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W&M students teach youngsters about food justice, farmworkers’ rights

  • Elizabeth Snyder, Caitlen Macias Hentze, Helen Tariku
    Food Justice League:  (From left to right) Intern Elizabeth Snyder '21, peer advisor Caitlen Macias Hentze '19, and intern Helen Tariku '21 are William & Mary sociology majors currently working on the third year of a curriculum that is implemented as an after-school club at Matthew Whaley Elementary School.  Courtesy photo
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William & Mary sociology students are starting the third year of developing and implementing lessons for an after-school club at nearby Matthew Whaley Elementary School.

Different students each year work on the curriculum, which centers on food justice and farmworkers’ rights, as the main focus of an independent study course. W&M Associate Professor of Sociology Amy Quark serves as their advisor.

“In the first six weeks, students research farmworkers’ rights and food justice to develop the background that’s needed to lead the after-school club,” Quark said. “They also study and revise the lesson plans from the year before. The club starts in October and runs for eight weeks. After the students implement the club, they write a paper that evaluates this effort in public sociology and consider whether they have achieved the goal of sparking a sociological imagination in elementary school kids.”

The program is called the Food Justice League and centers on the sociology of food and agriculture, including equity issues.

It started after Camille Karabaich ’18 took Quark’s Food and Society course. She was so interested in issues of food and justice, that she asked Quark if she could do some type of independent study or internship on the topic.

Quark connected Karabaich to the Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools’ School Health Initiative Program, where she did a semester-long internship. Karabaich, who is now a student at W&M Law School, then developed the after-school club as a way to add more information about equity and justice issues that are involved in the food system. She started the Food Justice League and implemented it at Whaley two years ago.

“I am so glad that William & Mary students get to be involved in helping the club grow and develop over time,” Karabaich said. “Everyone brings their own perspective and their own creative energy, so I know the FJL is benefitting with every iteration.”

Karabaich designed the club to be engaging and to have students moving all over the classroom. Emphasizing fun, she set it up as a super-secret, super-hero organization. The Whaley students each have code names and wear FJL badges and, instead of lessons, they have missions to complete delivered by President Spaghetti via top-secret video message. Activities include games, scavenger hunts, arts and crafts, and role playing.

The program culminates in a final project, which in past years has been a clothing drive for farmworkers.

One example of a lesson is information on farmworkers’ exposure to pesticides while working with produce, Quark said. Others include farmworker rights, food production and historical efforts by farmworkers to improve wages and working conditions. The 3rd through 5th graders that W&M students are working with already have a deep understanding of what is fair and what is not, and the information is an easy extension for them and helps them engage as citizens, she added.

“Understanding where your food comes from and how it grows is an important part of developing healthy eating habits,” said Amy Lazev, supervisor of SHIP for WJCC Public Schools. “The Food Justice League expands on this and empowers our elementary school students to explore, and think in-depth, about the food system in our country. As we educate our students to become lifelong learners, this club provides knowledge and an authentic learning experience through a food justice project, challenging our students to become global citizens supporting a healthy world.”

Caitlen Macias Hentze ’19 worked an intern last year and will serve as peer advisor this year for interns Elizabeth Snyder ’21 and Helen Tariku ’21. All three are sociology majors.

“My role as the peer advisor is to mentor and guide the new interns,” Macias Hentze said. “My plan is to ensure that the FJL is a sustainable program that can continue to impact students. I plan to help the interns make appropriate changes to the curriculum to make sure each lesson connects to important concepts and engages students in an interactive way.

“This year, I will also be helping the interns learn techniques in classroom management to alleviate disruptions during the ‘missions’.”

Snyder and Tariku are in the planning phase for this fall’s program but are excited to put their own stamp on the next phase of it.

“Each year the interns have an opportunity to refine the original lesson plans,” Snyder said. “This is a fun, creative process that's really rewarding when I think about the impact it will have in later years.

“I am a strong believer in the effectiveness of grassroots, community-based action, and working with a nearby elementary school accomplishes just that. I am also a big proponent of exposing kids early to social justice issues and empowering them with the tools and knowledge they need to make change. “

Tariku said taking Quark’s class last semester made her and her classmates aware of all the relevant dimensions of food that not many people, regardless of age, know about, which she feels is very important.

“I think that because of this it is pertinent that we, as a society, educate ourselves starting at a young age about these issues and topics so that we are equipped to understand and handle them,” Tariku said. “Additionally, I feel as if this is an opportunity that most students don’t have the chance to be exposed to, so I’m delighted we get to share with those at Matthew Whaley.”