Reflections on the Road: Knox College

February 24, 2011

Reflections on our first stop! >>> Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois by Katie B.

The list of upcoming field trips written on the chalkboard at the beginning of Knox College’s Food Systems class included a tour of Pioneer Seed Company (second-largest seed producer after Monsanto) and a trip to the John Deere museum. At the beginning of his lecture about the rise of agricultural technology in the late 19th century (we’re talking bundle-scythes and 30-horse-drawn combines, not a 7030 Premium Small-Frame John Deere tractor), the professor described a map: Des Moines to the west, St. Louis to the south, Chicago to the east. American Agricultural technologies developed within that triangle, and Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois is smackdab in the middle.

Upon arriving at Knox, we were greeted by a student who quickly gave us the lay of the land. “Galesburg is pretty impoverished,” she explained, “there used to be a Maytag factory here, but there has been lots of unemployment since it closed.” We later learned of student research about food deserts in the community, a phenomenon that is not as commonly associated with small, rural towns. However, the student continued, “I came here from Massachusetts, thinking there would be nothing to do here so I would focus more on my school work. But there is so much happening in Knox and in the Galesburg community!”

Indeed there is: through the course of our stay at Knox, we learned about their community garden programs, campaigns against bottled water and Coke on campus, efforts to get local food and a composting program into the cafeteria, and brainstorming about a school-sponsored farm. Knox students also founded a program of donating their cafeteria meals to Galesburg students during the public school breaks, as more than 60% of the Galesburg public school students depend on free or reduced-cost meals.

So why did Knox bring The Real Food Road Trip to their campus? Student after student told us about the need to come together, to work in unison amongst various student organizations, to form a common vision. Through our Real Food Challenge intro workshop and a Strategic Campaign Planning session and lots of informal conversation, we helped them do just that.

Interest began as we discussed the definition of “real food.” Upon revealing the Real Food Wheel to the group and asking for reactions to it, one student exclaimed, “I want that!” We led the group through some of the injustices of college and university food service, and students reflected that indeed, food service work is difficult, underpaid, and isolated–they had never really had a conversation with a food service worker. They shared about the difficulties they had faced trying to coordinate local food purchasing when dining managers are accustomed to the ease of contracted, regularly-scheduled food deliveries from large distributors.

We heard lots of complaints at Knox: there is not enough awareness about real food, it’s hard to coordinate small farmers and food service managers, it’s all a lot of work. But we were there to guide them to solutions, and our Strategic Campaign Planning session started in that direction. The concept of a long-term-goal, one that if realized would mean that a student organization had nothing left to do and no reason to exist, was a difficult one for the students to think about. Seeing so many immediate needs, students couldn’t imagine an ultimate success. The participants broke into small groups to discuss intermediate and short-term goals about getting healthier food on campus, sourcing food from their community garden in the dining hall, and planning a student farm. Once divided into these smaller, interest-specific groups, the discussion of goals became more natural. However, as we moved into discussing constituency—drivers, supporters, and allies in a campaign—the discussion turned to working together once again, and ultimately the workshop ended with a proposal for a Knox Food Coalition (KFC–think the Colonel with a carrot in his mouth in place of fried chicken), to bring people together from all the organizations to more thoroughly plan goals, targets, and tactics for real food at Knox.

While at Knox, we talked a lot about this process: how to move students from their laundry lists of complaints to strategic plans for campaign success. The truth is, we have a long row to hoe (or perhaps more Midwest-appropriate: a tremendous field to plow). Campaign planning is not a part of New Student Orientation, it’s not a General Ed requirement, it is not even on the non-required reading list. Yes, that’s the point: it is grassroots organizing, not an institutional mandate. But even among students with an itch for activism, the real tools and framework for effective change-making are hard to come by—I am constantly reflecting on oh, if only I had known about the Real Food Campaign Strategy Chart when I was a student activist! It is amazing how bright Knox students’ eyes glowed at the idea of S.M.A.R.T. goals (Specific, Measurable, Ambitious, Realistic, Timely). They all agreed that though it is a simple, even obvious concept, it is a transformative one, inspiring big thinking (ambition) within reason (realism), while ensuring managed action (specificity, timeliness) and measured success.

At the end of his lecture, the Food Systems professor presented information from the late 19th century about the harvest time savings that farmers had realized with the advent of the combine. The report was entitled, “The Reduction of Spirit-Deadening Toil.” I would like to think that this is also what the Real Food Challenge is about—empowering students beyond the usual complaining and sometimes-spirit-deadening drudgery of trying to find enough time and people to just squeeze in a bit of change, to instead have solid tools to bring people together to effectively accomplish what they want and need.

As we were leaving Knox, we learned that their mascot was “The Prairie Fire.” Oh, what a splendid metaphor! Knox students are sparks indeed, bursting seed dreams, igniting plans, clearing the way for revitalization, reinvigoration, and real food!