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Food justice class connects with local seniors

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students with residents of McGraw House
Lindsay France/Cornell Marketing Group
Students in Noliwe Rooks' Food Justice class host a screening and discussion of the film, "A Place at the Table," with residents of McGraw House in downtown Ithaca Dec. 3.

All semester long, students in Noliwe Rooks’ new class, “Race and Social Entrepreneurship: Food Justice and Urban Reform,” have been conducting research, reading about and discussing issues of food policy, politics, access and sustainability in Ithaca.

The class split into several groups for their final projects, with many students working with residents of Ithaca’s McGraw House, an independent-living apartment complex for people 62 and older, to take action on food insecurity. One of those groups hosted a film screening of a documentary film, “A Place at the Table,” Dec. 3 for about 20 residents of McGraw House, followed by discussion and dessert.

Having lived through the Great Depression, some McGraw House residents said they could relate to the hunger issues described in the movie, but they were surprised to learn the situation is still so bad for many people in the U.S.

“Back then, we were lucky if we got an orange,” said Mary Zichettella, who moved to Ithaca in 1955. “My mother used to water down our milk so it would last longer. But we always had enough on the table because we had a garden and we canned everything.”

After watching the movie, residents and students talked about local efforts to help fight food insecurity, lack of funding for national school lunch programs and cuts in food stamp benefits that contribute to hunger, poverty and the lack of jobs.

“It’s not about providing charity to people, it’s about providing an income through work,” said Beena Kulkowitz, a McGraw House resident who grew up in Brooklyn, New York.

Students plan to continue screenings next semester at other community locations.

“Food justice has been an issue I’ve been interested in for a long time,” said Meghan Hadley ’18, a College Scholar in the College of Arts and Sciences. “This class has been a great way to tangibly become involved with the issues and get out into the community to talk to people who have been affected.”

The students presented their work during an event called “Aging, Economics and Food Justice in Ithaca,” Dec. 5 at the Tompkins County Public Library.

“It is important for students to think about the ways that race, class, age and access impact something as basic as food and the ability to eat,” said Rooks, interim chair, an associate professor in Africana studies and a core faculty member in feminist, gender & sexuality studies. “Far too frequently, the healthy eating movement can tend to overlook the cultural and societal issues impacting food quality and access as well as the health and economic realities surrounding how Americans who are older, on a fixed income, poor, black or Latino eat, shop and cook for themselves and their children.”

Bobby J. Smith II, a doctoral student in development sociology, is the teaching assistant for the class. He’s researching food justice for his dissertation and said he and Rooks wanted to focus the class on the senior population because they’re typically left out of conversations about food insecurity.

“A lot of seniors don’t go to local farmers’ markets, for example, because of physical access,” Smith said. “Our class and the senior projects illustrate the complexity of food justice and interventions and what they look like.”

Smith said he hopes students can be inspired to continue this work.

“Our students see interventions happening now, but their question is, ‘How can I do this in the future?” Smith said. “That’s why we wanted them to be connected to the community, so that when they leave Cornell and go to their own communities, they see the importance of continuing the work, no matter where they are in the world.”

Other student projects included: an oral history of six McGraw House residents, who were interviewed about their childhood memories of food, cultural attachments to certain dishes and problems they may have had with food insecurity throughout their lives; a recipe book filled with healthy and reasonably priced dishes, which students plan to distribute in print and offer online; and a food delivery system for lower-income residents who can’t get to the store.

Jane Baker Segelken, service coordinator for McGraw House, said the student projects enhanced the lives of the residents.

“The programming they brought to McGraw House was innovative, and residents who participated reported feeling engaged and valued,” she said. “While the reciprocal and mutual benefit is apparent by the fact that the students understand the issues of aging and the residents are more productive, involved and less isolated, these connections also break down stereotypes – in both directions.”

Kathy Hovis is a writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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