Global to Local

Randolph students present their research findings to City Council members.

Randolph students present their research findings to City Council members.

Randolph faculty and staff work to address Lynchburg hunger issues

More than 30,000 people living in Region 2000 struggle to feed themselves or their families, according to FeedingAmerica.org. Some are unemployed, while others have lowpaying jobs. Some are children who eat meals at school but might go without dinner at home. Some are elderly on a fixed income.

Not only do these families live in poverty, but often the food that is most affordable to them is unhealthy, such as snacks at the local convenience store.

When public assistance programs fail to meet the entire need of a family or individual, churches and other nonprofit organizations work to fill the gap.

A class of Randolph College students recently spent time researching how those local organizations could feed more people. They presented their findings— and what they believe is a workable solution—to City Council late last fall.

Randolph students present their research findings to City Council members.

Randolph students present their research findings to City Council members.

Sally Taylor ’15 explained to the elected officials that sometimes, these charities receive more donated food than they can use. Many leftovers get thrown out. “There isn’t a point C; when they have extra food, it just goes to compost,” Taylor said. “There’s no mechanism for them to deal with that excess food.”

During their presentation, Taylor and her fellow students suggested that the city study whether the leftover food could be distributed through the city’s community centers, which could also host classes on food preparation and nutrition. That would make the food more available to people who might not be able to travel to the organizations that provide meals, Taylor said.

Shortly after the meeting, Taylor began an internship with the city, tasked with finding out how to make their solution a reality.

The research was part of Randolph College professor Jennifer Dugan’s Global to Local class, which studies the way worldwide problems manifest themselves in Lynchburg. This year, they focused on issues related to hunger, poverty, and charity.

“My desire was to not only link the global to the local on an intellectual basis, but also do something that we can’t do in Africa or South America, but we can do right here,” she said.

Dugan is one of several Randolph community members who work with other organizations and Randolph students to eliminate hunger in Lynchburg. This involvement helps Randolph students apply what they are learning in the classroom by working on issues that matter to the local community.

John Abell, an economics professor, has been a leader in local efforts to eliminate poverty-related hunger in Lynchburg for several years. He first became involved after learning about food deserts—communities where lowincome residents lack access to affordable, healthy food, usually because of the absence of easily accessible supermarkets.

“At first, I thought it was just an interesting academic phenomenon,” Abell said. “But then I realized that what I was reading described downtown Lynchburg.”

Randolph economics professor and food desert expert John Abell (far right) works with students in a garden he helped create at New Vistas School.

Randolph economics professor and food desert expert John Abell (far right) works with students in a garden he helped create at New Vistas School.

In 2011, Abell offered a new class about the economics of food and sustainability. By gathering and analyzing food prices, his students demonstrated that the least expensive foods at convenience stores tend to be high in fat and sugar, while the same stores charged much higher prices than grocery stores for what few healthier foods they had in stock.

That meant some of the city’s poorest residents did not have the ability to purchase healthy food, said Ludovic Lemaitre ’11, who took Abell’s class during his senior year. He is now the sustainability coordinator at Randolph.

Working on that research with Abell made Lemaitre want to do more to help the community around him. “I learned that having a passion and following it can really give you a lot more energy in the work you do,” said Lemaitre. “In return, that tireless work can truly bring tremendous changes to a city.”

Their research prompted a discussion that led to the formation of the Lynchburg Area Food Council in 2012, which seeks to ensure all people in Region 2000 have access to healthy food. Abell became the council’s first president. Lemaitre is on the board of directors.

The council has helped implement several programs: a “Grocery Bus” provides free rides from the James River Crossing Apartments to a grocery store each Saturday; Lynchburg Grows uses a food truck to sell inexpensive produce in food deserts; and seven community gardens in Lynchburg have been created or expanded.

One of those gardens is at New Vistas School, which uses it to teach students about agriculture, food preparation, and nutrition. The school hopes the experience will teach students to make wise food choices and help them later if they choose to work as chefs or entrepreneurs in the food industry.

“They are able to eat lunch out of the garden every day if they choose,” said Lara Jesser, the director of development at New Vistas. “They can experiment with vegetables and how to prepare them.”

Excess food from the garden is sent to Lynchburg Daily Bread, she added. Last year, Abell undertook another research project to illustrate the significance of the hunger and poverty challenges faced by Lynchburg residents.

He conducted video interviews with people on each side of the challenge— including those who struggle to afford food, the nonprofit leaders who feed those in need, and farmers who employ sustainable practices—and paired those interviews with statistics about the Lynchburg economy. (Go to lynchburgfood.go.randolphcollege.edu to read Abell’s research.)

He also brainstormed ways Lynchburg could apply creative ideas used in other communities to address hunger challenges. He dreams of spurring an urban agriculture economy that grows jobs as well as food. “I’m looking at solutions from around the country where food is out there to create legitimate economic development,” Abell said.

An idea like that would require tremendous planning and funding, but it is something to strive for, said Philip Gabathuler, current president of the food council. “John is excellent in leading a discussion centered on solutions,” he said. “He’s not afraid to think out of the box.”

Finding creative, effective solutions is a skill that Randolph strives to impart through its liberal arts education. To professors like Abell and Dugan, it makes sense to help students develop that skill while solving local problems. “If my class can play a role in contributing to human rights and social justice, then I’m not sure why I wouldn’t do it,” Dugan added. “Randolph College is well-positioned to make a difference in the community.”