Doctoral candidate raises students' awareness of food systems issues

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- When Lauren Chenarides joined the Penn State-led research project called Enhancing Food Security in the Northeast through Regional Food Systems, she knew she'd be getting a rich experience in food systems research.

As a doctoral candidate in the Agricultural, Environmental and Regional Economics program in the College of Agricultural Sciences, she is one of several graduate students across the Northeast benefiting from the research team's efforts to train future food system scientists. But Chenarides also did some training herself, teaching a course that immersed 40 Penn State undergraduates in the concepts of food access, food security and regional food systems.

The course, Food Products Marketing, is a requirement for all students enrolled in Penn State's undergraduate Agribusiness Management major. It covers the principles and applications of food marketing and explores trends related to food production, distribution and consumption.

That's why the course stood out to Penn State members of the project team as a perfect venue for meeting one of their educational objectives -- to enhance undergraduate students' exposure to some of the themes explored by the team, including food systems, food access and food security. At the same time, team members working on the project's education objectives at other institutions, such as Tufts University and Delaware State University, were taking similar measures to introduce these concepts to existing courses or to develop new courses altogether.

At Penn State, Alessandro Bonanno, assistant professor of agricultural economics and Chenarides' advisor, restructured the Food Products Marketing course to include these concepts in spring 2012. He taught the revised course again that fall, with Chenarides serving as his teaching assistant.

When Bonanno left for Wageningen University in the Netherlands, Chenarides assumed the responsibility of teaching the Penn State course on her own in spring 2013. She said that the first half of the course was designed to acquaint students with food marketing trends while familiarizing them with food access and food security issues.

"We discussed how food insecurity exhibits itself across the United States and what it exactly means," she said. "We also talked about regional food production and explored differences between rural and urban food environments."

The second half of the course was devoted to reframing the recent trends -- from food labeling to sustainability -- within a more general marketing context. Chenarides wanted her students to gain an appreciation for all the issues that make marketing food so different than marketing other products.

During this part of the course, students developed a marketing plan for a hypothetical food product, applying the concepts learned in the previous half of the course. One team of students, for example, chose to explore the regional food system concept by developing a plan for a roadside hamburger stand that specialized in regionally sourced food. They addressed the challenge of sourcing regional meat by locating the fictional eatery on a beef-cattle farm and quickly discovered how challenging regional sourcing can be for other ingredients, such as hamburger buns.

Chenarides' students weren't the only ones to learn such valuable lessons; she learned a lot along the way, too. "The content is really interesting to me. I liked the challenge of trying to explain it to someone who may not have heard it before, and why it's important, and where it falls in the whole scheme of things," she said. "It made me realize I like teaching."

Enhancing Food Security in the Northeast through Regional Food Systems is directed by Stephan Goetz, a professor of agricultural and regional economics at Penn State and the director of the Northeast Regional Center for Rural Development. The project, which is supported by a grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, engages more than 40 individuals at multiple universities, nonprofits and government agencies.

Chenarides and Bonanno are members of the project subcommittee that is documenting current and potential community-level constraints and identifying opportunities for improving access to regionally produced, healthy food for people in disadvantaged communities in the Northeast.

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Last Updated September 09, 2014