Some Longwood University students learned recently that hunger isn’t always halfway around the world. Sometimes it’s just around the corner.
An honors English class and an advanced photography class combined this semester to research and document food and hunger in Farmville. The result was a special 40-page publication titled 17 Portions: Food For Thought, an off-campus exhibition of the stories and photographs, a student-initiated screening of a documentary on hunger and, for the students, a greater awareness of where and what hunger really is.
"Hunger doesn’t mean starving, homeless people. It means that many Americans don’t have access to nutritious food," said senior Hannah Hopper, who contributed two stories to the publication and was its copy editor. "They don’t have the same quality of food that I do. I see how hard it is for people just to make it."
Hopper’s comments were echoed by fellow seniors Ellery Ruther and Heather Lancaster. "Hunger is not defined by people without jobs or people on food stamps," said Ruther, who wrote a story on three struggling families in the community. "Hunger is in my town, in my neighborhood, in my neighbor’s home. It’s part of my friend’s life and part of the strangers’ lives that I got to know."
Lancaster, who did photographic portraits of clients and volunteers at the local F.A.C.E.S. pantry, learned that "some people work multiple jobs but still don’t make enough to feed their families, which was shocking to hear. This project has given me a broader perspective on how hunger affects people at different levels."
Another senior, Mary Anna Rose, also found the project a learning experience. "Students complain about the quality of the food and the choices, and we wanted to give them a wake-up call that they shouldn’t complain," said Rose, whose photographs compared the food provided by Longwood dining and F.A.C.E.S. "This has made me more aware of the community and also more appreciative."
Rose and Lancaster were among the 17 students in a photography class taught by Michael Mergen, assistant professor of art, that teamed up with 12 students, including Hopper and Ruther, in a section of Active Citizenship: An Advanced Writing Seminar [English 400] taught by Dr. Heather Lettner-Rust, assistant professor of English. This was the third consecutive semester in which Lettner-Rust’s English 400 course, which explores citizen leadership, focused on hunger.
"One student had wanted to join the Peace Corps, but now she said she realizes the problem is in her backyard," said Lettner-Rust, a member of the F.A.C.E.S. board. "She wants to start a garden at the school where she will teach, so she will be not only a teacher but an active citizen."
In the project, student teams of writers and photographers tackled some issue of food and hunger in Farmville, and the tabloid-format publication, 17 Portions: Food For Thought, captures their work. The tabloid was modeled after "historical collaborations" between photographers and writers, including Dorothea Lange and her husband, Paul Taylor, and Walker Evans and James Agee, said Mergen. 17 Portions closely resembles two recent publications by photographer Alec Soth and writer Brad Zellar that Mergen brought in on the first day of class.
"It was a lot of work for all of us—I don’t think Heather and I realized how much work it would be—but it wasn’t busy work; it was good work," Mergen said. "It would have been easier to do a regular class project. I hope the students will eventually say ‘This was really worth it.’ Because of the public nature of their work, this sort of raised the stakes, but they stepped it up.
"The students learned about the community in which they live, which has made them better informed citizens of Farmville. It’s difficult to do work that could be seen as critical, but I tell my students to not be afraid to tell a difficult story. It’s easy to take photographs of pretty flowers all day."
Large prints of the photographs—including some color images not included in 17 Portions—were displayed, accompanied by text, in an exhibition April 25-26 at the Farmers Market. The exhibition will be shown in Longwood’s Bedford Gallery this summer.
As part of the collaboration, the students raised money to purchase a new documentary on hunger, A Place at the Table, and screened it April 22 on campus. They also created a blog site (http://blogs.longwood.edu/photo400/) related to the class. Lettner-Rust was pleased that a Hampden-Sydney College faculty member, Dr. Heidi Hulsizer, contacted her and wants to use 20 copies of the publication in her fall semester rhetoric class.
"This was a thrilling collaboration," said Lettner-Rust. "The writers sat in on critiques of the photographers and learned about aesthetics, and the photographers learned about rhetoric and writing. Each group learned from the other."
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