Oberlin Secures $1M Mellon Foundation Grant for Food Studies Partnership with Lorain County Community College

Wide-ranging collaboration to address food justice across the region through the humanities.

March 6, 2023

Office of Communications

Students cheerfully tending to a garden.
Photo credit: Yevhen Gulenko

The Mellon Foundation, the nation’s largest supporter of the arts and humanities, has awarded Oberlin College a $1 million grant to help launch a food studies program in collaboration with Lorain County Community College (LCCC). Oberlin has received more than $20 million in Mellon grants since 1970.

The new alliance will unite students and faculty from the two campuses with local nonprofits to tackle urgent questions related to food justice, including the historical and present-day barriers that prevent residents—especially those in lower-income communities and communities of color—from accessing high-quality food in Lorain County and beyond. Groundbreaking partnerships with farms and food-justice organizations are central to the program and exemplify Oberlin’s commitment to community-based learning and research.

Oberlin’s focus on food studies has been crafted as an integrative concentration, one of several programs intended to blend coursework with experiential learning. Oberlin students may choose to pursue integrative concentrations in tandem with their major courses of study. The grant will fund programming through the summer of 2026.

“Students will learn to engage in respectful, reciprocal, and ethical relationships with growers and food justice advocates while gaining practical experience through internships and ongoing collaborations,” says professor Jay Fiskio, director of Environmental Studies at Oberlin. “We are committed to understanding the needs of our community partners and supporting their work.”

One of the county’s largest nonprofits, Oberlin Community Services (OCS) provides more than 30,000 meals a year.

“We are thrilled to be working with Oberlin College and LCCC to create long-term solutions to food inequity and the unjust systems that cause it,” says OCS Executive Director Margie L. Flood.

While LCCC and Oberlin have joined forces before, the food studies collaboration marks a significant expansion of the relationship between the neighboring institutions. Together, they plan to create or revise more than 20 courses and offer nearly 40 internships and other community-based learning opportunities for students at both colleges.

“The food studies program is the perfect marriage of rigorous coursework and real-life application of lessons learned in the classroom,” says Carmen Twillie Ambar, president of Oberlin College and Conservatory. “This visionary undertaking lies at the heart of our mission to train young people to become leaders who do good in the world.” 

For LCCC, the grant will strengthen an existing program in sustainable agriculture that allows students to contribute to the production, distribution, and marketing of locally grown produce through hands-on experiences with farmers and growers.

“LCCC is committed to fighting food insecurity and food injustice in Lorain County and neighboring areas,” says Jonathan Dryden, LCCC provost and vice president for academic affairs and university partnership. “This innovative collaboration will advance the work already under way through local partnerships with agriculture and community organizations. By joining with Oberlin College for this initiative, our community will soon reap the rewards of a holistic and equitable food system.”

Oberlin’s Fiskio will lead the grant initiative with professor Ruby Beil, coordinator of LCCC’s sustainable agriculture program. To build the curriculum, they will tap into the complementary strengths of their home campuses: a wide network of community partners at LCCC and an interdisciplinary team of liberal arts faculty at Oberlin.

Classes will explore topics such as foodways (the everyday activities, often carried out by women, related to the cooking and eating of food and how that cultural knowledge is passed from one generation to the next), Black farming and land ownership, and practices such as seed keeping (saving seeds to plant in later harvests to preserve biodiversity and culturally significant crops for future generations).

Early programming will include an introductory course on food studies available to students from both campuses; a speaker series that will draw on the expertise of farmers, scholars, and food-justice activists; a course on urban farming; and a research project involving the city of Elyria, which is home to the LCCC campus and includes neighborhoods where residents struggle to find fresh, affordable produce and other nutritious staples. These “food deserts,” says the city’s mayor, Frank Whitfield, have existed for decades but are hardly unique to Elyria.

Students interested in food justice as well as business and social entrepreneurship will explore alternatives to chain supermarkets or traditional grocery stores—such as the cost of revitalizing a vacant downtown building and ways to fund it—to help Whitfield’s administration solve a real-world problem. “My hope is that through this partnership, we’re going to come up with a new model that other communities around the country are going to be able to replicate,” says Whitfield.

Thanks to the Mellon Foundation grant, food studies interns will be paid for their work—a boon to busy students at both Oberlin and LCCC. Professor Beil’s diverse group of learners includes traditional college-age students as well as high schoolers earning college credit, veterans, and retirees who want to teach their grandchildren how to plant and harvest food.

“It’s really hard for students juggling full-time jobs and family responsibilities to find the time to go out in the community and volunteer, even though that is something they would love to do,” says Beil.

Paid internships are a game-changer, she says, extending the reach of what students can give back to the community while helping with the bills. A portion of the grant is allocated for elder care, childcare, and transportation, so that all students can fully participate in the spadework to get high-quality food on area shelves and engage in thoughtful collaborations to address food security on a regional, national, and global scale.

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