The Spring 2023 edition of Emma Willard School’s Signature magazine focuses on aspects of academic excellence on Mount Ida, including how curated service learning projects and community engagement opportunities (CEOs) help investigate food inequities throughout the United States.
Gemma Halfi, associate director of equity and inclusion at Emma Willard School, is using the new academic year to turn our attention towards the discriminatory systems and policies that perpetuate food inequities in the United States and helping the school community think about making tangible, lasting changes in this city.
Through carefully curated service learning projects and impactful community engagement opportunities (CEOs), Ms. Halfi is introducing our internal community to the multitude of issues surrounding access to food by focusing on the needs present right here in the City of Troy.
For Ms. Halfi, the focus on Troy was a no-brainer. “Food access and food insecurity is such a salient issue everywhere in the United States and around the world, but specifically in our city,” she shares. “We're nestled in this really beautiful neighborhood where there are communities struggling with food security just down the street from us.”
Food insecurity is a pressing issue that continues to plague communities around the world. Despite progress made in the past few decades, the problem persists, and in some cases, has even worsened. In the United States alone, over 34 million people—including 9 million children—suffer from food insecurity, a problem that has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Families with children and marginalized communities have been hit the hardest, as they were already facing hunger at disproportionately high rates before the pandemic.
What's truly shocking is that even rural and farm communities, which are responsible for growing the crops that feed the world, experience higher hunger rates than urban areas. According to the report by Feeding America, 11% of rural households were food insecure in 2021, and 87% of US counties with high rates of food insecurity were rural. This is a sobering reminder that hunger is not just an urban problem, but a rural one as well.
It's not just about access to food, either. Many low-income families struggle with multiple overlapping issues like lack of affordable housing, social isolation, economic and social disadvantages due to structural racism, chronic or acute health problems, high medical costs, and low wages, which can all contribute to their inability to secure a consistent supply of food. To make matters worse, many households do not qualify for federal nutrition programs such as SNAP and WIC, which means they have to rely on local food banks and other sustenance programs for additional support.
Students prepare to organize groceries at a CEO in fall 2022.
Ms. Halfi has created a remarkable opportunity for Emma Willard students to head into our own backyard to acknowledge the needs of our community and offer a hand towards helping our very own neighbors. CEOs take weekend activities by storm, boasting a completely full volunteer list and waitlist each week for engagement opportunities. By volunteering for CEOs, students are able to explore many aspects of food access through various organizations.
“We go to the food pantry where food items are distributed to community members on a weekly basis, but every few weeks we go to the food bank, which is a giant warehouse where huge bulk donations get sent from large corporations and grocery chains to then get distributed to places like the food pantry,” Ms. Halfi explains. “It's really neat for the students to be able to see the different stages of how food gets distributed. On a more intimate level, we also work with local shelters like Joseph's House, where we are preparing a meal to be served at the shelter. They're seeing all the different angles of what it takes to keep a community that's struggling with food access afloat.”
As the global pandemic recedes, Ms. Halfi has seized the opportunity to resume trips to Joseph's House, where students organize and cook meals on site in their kitchen. This welcome change from delivering meals prepared at Emma has had an astounding impact on the students, as they are now able to engage in meaningful conversations with the people they serve and witness firsthand the positive impact their efforts have on the local community.
“Going on Saturday mornings with a lot of students to work at local food pantries is a really eye-opening experience,” Ms. Halfi continues. “Literally we get in the van, and we drive about two minutes, and then we're at the food pantry where they are seeing many community members come through to pick up groceries to supplement what they are able to provide for their families. Sometimes the jobs [the students] do at the food pantry can feel mundane or insignificant, but I always try to engage the students in conversation about why this particular job is important to this organization and this community. And they get it. It's really great that they understand that without volunteers like them, the organizations would not be able to serve the communities, and they wouldn't be able to create more distribution of the donations that the food pantry gets.”
In addition to the CEO opportunities, the 11th grade READY program is being used as a platform to further support this mission. In collaboration with Director of READY Programs Evangeline Delgado, Ms. Halfi has restructured the program curriculum to include a focus on food access in the United States and around the world. Students are having conversations and “thinking about how food insecurity impacts our immediate community—what kind of policies are in place that are either perpetuating this inequity or are trying to rectify it?” Ms. Halfi’s programming message is simple: to achieve a hunger-free America, we must address the root causes of hunger: structural and systemic inequities.
The ongoing fight against food insecurities is not one that can be won alone. Community engagement opportunities and service learning are two of the strongest avenues to explore when asking ourselves how the Emma Willard School community can truly stand up for our neighbors. Ms. Halfi defined both in her own words:
“To me, community engagement is the big, broad umbrella of how we as individuals, and an institution, take responsibility for caring for our community. Underneath that, there are many different ways to engage with our community. There's social impact programming where it's not just about going out and working with nonprofits, it's also about learning how policy is made and how the historical context of different sociopolitical systems have been in place creating inequities. It's about learning how to use your voice to create change within a community. Then there's this idea of service learning within educational institutions, where teachers have the opportunity to connect their own curricular content to the needs of the community: that to me is the pinnacle of what education is about. Service learning is the best of both worlds. You're creating more lasting learning because the students understand that there is a purpose behind it, and you're also helping to create the slightest change in the world. Even if it's impacting one person in the community, that's still moving the needle to help create change.”
If you're interested in learning more about food insecurity in your community, check out Map the Meal Gap. This interactive map allows you to explore data on food insecurity in your state, county, or district, as well as the local food banks that serve those in need.
Are you passionate about addressing food insecurity and an expert in equity, justice, human rights, or policy? Contact Ms. Halfi to explore opportunities to connect with current Emma Willard Students to share your valuable insights. Let's work together to create a brighter future for all.
Originally printed in the Spring 2023 issue of Signature Magazine.
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