Reflections from a Senior
Issue   |   Tue, 04/17/2018 - 20:36

I’m all for critiquing Amherst. In fact, I think part of the liberal arts mission is to train students to be critical of power structures, institutions and arguments. But sometimes, when I take a moment and reflect on my classmates, our thoughts and discussions, I’m eternally grateful for what we can achieve together.

I didn’t expect a cooking class (Chem 100: Molecular Gastronomy, if you’re interested) to provide much in terms of discussion on public policy. It’s one of those rare Amherst gifts to take a class outside of one’s major and largely for fun. Many of us in the class are upperclassmen, and most of us are not chemistry majors. We are an amalgamation of studio art, economics, political science, biology and French students, and I think it’s safe to say all of us love food.

We were given an assignment to discuss food deserts, a banal-enough topic, and one that luckily does not affect us at Amherst. We were told to write some paragraphs about the topic and prepare for an in-class discussion. Full disclosure: I forgot to do this writing and was tasked with synthesizing thoughts and monitoring participation. But in the end, I was glad to have this role because it made me focus on an oft-neglected skill — listening.

Our discussion began with an overview of the problem that food deserts create. We quickly presented some frameworks to think about the causes: supply and demand forces, access and transportation, knowledge and education and income inequality. We categorized these general causes as falling under the larger issue of economic inequality, which probably needs to be remedied by redistributive welfare economics and logistical uptake, which is a more consumer-focused and cultural issue.

But, we also thought about challenges in classifying food deserts. How do we define the phenomenon — per grocery store per capita? Per area? How do we understand movement within cities and transitory phenomena like gentrification?

Throughout the discussion, classmates brought up their personal experiences working with low-income communities on public health related issues. They talked about struggles finding time to cook after long days of work, with education as a potential impetus for changing consumer behavior and the interconnectedness of racial segregation and food deserts. They talked about experiences in low-income schools ,where students were sent home with backpacks of high-calorie food, and the problem of solving hunger as a whole.

We spent the most time discussing solutions. We brought up community gardens, technology and business solutions, public policy subsidies, educational interventions and food pop-ups. It was nice to see different perspectives and schools of thought tackling different parts of the problem. Future consultants thought about how Blue Apron and cloud systems could create efficiencies to drive economic growth in low-income areas. Skeptics questioned whether efficiency was really a way to promote greater equity in food accessibility. Political science and sociology majors talked about incorporating gardening into education, and making sure initiatives came from within communities as opposed to outside of them.

What was most poignant for me in our discussion was how we used questions. In a Montaignesque way, the question signified an understanding in the thoughts of our peers, growth in these thoughts and finally an articulation of our own thoughts. A few examples of these questions:

Is regulation going to help schools achieve better education around food or promote solutions like urban gardening? Is bad health in schools a symptom rather than a cause? What can we do about the time constraints inherent in building food co-ops or community gardens for healthy food especially in low-income communities? How do you specifically conceptualize food as a right instead of an economically controlled commodity?

I do not want to come off as needlessly or frivolously complimentary. Amherst students have many problems with engaging in community efforts. But, as I reflect on my four years at this school, I can’t help but be thankful for my classmates, how they have helped form my thoughts and my ideas and how they have come together to engage in the toughness of public problem solving.

Thank you Amherst College, and hopefully, Terras Irradient.

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