used in gardens for irrigation and in the kitchen to clean fruits and vegetables, which also ties in a food safety component,” Giordano said. “I was able to apply my background in ecological agriculture to understand and contribute to our work.”
After a few days of working with the St. Charles School community, the UVM students traveled across Kenya to Homa Bay to start their project work with the next school. Joined by a few students and administrators from Ruai, the UVM students received a warm welcome from the St. Vianeey Primary School community, including students, parents, and staff.
In collaboration with the students of St. Charles, the UVM group worked on projects with the community members of the Homa Bay community. One group taught sustainable methods to create homemade soap and toothpaste, aimed at improving public health of the community. Another group constructed a stationary smoothie bike to demonstrate a potential entrepreneurial endeavor that might be of interest to community members. The third group continued to work on water system evaluation, and assessed the property, buildings, and layout of the school grounds to plan for the addition of a permanent water storage tank.
The service-learning component of the trip concluded with a celebration dinner in the company of special guests from St. Charles School. The hotel put together a formal dinner table with a generous authentic dinner, an experience that stood out to Kolodinsky.
“We were under the stars sitting with our partners from the community. Everyone was an equal at the table,” Kolodinsky said. “For many of the St. Charles students, this was the first time they experienced a situation like this in a banquet situation. And if they have experienced an event like this, they are out in the peanut gallery. But at the table, they were VIPs.”
Amanda Falkner pointed out that while she was sitting with two St. Charles students at the dinner table, they were talking about cultural norms relating to school, and dating and marriage, and communities.
“One student was surprised by some of the similarities between our culture and theirs. The other student chimed in to say that we’re not that different besides the color of our skin. That statement took a lot of our experiences in Kenya, and put it out there on the table,” Falkner said. “I’m glad many conversations kept tying back to race, and that’s because we can’t ignore that. Racial disparities are very prevalent in food systems work. A lot of things we do are different, and we have to acknowledge privilege surrounding white identities and how marginalization impacts non-white identities, but ultimately we all have similar goals and motives for improving our food systems.”
A Transformative Experience
Kolodinsky said that while the course wasn’t designed as a food system course, food was a major theme.
“It wasn’t specifically designed to be a food systems class, but food was truly embedded in everything we did. There was always a conversation during the meals we ate, about what food we were eating and why,” she said. “We weren’t foreign tourists being served American food. Our hosts provided delicious African cuisine. Sakuma wiki! That’s kale; it’s something that has inundated the American palate, but it’s truly an authentic staple in Kenya.”
For students considering an abroad opportunity, Jessica Giordano said the opportunity allowed her to partake in another culture through a service-learning experience.
“Seeing for yourself what other people eat and how they grow and process food was so impactful. It was cool to experience a different food system to compare to our domestic food system,” she said.
Kolodinsky summed up the trip by describing it as a life changing opportunity for students.
“It was transformative—whether students built confidence, sparked something for their future, or saw community development on the ground,” she said. “This trip helped students experience a transformation that they might not have experienced just being in a classroom on campus.”
-Olivia Peña is a graduate student studying food systems with a focus in food and agriculture policy.