Food justice class connects with local seniors

By: Kathy Hovis,  AS Communications
December 6, 2016

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.

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

Having lived through the depression, some of the 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. today.

“Back then, we were lucky if we got an orange,” said Mary Zichettella, who grew up in Auburn and 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, national issues such as lack of funding for the school lunch program and cuts in food stamp benefits that contribute to hunger and the larger issue of 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.


Students said they hope the screening will raise awareness of the issue and shed some light on grassroots efforts that can make a difference in the local area. They 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 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.”

Along with the film screening, 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, the interim chair and an associate professor in Africana studies and a core faculty member in feminist, gender sexuality studies. “Far too frequently the overall food, or 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, and/or Latino eat, shop, and cook for themselves and their children. However, all those issues are central to the Food Justice movement.”

Bobby J. Smith II, a doctoral student in development sociology, is the teaching assistant for the class. He’s researching the issue of food justice for his dissertation and has become quite active in the food justice movement in Ithaca.

He said that 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.”

Through their readings and the projects, 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.”


Along with the documentary screening project, other student projects included:

An oral history of six McGraw House residents. Students talked with residents about their childhood memories of food, any cultural attachments they have to certain dishes or flavors and problems they may have had with food insecurity throughout their lives, among other issues, said Jesse Bessinger ’19.

“This class is one of only a few where you’re not learning about poverty, writing a paper for a grade and then just forgetting about it. We’re becoming involved in the change process,” said Bessinger, a student in the College of Arts Sciences who is designing a major based on environmental justice and social entrepreneurship, in part she said, because of her experience in this class.

A recipe book filled with healthy and reasonably-priced dishes. The book considers not only the price of meals, but encourages the use of fresh ingredients and takes into account that not all families will have the same cooking equipment or pantry staples. The book would be available both in print and the group hopes to also offer it as a pdf so local organizations can share it online.

“I think that food justice is a real issue regardless of what you’re studying because it’s a basic human right, said Alice Zhou ‘17, an economics major who is part of that group and a member of the Food Recovery Network on campus.

A food delivery system for lower-income residents who can’t get to the store. This business development group hit a few roadblocks when they initially tried to develop an idea to serve college students and other community members, but then switched their focus to seniors at McGraw House.

After talking with both McGraw House residents and Cornell students, the group learned that affordability was not as big an issue for most people, but time and convenience were factors that affected their ability to cook healthy meals.

“Our business plan is essentially to sell weekly prepared meal kits (i.e. pre-cut and pre-measured ingredients with recipes) on a sliding price scale based on need,” said Victor Tran ‘18. “We want to sell meal kits to those who do not have a full length of time to cook and do not worry about affordability, and then use the profits to subsidize meals to those who do face affordability as an issue.”

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

“The programming they brought to McGraw House was innovative, and residents that 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.”