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Doctoral candidate gains valuable experience teaching Penn State undergraduates about food security, food systems issues

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Posted: July 10, 2014

If the Education Team needed an ambassador, it could be Lauren Chenarides. A doctoral candidate in Agricultural Economics at Penn State, she is one of a number of students benefiting from the team’s efforts to train future food system scientists. But she’s also done some of that training herself, teaching a course that immersed 40 Penn State undergraduate students in the concepts of food access, food security, and regional food systems.

The course, Food Products Marketing, is a requirement for all students enrolled in Penn State’s undergraduate Agribusiness major. It covers the principles and applications of food marketing, and also explores trends related to food production, distribution, and consumption. That’s why Penn State members of the EFSNE Project team identified it as a perfect forum for enhancing undergraduate students’ exposure to some of the concepts explored by the team. In Spring 2012, team member Alessandro Bonanno, an assistant professor of agricultural economics and Chenarides’ advisor, restructured the course to add new content related to concepts that are relevant to the EFSNE project, such as food systems, food access, and food security. He also taught the revised course in the Fall semester, with Chenarides serving as his teaching assistant.

When Bonanno started teaching at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, Chenarides assumed the responsibility of teaching the Penn State course on her own in Spring 2013. She said that the first half of the course was designed to acquaint students with food marketing trends while familiarizing them with food access and food security issues. Whether or not this was her students’ first exposure to the concept of food security, Chenarides made a point of facilitating a deeper understanding of it among them.

"The content is really interesting to me. Trying to explain it to someone who may not have heard it before, and why it’s important, and where it falls in the whole scheme of things was a challenge, and I liked that challenge. It made me realize I like teaching."

--Lauren Chenarides

"We’d have discussions on how food insecurity specifically exhibits itself across the U.S., and what it exactly means. We also talked about regional food production, and explored differences between rural and urban food environments," she said. "It was a participatory class; there weren’t really any right or wrong answers. For some of these concepts, it was narrowing them down to what they actually mean, and for other concepts it was an introduction to something the students may not have had prior exposure to."

The second half of the course was devoted to reframing the recent trends — from food labeling to sustainability — within a more general marketing context. Chenarides wanted her students to gain an appreciation for all the issues that make marketing food so different than marketing other products. During this part of the course, students developed a marketing plan for a hypothetical food product, applying the concepts learned in the previous half of the course. One team of students, for example, chose to explore the regional food system concept by developing a plan for a roadside hamburger stand that specialized in regionally sourced food. They addressed the challenge of sourcing regional meat by locating the fictional eatery on a beef-cow farm, and quickly discovered how challenging regional sourcing can be for other ingredients, like hamburger buns.

Chenarides’ students weren’t the only ones to learn such valuable lessons; she learned a lot along the way, too. "The content is really interesting to me. Trying to explain it to someone who may not have heard it before, and why it’s important, and where it falls in the whole scheme of things was a challenge, and I liked that challenge," she said. "It made me realize I like teaching."