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Students help guide sustainable community food systems in South Madison

January 2, 2014

Farmer’s markets are widely praised as a way to bring fresh, locally grown food into urban communities. But what if you start one and nobody comes?

That’s one of several food-related questions tackled by two Nelson Institute undergraduate capstone courses during the fall semester.    

One class, led by Alfonso Morales, an associate professor of urban and regional planning, and Dadit Hidayat, a doctoral student in Environment and Resources, focused on assisting the South Madison Farmers' Market in increasing community access and attendance.

"This capstone allows
students to do scientific
research from start to
finish in the community."

The market has not been doing well, troubled by low sales and low participation from vendors. After hearing of these challenges, Hidayat saw an opportunity for students to learn how to conduct community-based research while achieving tangible results for the market and the neighborhoods it serves.

Students in the course spent weeks developing research questions and facilitating focus groups with farmers’ market vendors to better understand community perspectives and issues facing the market. The students’ findings will be analyzed and applied during the spring 2014 semester, when a new team of capstone students will help implement strategies to drive market support.

"I think that will be the unique aspect of this class," says Hidayat. "Many students sit in a class and learn how to do research, but they have very limited opportunity to apply what they learn. This capstone allows them to do scientific research from start to finish in the community."

Student Paul Davidson, a junior majoring in environmental studies and economics, learned through the course just how difficult it can be to change peoples’ habits – for example in trying to communicate the advantages of buying local and fresh, but often more expensive, produce to residents of South Madison, an economically challenged neighborhood.

"It takes a lot of time to achieve results, even if the goals and intentions are strong," says Davidson. 

A second fall capstone course focused on supporting community gardens in Southwest Madison. Led by Environment and Resources doctoral candidate Ashleigh Ross and Sam Dennis, associate professor of landscape architecture and environmental studies, the students also sought to strengthen programs associated with the gardens.

Students were assigned in groups to one of four community partners: Front Yard Gardens, Gardens for Empowerment, Toki Middle School or the Brentwood Green Team. Their duties ranged from hands-on garden assistance to conducting fundraising or outreach programs to developing curriculum for after-school programs.

"This class
provides an
opportunity to
skills with real-
world application."

Ross let the students coordinate with their community partners to decide on their own responsibilities, helping students gain leadership skills. The course equipped students with the confidence to work with community partners and the chance to support under-resourced community garden programs while exploring issues around public health, sustainable agriculture, community development and environmental justice.

"It gave students an opportunity to gain a set of complimentary skills in that they work with communities and make things happen," says Ross. "This class provides an opportunity for them to transform their classroom-based skills with real-world application."

Both classes exposed students to new experiences and perspectives while benefitting local organizations and promoting sustainability.

Senior Bridget Callaghan, an environmental studies, community and nonprofit leadership, and history major, feels rewarded that her research for the capstone course can benefit the community, and she found value in the connections made throughout the semester.

"My favorite part of this experience was forming a close relationship with my classmates, instructors and community partners," she says.

In addition to their studies in the Nelson Institute, both Hidayat and Ross are Engaged Scholarship Graduate Fellows with the Community-University Exchange, a community-based learning facilitation program sponsored by the UW-Madison Morgridge Center for Public Service.