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Eating for a Healthy You and a Sustainable Planet

Benjamin Cuker, Marine and Environmental Science, Hampton University

For the last three years I have co-taught an honors seminar called "Eating for A Healthy You and a Sustainable Planet." I teach the course with a colleague who has a degree in nutrition and who is chair of the Department of Biological Sciences (and formerly appointed in the School of Nursing). The 8 – 11 students represent the diversity of majors on campus. Most of the students begin more interested in the "Healthy You" part of the class than the "Sustainable Planet" component. However, by the end of the class they see that healthy diet choices coincide with sustainable agricultural and fair-labor practices. This comprehension comes from examining; nutrition, economics, marketing, geo-politics, endocrinology, ecological principles, economics, colonialism, industrial agriculture, organic farming, ethnic differences, medicine, and history.

We use an active learning approach that gives ownership to the students. We begin by having the students view (on their own) some recent films (Food Inc., Super Size Me, and Fast Food Nation), and have them bring questions for discussion to class. Next the students keep a photographic food diary of every item they eat or drink over a three day period. They also enter that data into the online USDA MyPlate.gov and create a nutritional report. The students create a powepoint using collages of the food pictures for each day. This facilitates a discussion on what they are eating, its nutritional value, and environmental consequences.

Students must sign-up to give two 10 minute presentations on questions from a list formulated by the professors. Example questions include: What is meant by the statement that people of African descent in the Americas are twice enslaved by sugar? What is/was the role of the sacred cow of India and how has that been changed by the Green Revolution? What is the environmental and health impact of industrial beef production? What are the benefits of choosing a vegetarian diet?

The students also do (as teams or individuals) a service learning project and report (PowerPoint and paper) on that to the class at the end of the semester. Examples include; serving meals at a soup kitchen and evaluating the efficacy of the menu, contrasting food availability in a poor and wealthy neighborhood, surveying shopping cart choices and correlating those to perceived BMI scores of shoppers.

We make extensive use of BlackBoard to facilitate communication and host readings and videos. Typically twice a week we send to the class current news items (text and video) related to the course objectives. This keeps the material fresh.

The capstone event is a vegetarian meal they help prepare at my house. The old (1936) house is near energy neutral (we use solar PV in a grid-tied system to make 120% of our annual electricity needs, have solar hot water, a solar heat wall) so they get to also see the possibility living sustainably.

Downloadable version of this esay

Eating for a Healthy You and Sustainable Planet (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 12kB Jun14 12)