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The Fox in the Schoolhouse: A Penn program readies students to change school food


Analyzing the Farm Bill or discussing health and educational inequalities can make for an interesting college-level course, but when students in the Robert A. Fox Leadership Program apply their classroom learning to fieldwork in Philadelphia public schools, education comes alive.  

“I think actually having these experiences in a food stamp enrollment campaign or in schools gives students an understanding of how much these institutions need to change to support health and sustainability—beyond any one issue they might read about,” says Mary Summers, a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Robert A. Fox Leadership Program.

Summers, who describes herself as an “historical institutions political scientist,” is interested in how institutions shape individuals and, in turn, how individuals shape institutions. At Fox, she teaches two of the undergraduate program’s seven academically based community service courses: “The Politics of Food and Agriculture” and “Healthy Schools: Community-Based Participatory Research, Planning and Action.”
These courses, like all those at Fox, are designed to compel students to reflect on their roles as citizens, and discover how they can become effective leaders in their communities.

“The Politics of Food and Agriculture” explores how institutions have shaped the way the U.S. grows and eats food. “Healthy Schools” focuses on why inner-city schools have inferior lunch programs and what it takes to make improvements. Both courses work with city schools and organizations like the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, which facilitates food stamp enrollment.

“[I] want students to be in situations where they’re learning a lot and changing initiatives to serve people better,” says Summers.

Though the courses are only one semester long, Summers says many students continue their work as an independent study or even after graduation.

—Liz Pacheco

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