For students interested in environmental issues, the sustainability of our food systems is increasingly a topic of prime interest. “The way we grow, distribute and consume food is essential to support not only human well-being, but the well-being of our planet as well,” says Dr. Nurcan Atalan-Helicke, Program Director and Associate Professor in the Environmental Studies and Sciences (ESS) Program at Skidmore College. “Industrialized, globalized food systems have a tremendous impact on biodiversity and earth’s natural cycles, such as water, nitrogen and carbon. Our students recognize this, and aspire to make these systems more sustainable and just.”
To meet this need, Skidmore College, aided with a grant from the Henry David Thoreau Foundation, has launched the Food Systems Initiative, an interdisciplinary, community-based research and teaching initiative. The Food Systems Initiative will provide undergraduates with direct experience in addressing local environmental issues through collaborative teamwork, storytelling skills, and leadership development, and will strengthen the justice focus of students’ capstone projects through workshops.
Much of this work has already been underway at Skidmore, albeit in a less formalized fashion. “We offer a variety of courses in both the ESS program and other departments that have helped students build skills and careers related to food systems. The College’s Sustainability Office works with student leaders on maintaining the community garden, compost management and sustainable dining hall purchases. And our faculty have developed connections to various community organizations and businesses in the Capital District region,” explains Dr. Atalan-Helicke. Several recent student capstone projects have also focused on food systems, including one that helped grocery store chains increase their procurement and marketing of local food, and another that worked with a local brewery to make its production and distribution chains more sustainable. Two other recent projects partnered with food security organizations to assess how vulnerable groups access food, work that was particularly timely during the COVID-19 pandemic as organizations responded to the increase in need for services. “What the grant from the Thoreau Foundation work will do, therefore, is strengthen and focus our work in this area.”
The Initiative’s emphasis on diversity and equity is of particular relevance given that minority communities are often at greatest risk of food insecurity and have less of a say in the food systems that impact their lives. The Initiative will prioritize international and/or BIPOC students for work-study, summer-collaborative, and internship opportunities, particularly students at early stages of their academic training. The Food Systems Initiative will thus support the training of a diverse group of ESS majors to create a positive impact in their academic training and career paths.
Beyond the gratification that comes with advancing a burgeoning topic within environmental studies, this project is personally rewarding for Dr. Atalan-Helicke. “My focus has been the conservation of agricultural biodiversity and small farmers, and how they conserve 10,000-year-old wheat landraces domesticated in today’s Middle East. I also work with women and food choices, particularly the intersection of halal food and genetic engineering. Over the years, I have also brought farmers and community organizations into the student-led projects and the classes I teach to address local environmental issues, including affordable housing, local climate action, zero-waste, urban trees. The support of the Thoreau Foundation will allow me to weave together these threads to increase our students’ ability to create environmental solutions to pressing contemporary problems.”