For Five Penn Students, Service-Learning Course Leads to a Lesson in Effecting Institutional Change

facebook twitter google print email
Media Contact:Amanda Mott | | 215-898-1422May 12, 2014

When political science majors Alyssa Dickinson, Conor Nickel and Yamini Nabar graduate from the University of Pennsylvania on May 19, they will be leaving behind a legacy on campus.

The three seniors along with juniors Joyce Kim and Cynthia Plotch are the successful arbiters of a new food recovery program set to launch as a pilot at Penn next fall.

How the group of students got there provided a practical lesson in how to influence institutional change.

It began last fall as a group service placement as part of Mary Summers and Jane Kauer's Academically Based Community Service Politics of Food course. The group learned that adopting a food recovery program takes a high level of coordination, organization and perseverance.

Last month Nickel, Nabar and Dickinson presented the project and discussed the process at the 11th Annual ABCS Summit, which included eight teams from Kauer and Summers’ course and other ABCS courses taught this spring and last fall.

The course led to a 44-page proposal and in March, the team successfully presented the plan to Penn Dining and its service provider, Bon Appetit Management Company.

Their proposal recommends “that Penn, as an urban institution, begin an institutionalized food recovery partnership with Feeding America and Philabundance through the Online Marketplace program.”

This institutional approach would take leftover food from Penn’s dining halls and cafes and donate it to local hunger relief agencies.

Their plan was accepted and in advance of launching the fall pilot, Penn Dining and Bon Appetit are now in the process of working with Feeding America and its local affiliates to find a partner that will receive Penn’s food donations.

It is a notable accomplishment considering that the effort was the first research-based service project offered by the Politics of Food course.

“This was the first time we have had a research service placement, and there was not a requirement to be doing something off campus,” says Summers, lecturer in political science in the School of Arts & Sciences and senior fellow in Penn’s Fox Leadership Program.

Summers has been teaching the course since 2002 and for two years has co-taught the course with Kauer, lecturer in anthropology, also in Arts & Sciences.

Each fall, 30 to 40 students in the class break out into smaller groups and choose a multiple service-learning project pairing them with local community organizations off campus, or working with Penn Dining to increase local food on campus, an effort which helped bring Bon Appetit to campus. This year, Summers and Kauer decided to add a research-based placement on food recovery as a service option.

For Nickel, who has been involved in ABCS courses since his freshman year and has worked with six different ones while at Penn, the research component was both exciting and frightening.

“It was overwhelming at first, I did not even know what food recovery was,” says Nickel, who is from Syosset, N.Y. “That, and realizing we had to start a program that does not exist, was a lot to consider. We did not know exactly where to start, but that kind of added to the excitement of it.”

Nickel, Dickinson, Plotch, Kim and Nabar began by researching the problem of food waste, finding that an estimated 40 percent of food is wasted each year in the United States. The students say the more they learned the more passionate they became about finding an effective food recovery program for Penn.

Nabar, who is from Short Hills, N.J., says, “We knew that a food recovery program at a large university like Penn could have a real impact in the area of hunger relief.”    

Members of the team each researched and wrote papers on various aspects of food recovery and food recovery programs, including current and past programs organized on campus and programs at peer institutions.

“We looked at past initiatives that Penn had done,” says Nickel, “and we found that many had been started but had then ended abruptly because of students’ busy schedules and the lack of continuity from year to year.”

Seeking a sustainable solution, Summers put the team in touch with staff at Penn Dining and Bon Appetit, who had experience with issues of food waste and food recovery.

“Penn Dining and Bon Appetit have worked with Politics of Food students, Penn’s Green Campus Partnership and the Netter Center’s Agatston Urban Nutrition Initiative and other student groups on campus to sponsor a Penn ‘food week’ every fall,” says Summers. “Bon Appetit Fellow Nicole Tocco and her colleague at the Bon Appetit Foundation, Claire Cummings, who works on food waste and food recovery issues with Bon Appetit accounts around the country, played a very important role in working with and supporting our class student research team.”

Pam Lampitt, director of hospitality services, which oversees Penn Dining, says supporting student research and academic initiatives is part of their mission.

“Penn has very committed and conscientious students and we want to be engaged with our students,” she says. “We are here to be involved in the research fabric of the University.

The students struggled with whether they should recommend a more student-driven or institutional approach.

Working with Penn Dining, Bon Appetit and other experts, they learned that issues of liability and the strict guidelines governing food safety and food handling were important considerations. They also weighed other issues such as the size of Penn’s food program and the amount of student volunteer time that would be required over time.

“Some students thought Penn should join the Penn Food Recovery Network which is the more hands-on student involved model,” says Summers. “The team of students looked at both options and how they play out around the country, and they saw the established program through Bon Appetit seemed to be a clearly more systematic program that could be sustained over time with careful and institutionally based safeguards.”

The students also sought input and support from faculty across disciplines, conducting interviews with Theodore Ruger, a professor in Penn’s Law School and an expert in health law, and Steve Finn, professor of organizational dynamics in Arts & Sciences.

“After we completed our research process, we concluded that an institutional approach was a more sustainable model versus a fully student-driven one,” says Nickel. “But we also knew we’d have to sell students on that. So we had to come up with an education and awareness campaign.”

Team member Joyce Kim, a political science major from Allen, Texas, who now heads the Undergraduate Assembly at Penn, helped shape the approach to gauge student interest and rally student support.

“The political debate about whether it was better to have a spontaneous student-driven approach or an institutionalized program taught the group a lot about political strategy and how to make institutional change,” says Summers.

“The course created a community that continues,” says Kauer.  “Another outgrowth of the project is the opportunity to showcase leadership on issues related to food waste at the first national conference on the subject, to be held at Penn in December.”

From the start, the group was committed to the idea of community engagement as part of their involvement in the ABCS course and as a guiding factor in their proposal.

In the executive summary for their plan, they write that “introducing a food recovery program “will enable Penn to engage further with local communities, reduce environmental impact, and minimize waste, all of which are encompassed within the Penn Compact and the Climate Action Plan.”

Senior Alyssa Dickinson from Swarthmore, Pa., says the course was one of the highlights of her Penn experience.

“This is a good example of where a project that was done over a couple of months can have a lasting impact. I think that is what made this project unique,” she says. “Working with so many students, faculty and staff on this project was an enriching experience and one I’ll remember as I graduate from Penn.”

In the fall, juniors Kim and Plotch, an economics major from Fair Lawn, N.J., who this year spent the spring semester studying abroad in Argentina, will be on campus, able to watch first-hand as their efforts at implementing an institutionalized food recovery program at Penn start to impact hunger in Philadelphia.