Unique course has students seeing the land blossom online

image shows a plant growing in a lightbulb
Sarah Rotz
Sarah Rotz

Since Black Creek Community Farm (BCCF) is within shouting distance of York University’s Keele Campus, it seemed odd for Sarah Rotz to be taking her Land and Food Politics class there virtually, but such is life during the pandemic.

“We opened the course with a tour of the farm and talks by the staff,” says Rotz, an assistant professor at the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change (EUC), “and the participatory approach brought the conceptual issues we’d be studying back down to Earth.”

In fact, Rotz integrated a number of guest lecturers into the fourth-year capstone course, including EUC’s MIIJIM: Food as Relations Series and members of Indigenous nations, policy specialists and agricultural workers. She also mixed videos and podcasts in with the assigned reading to keep the students engaged.

“Professor Rotz used all her connections to bring people to our course,” says Natalie Mandarino, a third-year student. “We’d listen to a presentation and then discuss it. It was really inspiring.”

By starting the fall course with a virtual tour by BCCF personnel, Rotz enabled the students to experience the fall harvest season, giving them a tangible understanding of some of the key issues involved in land and food politics. BCCF has a dual mission: “To serve and enrich our community through a thriving farm, healthy food, hands-on training and learning experiences and to inspire the next generation by providing leadership in food justice and supporting diverse natural and social ecosystems.”

As neighbours, the Black Creek Community Farm and York University have worked in partnership for many years: BCCF has served as a research site for York students; numerous students have done practicums there; staff have delivered lectures and offered tours to York classes; and alumni have gone on to obtain positions on the BCCF staff. Currently, the farm’s executive director, Letitica Ama Deawuo, is working toward her Master of Environmental Science degree.

During the virtual tour, students met with farmers and learned about sustainability, different ways of growing crops, soil health and what the term “organic food” means. Given that the farm works closely with the Jane-Finch community in Toronto, Rotz says the students began to see “the interconnected elements of oppression and marginalization around food and the impacts it can have on health, stress levels and relationships.”

“We have a system of decision-making and planning that focuses on the needs of corporations over the needs of community members,” Rotz says. “Everyone should have access to space to grow food.”

With many of the students living in the Greater Toronto Area, the class discussed practical ways that they, too, could connect with the land and food supplies.

During the virtual tour, students met with farmers and learned about sustainability, different ways of growing crops, soil health and what the term “organic food” means.
During the virtual tour, students met with farmers and learned about sustainability, different ways of growing crops, soil health and what the term “organic food” means. Photo: Akil Mazumder

“We look at all the ways students can connect with the land and food where they live, given their different levels of access to greenspace,” Rotz says.  “I think they felt that connection, based on what I hear from them.

“Some are planning to grow container gardens now, use space in their backyards or join community gardens. Others are just committed to going for more walks to appreciate nature.”

In general, Rotz notes, “Food is a cross-cutting theme that allows us to analyze social and political issues through various lenses. It allows us all to critically reflect on our own experiences and relation to food, including the early messages we receive and the cultural norms. We also look at the gaps and consider why such a high percentage of the population doesn’t think about food beyond its packaged state.”

Working with Black Creek and with Indigenous groups also helps break down the stereotype of farmers as “white men with big tractors,” an idea that needs to end, Rotz says, because “it excludes so many people.”

Her students, many of whom had no previous acquaintance with food or land politics, have found the course and its subject matter engaging.

“I was completely unaware of land justice and food sovereignty before,” says Victoria Farrugia, a fourth-year student.

An exercise that took her and her classmates to the pantry to review labels on food products pointed out some of the dishonesty used in marketing various items. Farrugia has since weeded some falsely labelled items out of her diet. She has also discovered a community garden near her home and is considering getting involved.

“The class has been very engaging with lots of activities and discussions and Professor Rotz is very supportive,” Farrugia says. “She has changed the way I look at food.”

Achiaa Kusil, another fourth-year interdisciplinary student, said she has studied colonialism and patriarchy in other courses, so she’s learning to apply those lenses to “something very personal.”

“I’ve never taken a course like this before and it has been a great experience,” says Kusil. “Although we missed some amazing opportunities due to the pandemic, with the widespread virtual community, we could connect with speakers and experiences across Canada. It has offered creative ways of networking and collaboration.”

The course, Kusil adds, “has opened my eyes to underlying issues that aren’t often made overt.”

Her final project for the course – something all the students are completing – focuses on an interest of hers, intellectual property (IP).

“When I mentioned that I had an interest in IP, Professor Rotz told me that those regulations could be applied to seeds, so I’m looking into plant-breeding rights and what it means for farmers and Indigenous people.”

For her part, Mandarino has been impressed with the way Rotz incorporated related current events into the course discussions and mixed up the class routine with polls and surveys, too.

“I’m coming out of this course with an abundance of knowledge about topics I didn’t know anything about,” she says. “Professor Rotz has expanded our horizons.”

Rotz will undoubtedly be pleased by their feedback.

“My goals for the course include having my students come away with a deeper understanding of the ways our current food system is shaped and designed, who set it up and what impacts it has on us today,” she says. “I want them to grasp the central connections between settler colonialism, racism, land enclosure and patriarchy.”

According to her students, mission accomplished.

By Elaine Smith, special contributing writer to Innovatus