By Dave Gulliver
Just before 9 a.m. on the Wednesday of Orientation week, some 20 members of the incoming New College class start arriving at Goldstein Residence Hall lounge. On the wall, a mural proclaims, “Just experiencing the experiences we’re experiencing.” And on this day, that means food insecurity.
This year, during Orientation, New College replaced the longstanding Common Read, a book assigned over the summer, with the Common Challenge, an issue that students would discuss and eventually address as part of their introduction to the college.
Under the guidance of orientation leaders AnnaLynn Winfrey and Eshel Rosen, the group immediately plunged into the topic. They talked about the causes of modern-day hunger — often from personal experience — such as low wages making quality food unaffordable; the persistence of “food deserts;” typically low-income neighborhoods abandoned by grocery stores; the proliferation of fast food, sometimes the only option for overworked and overstressed families; and stores’ and restaurants’ culture of making food overly abundant, even out of season, leading to waste.
Virtually all the members of “Boston Fern” — each group is named for a plant species native to Southwest Florida — chime in at one point. One woman’s story, of how food banks and kind neighbors helped her family when her mother became disabled, drew a round of sympathetic finger-snap applause. As they approach the one-hour mark, Winfrey has to end the discussion so the energized group can head to academic advising sessions.
But they’re far from finished with the Challenge. That night, the entire first-year class reconvened at Sudakoff Conference Center for a panel discussion and Q&A on the topic. Orientation leader Courtney Hughes kicked it off. “Why did we choose to be here at New College? To make a difference!” she says. “Instead of a Common Read, like all of the other colleges, we did a Common Challenge. Food insecurity challenges our community, our nation, our world. We want you to be the agents of change.”
The class meets Jada McNeill, the College’s new AmeriCorps Vista coordinator; Newtown Farmers Market director Lou Murray, and Keith Monda, a former New College trustee and board chair of Feeding America, a network of more than 200 food banks across the country. “People using food banks have jobs,” Monda told them. “‘Do I pay rent or do I buy food? Do I buy medicine or do I buy food?’ These are kinds of decisions they have to make.” The panel fielded questions for an hour before breaking into small-group discussions with the students that went another hour.
After the day of education on food insecurity, the entire class was scheduled for a morning of volunteering at food banks and other charities.
Victoria Parada said her family had experience food insecurity during the economic recession. “I know how hard it is to buy fresh produce when one has to budget around SNAP limits,” she said. “I think the Common Challenge made the first-year class more aware of how prevalent food insecurity is in America, despite many of them not having been affected by it before.”
Samara Weinberg, one of the members of Boston Fern, said the topic of the Common Challenge particularly resonated with her. And in a week of hectic activity, she praised an unusual aspect of the programming: “The best part of Orientation has been the calmness. All of the discussions, panels and presentations have been calm and kind, teaching in an environment where everyone may be different with similar experiences.”