What a garden can grow: Sociology and the Global Politics of Food

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Community Garden: Holly Santiago

"Garden ambassador" and University videographer Holly Santiago digs into spring planting at the community garden north of St. Cloud State Women's Center.

Community Garden: Tracy Ore Community Garden: Chris Kerr Community Garden: Holly Santiago Community Garden: Little Gardeners Community Garden: Politics of Food 

For Associate Professor Tracy Ore, food is far more than something to be consumed. In her teaching, she uses food as a main ingredient for enlightening students about global political, environmental and economic issues. In her community advocacy, she employs it as a significant tool for building community and sharing culture.

Through her "Sociology and the Global Politics of Food" course and its outgrowth, a community garden that’s building connections between campus and community, Tracy Ore helps students examine societal issues connected to the growing, production and distribution of food.

"Through food a lot of things can be seen," said senior Dawn Mikkelson, a sociology major from Shoreview who took Ore’s class. The course helps students explore a range of topics, including how globalization affects farming communities and how to make discerning food choices at the grocery store. "She makes you see food in a different light," Mikkelson said.

Ore helps her students apply something as common as food to issues as complex as politics and economics of society, said senior Deanna Tatro, Little Falls, who as a class project researched sugar cane – a food item she took for granted – and discovered how it affects the people who grow it and how political agendas affect its production. "Sociology classes always give me aha moments,
but a class like this inspires me even more."

It’s important to Ore that her students understand where food comes from and how it’s connected to people’s surroundings and their health.

"We have problems with people getting access to food," she said, pointing out that for those without resources, food pantries are not a long-term solution. Some of her students have gotten involved in studying people’s accessibility to food in St. Cloud, including identifying pockets in the community where grocery stores and bus routes to food sources are not readily available. The project has produced a 30-page document that will be sent to city leaders, asking for an assessment of food accessibility in Central Minnesota.

Ore contends that when people have more connection with their food and understand where it comes from, it can change their relationship with food. She takes her students to a poultry processing plant and to the community garden on campus to expand their thinking about the sources of food.

As the driving force behind the successful community garden on Fifth Avenue, north of the St. Cloud State Women’s Center, Ore has given faculty and staff, students and neighbors a way to come together and connect as they plant, nurture and share food and flowers. Volunteer gardeners get down and dirty as they till and weed and harvest, but they also have fun sharing summer cookouts and taking home fresh-picked produce.

Creating a sustainable garden on a piece of land on campus that for years had been just a place to dump snow has been a learning experience. It also has been an enjoyable journey for Ore and her fellow gardeners, including Assistant Professor of English Catherine Fox, who has been a faithful volunteer from the beginning, and "garden ambassador" Holly Santiago, a university videographer.

Three years ago when she first put a shovel into the ground of the garden, Ore hit rock-hard soil one inch down. "You couldn’t find a worm," she said. But with the right planning and care, the spot that Ore calls a "perfect location right there on the front door of the campus" has flourished.

"The garden is my connection to the University," said St. Cloud resident Chris Kerr, who has been involved with the community garden for three years. "It brings all kinds of people with similar interests together," he said. "It transcends race, generations." When Ore mentioned it would be nice to have a compost bin, he responded by building one for the garden and turning it into a fun project for a group of willing volunteers.

"Everybody’s equal in the garden," said Ore, who has become a student of every aspect of producing, preserving and using food. "I got into it more as a way of meeting people. It’s been pretty amazing how people have come together to plant things and to grow not just food, but to grow community."

Through the garden and through her teaching, Ore spreads awareness and understanding about investing in the earth and investing in people, about preserving the environment and preserving community.

"Any class with her is just amazing," Tatro said of Ore’s ability to relate the common threads in sociology. "Family, money, food – it’s all related."

- Marsh Shoemaker

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