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Cultivate Civic Engagement by Studying Local Food Insecurity

A community food assessment elevates experiential learning to a new level, taking students outside the classroom to view the real impact of inequities.


Heather Bedi, PhD

Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies, Dickinson College

PhD in Geography, MSc in Resource Policy and Behavior, BA in Environmental Studies/Diplomacy and World Affairs

Heather Bedi’s website

Heather Bedi’s passion for social justice began long before she started teaching environmental studies at Dickinson College in 2014. When Bedi was in high school, she was inspired by and involved with Greenpeace, Amnesty International, and Sierra Club—three organizations focused on the environment at national or international levels. So it is curious to hear Bedi say she has evolved in terms of civic engagement—which, at first blush, one might think was from “unaware citizen” to “engaged environmentalist.” In fact, the evolution she refers to is one of scale.

“My evolution is all about dropping down from helping at the 30,000-foot level, as one does with international organizations, to what I can do on the ground,” she says. “What does it mean to be engaged in your community?”

Bedi says that during graduate school, before she began teaching, she realized that her focus had been on global work, but her heart was leading her to focus her efforts more locally.

“We think about problems as elsewhere: a different part of the United States, a different part of the world. But we can see examples of poverty and food injustices in our own neighborhoods. Once I did, it cracked the myth of there being problem-free places.”

That aha! moment informed both her activism and her teaching.

Challenge: Lack of community awareness and engagement

In her Food, Poverty and Place course, Bedi’s challenge was how to help students apply the themes and theories of their classroom readings and discussions to the real world in their own backyard. “It’s very different than the ‘sit and learn from a teacher lecturing and regurgitate the learnings at exam time’ approach,” she says. “How could I get my students to engage in and learn from a real-world situation in our community?”

The professor felt strongly that, if the only thing students do is read about issues like social justice and sustainability, then they will not really see how they might make a difference in their community. They also would not cultivate certain vital skills that they could later use in any line of work, such as being a good listener, assessing needs, and engaging in hands-on research.

She wondered: Could she convince students that schoolwork not only can teach them facts and skills but also shape them as people?

Innovation: Experiential, place-based learning

Along with a passion for fostering positive change, Bedi brings a wealth of research experience to the classroom: She has examined a wide range of environmental and social injustices related to energy, climate change, land grabbing, and industrial ecological transitions. Bedi’s research showcases the effectiveness and impact of place-based learning (aka place-based education): a cross-disciplinary approach that examines a specific place and its resources—heritage, culture, history, geophysical factors, etc.—to deepen students’ understanding of a subject.

“Place-based learning is [typically viewed as] a geography term, but it applies to how I teach my classes,” she says. “I like introducing students to the concepts of local engagement and activism.”

One of Bedi’s favorite lessons­—Community Food Assessment—was born from a belief that if you want to foster positive change, you can (and perhaps should) look no farther than your own backyard. She demonstrates this quite literally by encouraging students to explore the “backyard” that is their local community.

“I took the course material out of the classroom and into homes and grocery stores,” says Bedi. “Poverty and food insecurity as theories can’t compare to actually meeting people going through those experiences.”

Instead of having students review existing assessments from other communities, Bedi created her own food assessment—with input from her students—on a community near Dickinson College. “I didn’t want my students to just fill in the blanks from another community’s template,” she says. “I wanted us to create something new and very specific for Cumberland County.”


“Students in this class work in small groups to gather research on people living below the poverty line in our community. Out of that, they create a document of who is without food access in our county and, within that, what are the greatest areas of vulnerability. This is a very focused class around a collective effort, mostly with students I have worked with before.”

— Heather Bedi, PhD

Course: ENST 311 Food, Poverty and Place
Frequency: One three-hour meeting per week for 15 weeks, plus field research
Class size: 15
Course description: This community service-learning course examines food access, agriculture, poverty, and social justice concerns in Central Pennsylvania. Increased reliance on food assistance programs reflects rising poverty and food insecurity in Cumberland County. Responding to community demand for a community food assessment, students in the class will conduct qualitative research in the county to document food vulnerabilities and highlight opportunities for sustainability. Drawing from their research, students will collectively complete the food assessment and will present the report to community members. The class will also create an online storymap using spatial tools to visually communicate the food assessment to a larger audience.

ENST 311 Food, Poverty and Place

See materials

Lesson: A local, student-led Community Food Assessment

When Bedi began to create her lesson plan for the Community Food Assessment, she knew she could have borrowed examples of existing food assessments created by (and conducted by) other researchers. That certainly would have been simpler, and she briefly considered it. “But then I thought about how each community was different in what they focus on,” she says. “Some are more focused on agriculture, for example. I couldn’t see how to just apply a standard method to this community to make the assessment relevant and worthwhile.”

So Bedi responded to community interest in telling the story of food injustice in Cumberland County, where Dickinson College is located. She talked to citizens, politicians, and grocery store managers. She also included her students in shaping the final assessment template before they actually went out and gathered data with it.

For any educator who is up for the challenge of leading a specific community assessment like this—on the topic of food insecurity or another social concern—Bedi offers a few suggestions:

Assess the viability of the assignment

Bedi recommends beginning with a series of important questions. Consider: Does your community need some form of social assessment? Is it doable? Is there support from your school or institution? Are there ethical considerations? Is the issue big enough in your community to occupy students for the whole semester? Or is there another issue you could consider that would have a larger community impact?

“Listen to community and nonprofit leaders, whatever the issue is, so you know what the critical concerns are for them. Have candid communications so you get a sense if there is a helpful report or data that could be collated.”

— Heather Bedi, PhD

She notes that it is important for students to learn not to impose their ideas on the community but to be good listeners in order to discover the real need. “Listen to community and nonprofit leaders, whatever the issue is, so you know what the critical concerns are for them,” says Bedi. “Have candid communications so you get a sense if there is a helpful report or data that could be collated.” Learning how to really hear what others are telling you is a fantastic learning experience for students.

For an educator considering this approach, Bedi recommends assessing whether your particular group of students will be up to the task. Bedi says this lesson is best conducted with students who have worked with the educator before or have previous fieldwork experience. This way, their interests, limitations, and capabilities will not come as a surprise. “This is a more advanced, specialized lesson,” says Bedi. “You need a group willing to go on a journey with a professor.”

Find some good examples

Bedi showed the students examples of different assessments so they had a basis of understanding as they developed theirs for Cumberland County. The more models you can provide to students, the better, she says. Look for community assessments and reports on any topic, but make sure they have the breadth and depth of coverage that you hope to create.

Divide the workload

In Bedi’s lesson, the class worked together as one team with six specialized “breakout” subgroups, each focused on one of these specific areas:

  1. Demographics and food insecurity in Cumberland County
  2. Food deserts
  3. Supermarkets and grocery stores
  4. Agriculture
  5. Federal and state food benefit programs
  6. Charitable food assistance programs
Encourage collaboration

Students had numerous full-class meetings and touched base with each other regularly to ensure that they stayed connected throughout the process. Once the subgroups had finished their research, they each submitted their write-ups and research to Bedi, who then introduced the class to group editing.

With group editing, Group A would peer review the work of Group B, and so on. She felt peer reviews were an essential part of the lesson, not just because they made the students perform actual editing but also because they were a means of sharing diverse viewpoints and ideas.

After compiling their collective research findings and information from the peer reviews, the entire class worked to put together the final community food assessment report. They also created an online “storymap” to visually communicate the food assessment to a larger audience. By the end of the course, Bedi’s students had presented the final report three times: at an academic conference, a community meeting, and a local food bank.

Get creative with grading

The grading of the course was what Bedi calls “holistic.” She evaluated this lesson (which counted for 30% of the total course grade) based on participation, team presentations, and individual reflections on the qualitative methods used and personal learning.

“Grading a class like this is tough,” Bedi admits. “But since this is such a hands-on lesson for a teacher, you end up by default knowing how your students are doing, what they are learning, and how hard they are working. That helped in grading. You see the meetings they create and the time they spend on their research.”

For additional grading options, Bedi also suggests adding in individual assessments for each student and asking them each to write an essay about their experience. This self-reflective exercise can help students realize the impact not only on the community but also on themselves as humans—and it can provide valuable feedback to an educator who intends to repeat the course.


At first, Bedi was worried about creating a lesson while simultaneously teaching it—building the plane as she was flying it, so to speak. “Many of the students had worked with me before, and I am typically very organized and clear-cut in my expectations. But I couldn’t give students a template of this assessment, because it was the first time we were doing it,” she says. “This was something new that we’d have to develop together. Would they be up to the challenge? Would they be more flexible and agile in their expectations?” Bedi was confident that the answers to these questions were yes and yes, and the results speak for themselves.

For educators who prefer 100% structure or do not have much time outside of class, Bedi does not advise a project like this. “It’s very intensive,” she notes. “I know it was challenging for the students, but it was [also] a lot more work from my end than a typical class.”

Regarding resources, Bedi says this project was not particularly expensive to conduct. Though the school assisted with transportation, such as vans, Bedi says, “Students were able to use their own resources for the most part. For example, we had college audio recorders, but students also chose to record interviews on their phones.”


In addition to learning about research methods, compiling information, and giving presentations—and, of course, food and poverty issues—students gained important life lessons and skills.

From the outset, Bedi had a few main goals for her students:

  • To become more aware of civic engagement
  • To gain a more practical understanding of qualitative research methods
  • To realize how research can be used to influence change

Bedi feels they have realized all of these goals, and she sees “increased respect for teamwork” as an auxiliary outcome of the assessment. “Since the focus was helpful to the community—and students felt proud to present their work to the community and not just the school—I think they also gained a genuine appreciation for each other and for collaboration,” she explains.

There was a positive outcome for both Bedi and her department, too. Her work with this food assessment was highlighted in Dickinson’s school newspaper in an article called “Dickinson College Students Present High-Level Research on Food Security, Sustainability.” Community leaders responded positively to the assessment, saying, “exceptional—what a professional and thoughtful report they produced.” School leaders have also voiced their support, saying they were impressed that Bedi educated her class while helping the local community.

“Dickinson has a grant to encourage civic engagement,” Bedi adds. “Based in part on this class and this lesson, my department is taking on a self-study to see how we can integrate more civic engagement into our Environmental Studies Department.”

Student feedback

Students were surprised that there was not an out-of-the-box assessment they could adapt—that, instead, they would be conducting the research and creating the final product for the community. But they were game to take on Bedi’s innovative challenge. Based on the student feedback she has heard—including these two, verbatim from her course evaluation—Bedi’s goal of creating a memorable and eye-opening experience was a success.

“I will remember this class as a highlight of my Dickinson College experience. I think classes like this one teach lasting lessons in a way that an exam or lecture never could.”

“The Food, Poverty, and Place class expanded my skills to help prepare me with the skills necessary to continue civic engagement into the future. While I am uncertain what I will do in the future, I have gained an understanding of how to engage in local issues in order to make our Carlisle community a better place. I am proud of the tangible community food assessment that our class created. Hopefully, it will be used by community leaders who are working to resolve food insecurity locally and nationally.”

Bedi was especially thrilled that so many of her students shared their final report with friends, families, and even potential employers. “A student took the final report and showed it during a Skype job interview,” she says. “Students have put it on their resumes, and they list it as part of their skill set or knowledge base.” Creating a portfolio piece with a life outside of school, she says, was a new experience for them.

On the horizon

Bedi is in the early stages of planning courses for 2019, but she knows she will be doing another civic engagement course building from this assessment. Of course, she will add a new and specific twist that will have real-world benefits.

“Now that we’ve done the community food assessment, the next focus will be on how we can understand food insecurity among farmers in Cumberland County and how we can evaluate salaries and develop skill training for community members so they can move up the economic ladder, out of the poverty cycle, and attain a living wage.”

There is a group of students who do not know it yet, but in a year or so, they will be off on a new adventure, learning how to research and make a difference in their community—all fueled by a civic-minded passion that took root in Bedi herself when she was about their age.