A Friends school, pre-K to 12, on 47 acres in East Falls, Philadelphia


Food Insecurity: Connecting Service and Academics

Food Insecurity: Connecting Service and Academics


In Philadelphia, one in three people qualify for food stamps. So, last year when sixth grade teachers asked students “how do we solve the issue of food insecurity in Philadelphia?” it was a big question. Students would work for seven months and employ design thinking, collaboration, research and creativity to find answers.

Teachers posed the question last year as they built a new curriculum around an end-of-year capstone project. For about 20 years, PC sixth graders had been studying and performing A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with imaginative costumes in outdoor settings, as an end-of-year capstone and celebration.

Shakespeare was a tough act to follow. But teachers were looking for an interdisciplinary project that put students in touch with real-world issues calling out for solutions. They wanted a project focused on service. Jim Pilkington, who teaches English and social studies, and advises in sixth grade, thought the issue of food insecurity could be a “connecting force” among sixth grade subjects.

The curriculum already presented opportunities for learning across disciplines. In English, the class reads The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, about drought and famine in Malawi. In math, percentages make an easy segue to statistics about hunger. In science, students learn about biomes and carbon footprints and where food comes from. And social studies offers the opportunity to explore food insecurity worldwide.

Teachers added new projects that explored food in four core academic subjects, plus health class. In English, students wrote about a favorite family meal or holiday to demonstrate that a meal is more than food—it’s dignity, community, memories. In science, sixth grade students took trips to food pantries and farm shares. And in health, students collaborated to create videos on essential nutrients.

“Our work then,” Pilkington said, “was to think about how we were connecting the dots for students across our classes with shared experiences, trips, speakers, etc.”

Sharon Ahram, assistant director of the Center for Public Purpose, helped connect those dots. She worked with the teachers to invite speakers based on the questions students were asking.

Speakers included Steveanna Wynn, executive director of SHARE; and Sandy Brown of Brown’s Super Stores, who discussed Shop Rite’s decision to build a store on Fox Street in a former food desert—and to include a rich international food section. Other speakers hailed from Coalition Against Hunger and Germantown Avenue Crisis Ministry, and a pediatrician spoke about child nutrition and obesity.

“One of the interesting things about the speakers is they’re attacking the issues from very different perspectives,” Jim Pilkington said. “It’s been interesting to hear the different voices on how they are working to solves these issues.”

Teachers even put a new twist on the Middle School Day of Service. Students spent the day brainstorming—and design thinking—in Balderston Commons. The rules: Don’t judge. Encourage wild ideas. And don’t invent anything that already exists.

“The issue that we’re talking about is bigger than you,” technology coordinator Brian Hecker told students. “You have an opportunity to do something awesome today.”

When science teacher Eve Schwartz instructed students to use creativity and critical thinking to address real world issues that affect a person’s access to food, students came up with unemployment, low minimum wage, education level, a lack of nutritious food (food deserts), family structure and immigration.

Students broke into groups, chose a topic and drilled down to devise solutions.

Live in a food desert? What if we had veggie vending machines? Or a traveling food truck that stops at homes where people need it?

If language is a barrier for immigrants, let’s help them learn English.

If families with lots of children can’t afford enough food, we could take a burden off them and provide free baby clothes.

When school is out, many students miss perhaps their only nutritious meal of the day. What about free summer camp, with meals, for underprivileged kids?

How about an app that recommends healthy food options and where to find them?

One group worked on the issue of climate change and how it can affect homes and crops worldwide. “We’re trying to think of a solution to change the world forever,” said Lindsay Gadsden, a sixth grader last year. “We’re trying to nd a new way to look at it, instead of the way people have been looking at it for the last 50 years or so.”

The next step was to choose one idea from their cluster—a tangible idea rather than something abstract—and figure out how to implement it. “My challenge for you is the how,” Schwartz told students, citing an example. “How do you make loans more affordable?”

“This is a messy process with a really difficult topic,” Pilkington told students. “We took this huge idea of food insecurity, broke it down, broke it down some more, and now we have some really concrete ideas.”

Finally, it was Capstone Night. Parents gathered with their children in Balderston

Commons, drew a number and learned a lesson about the world’s resources. Parents with numbers 1-18 represented the top 15 percent of the world’s population. That group consumes 70 percent of the world’s grain, can afford health care, and has a comfortable home and at least one car. At the other end of the spectrum, parents who drew numbers 49 and higher represented the 25 percent of the population that makes less than $911 a year, is frequently hungry, probably can’t send their children to school, and live in inadequate housing or are homeless.

“I think it’s good to know how small the population is that has great health care,” said Michelle Gee, mother of Sean. “I don’t know that [Sean] realized how the majority doesn’t have access to health care. This study gives him a broader perspective and a bigger appreciation.”

In classrooms, each student group then presented its final project—a website they built that demonstrates the team’s vision for reducing food insecurity locally or globally.

Mini Mall, one team’s website, is a hub that provides “affordable everyday essentials, healthy food, clothing, day care, and we employ people who are in need of jobs.” It is powered by donations and volunteers. If transportation is a problem, Mini Mall has a shuttle and a delivery service. If you need help paying your bills, you can meet with a financial specialist. Mini Mall is a judgment-free zone.

Near You aggregates resources ... near you. Through the website you can find nonprofits that offer services, such as Germantown Avenue Crisis Relief Ministry; coupon sites to help you save money; searchable apartment listings; nutritional guidelines; and a budget calculator.

At the end of the presentations, engaged parents asked questions and opened a dialogue. Will you offer job training? Do you have a social media strategy? How many locations do you have? Will you partner with businesses?

Afterwards, parents had the opportunity to offer their feedback about the project. “I enjoyed the comprehensive, interdisciplinary approach that you took to the topic,” one parent wrote to teachers. “I was impressed that you had the students exploring food insecurity through the lenses of social studies, health, public policy, home economics, etc. ... It was a social justice topic imbued with practical skills training and analytical thinking.”

Ahram said the project gave students “ownership in what they are learning. The majority of students were really passionate about this topic through the year and continue to be aware of it now. This was a time where students got to really explore an authentic, real-life issue ... they got to understand the causes and effects of food insecurity and the solutions to combat it.”

Other News Stories