Ecology and Economics of Food Systems, a new course that brings students to work at a farmers market in the Bronx, is part of Fordham’s larger effort to address climate change
We hear regularly about how climate change is impacting the weather. What’s perhaps less obvious is that it also affects the food we eat. In a 2015 report, the U.S. Department of Agriculture warned that progress made on global food security is likely to take a hit because of climate change. Rising temperatures, the report said, are expected to cause “local availability limitations, price increases, interrupted transport conduits, and diminished food safety.”
That’s why, on a chilly Wednesday morning in October, Fordham student Julio Farach-Varona found himself working at a farmers market in the parking lot of a senior living facility in the South Bronx. Farach-Varona, a Fordham College at Rose Hill senior from Atlanta, was one of 16 students enrolled in Ecology and Economics of Food Systems. The brand-new course was co-taught last fall by Dawn Fariello, Ph.D., lecturer in biology, and Andrew Simons, Ph.D., associate professor of economics.
Classwork on the Streets of the Bronx
Farach-Varona’s job that morning, along with four other undergraduates, was to help transform a parking lot in Highbridge, a neighborhood just south of the Cross Bronx Expressway, into a distribution hub for fresh, affordably priced produce. Students cleaned and sorted produce from three upstate farms, helped customers, and tidied up at the conclusion of the market, which ran for five hours a week for six weeks last fall.
At the Highbridge market—and at another one students worked at in East Tremont run by La Familia Verde, a coalition of community gardeners—residents use government-issued Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Farmers Market Nutrition Program coupons to make purchases. And because they’re supporting local producers, whose shorter travel times make their carbon footprints smaller, they’re helping in a small way to fight climate change.
“It’s kind of cool to see how you can apply what you’re learning in a classroom to the real world outside the gates of Fordham,” said Farach-Varona.
It was exactly the kind of outside-the-classroom experience he hoped to get when he toured the economics department his senior year in high school. His interest is in developmental economics, which is focused on the greater good for the greatest number of people, so the course piqued his interest. In addition to the community experience, students read Charles Mann’s The Wizard and the Prophet (Knopf, 2018), which gave them an understanding of food systems as a whole and a sense of two diverging visions of how to shape a sustainable future. The “wizard” of the book’s title, 20th-century agronomist Norman Bourlag, helped develop high-yield crops that saved millions of people from starvation, and the “prophet,” founding environmentalist William Vogt, warned that if we don’t cut back on consumption, our prosperity will lead the world to ruin.
Addressing Climate Change: A Directive from the Pope
The class is a small part of Fordham’s larger efforts to address the effects of climate change. In February 2022, the offices of the provost, facilities management, and mission integration and ministry came together and tasked Fordham’s Center for Community Engaged Learning with responding to Laudato Si’ Action, a call that the Vatican issued as a follow-up to Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical on climate change.
After convening a task force for six months, the center published its Laudato Si’ Action Plan, joining 67 other universities around the world in doing so. The document is a seven-year plan with goals that touch on everything from hosting an annual sustainability conference and conducting a comprehensive study of waste management on campus to establishing a sustainability panel at Fordham’s International Conference on Cyber Security, held every 18 months in partnership with the FBI.
The new plan complements the long-standing, ongoing efforts of the facilities department. In 2007, Fordham answered the call to reduce its carbon footprint when it became a founding signatory to the NYC Carbon Challenge. Fordham initially committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 30% over the next decade, and in 2017, the University extended its commitment to the challenge by pledging a 40% reduction by 2030. Every year, progress, such as the 2019 installment of solar panels on the Rose Hill parking garage, is detailed in a climate action plan annual report.
Julie Gafney, Ph.D., director of the Center for Community Engaged Learning, said that the goals of Fordham’s Laudato Si’ plan are meant to broaden the scope of continuous work done under the supervision of Marco Valera, vice president for facilities, to improve Fordham’s physical plant. “We’ll be working really closely together on the ongoing infrastructure and facilities work, but we know that the work of sustainability goes beyond that,” she said. “We’re an institution of higher education, so we need to look at how we’re teaching classes, the research projects that faculty are taking on, and our relationship with community partners, industry partners, and elected officials.”
Different Perspectives on Food Systems
Fariello created Ecology and Economics of Food Systems last year, after Fordham’s provost put out a request for an interdisciplinary STEM course with a connection to the Center for Community Engaged Learning (CCEL). Fordham’s community engaged learning courses are designed to give students formal opportunities to extend their coursework into local communities and learn with—and from—their neighbors. CCEL courses have grown dramatically in number at Fordham since the first seven debuted in 2014. There are 90 this year.
The food systems course emphasized food insecurity in the first half and sustainability in the second. With a $1,500, five-year grant from CCEL, Fariello and Simons were able to connect students with the farmers markets. And like the students, they both brought to the course their own experiences with food: Fariello grew up with food insecurity, and Simons worked from 2008 to 2011 as director of programs for the aid organization Food for the Hungry in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
“I find that when students come to Fordham, they come from different demographics and show a very varied understanding of food systems,” Fariello said. “So it’s really important that when we’re talking about food systems and social, economic, and environmental sustainability, students get to see that. It’s not just learning it, but physically interacting with those sorts of differences.”
Indeed, the two parts of the course offered a study in contrast. The food insecurity section required students to work 15 hours at the farmers market in an area where fresh, affordable produce can be hard to come by. The sustainability section featured a trip to Stone Barns, a nonprofit farm, educational center, and fine-dining destination in Pocantico Hills, New York, that has showcased sustainable food production practices since 2003. The two extremes are important to understand, Simons said, because climate change is expected to exacerbate this divide among communities.
“You’re going to get a very different view of the people they see coming to the farmers markets in the Bronx versus the people they see at Stone Barns, which is very much on the elite, high end of the culinary scene,” said Simons.
The Complexities of Natural Resources Management
While debate rages about whether it’s possible to feed every person on the planet and do it sustainably, Fariello and Simons said their goal is not to take sides but to help students better understand the contours of the complex challenges. If you want to increase food production, you can do so by cutting down forests and converting them to farmland. But then you remove a vital ally in the fight to slow climate change, as trees store carbon.
“Students are very worried about sustainability. They’re worried in some sense that the world is ending because of climate change,” Simons said. “So they’re very interested to hear things like, ‘If you set up farming this way, you’re going to take more land away from forests. What if technology can change, and get more yield per unit of land? Then you wouldn’t necessarily need to take out a forest.’”
Working with the Community
Gafney said CCEL is a good place to oversee a wildly ambitious project, both because it is part of Fordham’s Department of Mission Integration and Ministry and because the center can connect the University to outside partners. “We can’t do climate justice and environmental justice alone. We’re part of an ecosystem here in New York, nationally, and internationally,” she said.
The Ecology and Economics of Food Systems course is a great example of the kind of synergistic approach that CCEL is striving for, she said. The market in East Tremont has been open for over a decade, but the one in Highbridge is brand new, and opening it required collaboration between La Familia Verde, the Mary Mitchell Family and Youth Center, Fordham, the Highbridge Community Development Corporation, Essen Health, and Catholic Charities. At Fordham, a great deal of the coordination was overseen by Surey Miranda-Alarcon, director of campus and community engagement at CCEL.
“Not one of these organizations could have done this on their own, and truly, we couldn’t have done it without the capacity that the students add,” Gafney said. “One of the things I love about this project is, it is ongoing and sustainable. It’s not something we’re doing just for the learning value, although it does have tremendous learning value.”
Aleyna Rodriguez, executive director of the Mary Mitchell Family and Youth Center, said the market fulfills two essential goals. One is bringing healthy food to those who either can’t afford it or can’t easily travel the hilly neighborhood of Highbridge to get it. The other is supporting the farmers at Rottkamps, Trinity, and Rising Roots, the upstate farms where the produce is grown.
“We try to keep everything affordable for community members, but when we hear from someone that something is marked too high, we do provide them with insight on the importance of supporting local farmers,” she said. “We say to them, ‘You’re helping to feed their families as well. They’re helping to feed your family, and you’re helping to feed them.’ It’s a full circle.”
Rodriguez was effusive in her praise for the Fordham students. “Even if they don’t speak Spanish, they’re able to connect with the community residents; they’re happy to see them,” she said. “And the community can see that Fordham is here.”
For Rafael Melgarejo, an 82-year-old native of the Dominican Republic who has lived with his wife in Highbridge for 17 years, and in the Mary Mitchell Houses for the past three, his visit to the farmers market on October 19 was his third. He was as excited to see his neighbors as he was to buy vegetables.
“There’s not too many chemicals in it. You grow it, and it’s healthier. The main thing is the will that you people have to help others, the needy ones,” he said of all the community groups involved. “That’s the main thing. For that, may God bless you.”
Farach-Varona likewise appreciated the sense of community that morning. His mother hails from Puerto Rico, so he grew up speaking Spanish. He found himself chatting with the mostly elderly customers about which vegetables would go well in sofrito—an aromatic mix of diced or minced onions, garlic, and other vegetables that is the base of many Latin American dishes.
“It was nice to talk to people on a deeper level than, ‘How many pumpkins do you want, or how many apples do you want?’” he said. “It’s kind of the equivalent of working out. You just feel nice about it afterward, because you’ve interacted with so many people, and you see the smile on people’s faces when they get the produce, and they know it’s good food.”
—Patrick Verel, GSAS ’15, is the associate editor of Fordham News.
Learn more about Fordham’s sustainability efforts at fordham.edu/sustainability.