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Kale, Students, and Empathy: The Realities of Service-Learning


Elise C. Lewis is an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina.  She works in the School of Library and Information Science where she teaches undergraduate and graduate students. She brings service-learning and community engagement to her students through related coursework and experiences. Her research includes information literacy as well as technology in museum and libraries. 

service learningAs I review my experiences in connection with my being a newcomer to service-learning education, I am happy to share my discoveries with others who undertake service-learning projects, perhaps for the first time.

Some Realities
I will admit, I am a newcomer to the idea of service-learning and community engagement. I have been teaching in higher education for over 15 years, focusing on museums, libraries, and technology. Last year I was tasked with teaching my first undergraduate course to students from different disciplines across campus. This was disconcerting and exciting at the same time. After a few weeks I realized the key to success was to get the students active and engaged with the course materials. A colleague suggested incorporating a service-learning project. After doing some research I realized I had actually been practicing some informal aspects of service-learning in my classes all along.

I applied and received a grant to add a service-learning component to an undergraduate level course. The grant focused on health and literacy disparities throughout South Carolina. High obesity rates and low literacy rates are widespread throughout the state. When compared to national readings levels, South Carolina is often at the bottom of the list and the obesity rate is at the top. The class partnered with Cocky’s Reading Express ™ (CRE), our literacy outreach program in the School of Library and Information Science. CRE’s mission is to ensure that children have access to books at home. CRE staff takes volunteers from the University into public schools and libraries. The children participate in read-alouds with Cocky, the beloved and award-winning University mascot. After the read-alouds every child receives a book and makes a promise to Cocky to read every day. As of April 2014, over 60,000 books have been handed out and every SC county has been visited.

Because the missions of the two units dovetailed, partnering with CRE to plan the event was a fitting collaboration. My class worked with the CRE staff to plan a family nutritional literacy night. Students selected the books for the read-alouds and provided programming to families in attendance. Every child received a book focusing on healthy eating, and parents received a cookbook focusing on gardening and healthy recipes. Along with CRE, we partnered with two public libraries for the events: one in rural SC and one near downtown Columbia.

The realities of the project differed from the ideas I had in the beginning. Admittedly, I had a grandiose idea that everyone on the project would immediately be engaged, and families would leave the program inspired to start gardens and cook healthy and nutritious meals. The project did not follow those ideas exactly and required me to change my approach, assumptions, and measures of success.

Everyone loves kale, right? No, not everyone loves or even likes kale. There are many people, my students included, who do not know anything about kale. I thought my students would already know the promised nutritional value that green leafy vegetable and eat it. I was wrong. Early in the semester we discussed access to locally grown foods in South Carolina. Much to my surprise 8 out of 18 students could not identify kale nor had they even tried it.

Something significant came out of the discussion; I realized I had no idea of the level of nutritional literacy of the families coming to the program. We had demographic information based on what the community partners shared with us but no measure of nutritional literacy. As a class we decided to incorporate more commonly known vegetables into the program. After the first family nutritional literacy night we were surprised by the children who informed us that broccoli is good but that celery is gross. The class was in agreement that we had not anticipated the “gross” comment about celery but were happy to know the kids were excited about broccoli.


Engaging My Students
Since I teach undergraduate students, I am very aware of some media reports indicating that this generation is only out to serve themselves. I have read reports that describe this age group as being concerned only with their mobile devices and life in a very insular world. In my experience, this is not true. Students are empathetic, but convincing them that they are capable of helping others required me to change the way I approached the problem. We looked at statistics about literacy and nutrition in the state. We had discussions about the impact of these social problems and how these problems were going to affect their careers as well as issues like taxes and medical care once they graduate. We heard from our community partners who regularly engaged with these communities. I would not say that the students were indifferent, but they did not seem too engaged in the discussions. As an instructor I worried about the value of adding a project like this to class. I was not sure they were going to be able to connect with some part of the community with whom they could not identify.

My concerns were put to rest after our first visit to the public library in a rural, low-income part of the state. Once the students actually met the families and interacted with the kids, their confidence and interest shifted. The students became engaged and interested in the community. We discussed this later and discovered that meeting the actual families humanized the whole situation. Many students had an intellectual grasp of problems, but they had never experienced them firsthand before. Their personal journals reveal this. See comments from 3 different students’ journals:

I am a kinetic and visual person, so I need to do something or see something being done for it to really stick in my head. I can read and listen to facts about nutrition literacy all day long but without going out and doing something that involves nutrition literacy, it will not make an impact on me.

 I have never seen undeveloped or undernourished communities. Going out and seeing the community and what their public library looks like and the “community places” around it was something I have never seen before. It was really sad to see how little amount of resources the community does have. It made me more excited to help them and give them their new books since most of the families there cannot just go out and buy books for their children or family.

Having not been raised in this state, much of my view on these things was based around areas like the capital or other areas that are more tourist-based, such as the beach. I repeatedly read about things such as health and poverty disparities that are widespread throughout the state but had not seen this very much in my own experiences prior to this. Seeing a town like this where fast food chains significantly outnumber healthy food options is probably more indicative of the norm throughout and makes it much more believable that people’s unhealthy decisions are often simply based upon the environment that surrounds them. What I enjoyed the most about the overall experience was seeing the kids get so excited over the arrival of Cocky.

By the second trip, the students had taken over. They did the planning, volunteered to read the storybooks, talked to the families in attendance, and shared their own stories of gardening and nutrition. I was happy to observe the students grow in confidence, a direct result of their increasing awareness of their community. The students shared stories of family gardens and mealtime traditions with people they may not have met if it were not for this project.

When I started the project, I had a very different idea of a "successful semester." The realities of the project made me rethink my approach the discussion of nutritional literacy and how to get my students engaged. Our community partners loved the program and have already invited us back. Several students have signed up to go with CRE to their public school events. The students’ reflective journals show that they gained an understanding of the problems of the state but more importantly, they now understand how acts of care, and empathy, and a little education, can improve the lives of others in the community. Service-learning projects yield rich rewards. We may not be swapping our kale recipes, but I consider the semester a great success.

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