TOWNSHEND — A group of Leland & Gray High School students will spend the spring semester exploring food systems and culture here at home, then travel south to several Gulf Coast states, as well as Vietnam and France, to study how food is grown, produced, distributed, prepared, and consumed.
To raise money and help pay the estimated $140,000 needed for the 15 students and three teachers expected to participate, the group prepared and served a Community Dinner in Town Hall on Nov. 3. They raised about $6,000 at the meal, for which food was all locally sourced and donated.
Students will receive credit in 20th-century social studies, natural history, math, and English for the course, and their work will culminate in a "Voices and Portraits of Journey Away" project to be shared with the public in late May 2024.
Junior Wyatt Houle says for him, "understanding agriculture and food systems in other countries is a powerful means of appreciating cultural diversity, fostering global connections, and building a more harmonious world."
Houle says food "serves as a worldwide bridge that brings people from various backgrounds, offering insights into traditions, ecosystems, and societies."
"As we explore different culinary traditions and agricultural practices, we gain a broader perspective on the world, nurturing empathy, tolerance, and respect for various worldviews," he continues.
"This knowledge equips us to tackle global challenges collaboratively, while the culinary and cultural experiences we gather enrich our lives and turn us into more informed, compassionate, and globally conscious individuals, laying the foundation for a brighter, interconnected future," Houle adds.
Sophomore Grace Wright participated in a similar project last year and visited New York City and New Orleans while studying natural disasters.
"I had a lot of fun and learned a lot," Wright says. "My family's been a part of study abroad things, and they learned a lot of important life lessons. I thought, 'Why not try it?'"
She believes it's "really important to learn about where our food is from, because many people are buying bad food, and it's good to source local food."
"Especially in Townshend, there are a lot of farms, and to support local farms is everything," Wright adds.
She also believes "it's good to travel while you're young."
"A lot of people look back and say they wish they'd traveled, but no one looks back and says they wish they hadn't," she says. "It's good to value other cultures. Learning about that can change your way of life and help you appreciate what you have a lot more."
Ely White, a junior, also participated in the program last year and "thoroughly enjoyed it."
"I love to travel and have always dreamed of traveling the world, and gaining that experience at such a young age is really important," he says. "It offers the ability to step outside your comfort zone and see things you wouldn't have seen. Your economic status or whatever doesn't matter - you can go no matter who you are; that's one of the amazing things about the program."
White also considers food to be "an important part of culture," which he finds "interesting."
"Learning about how foods are grown produced and distributed will be really interesting to me, and I hope will teach me also about how to make new foods," he says.
Reinvigorating the China program
Journey Away Director Jessa Harger was hired after the pandemic to "breathe some fresh air" into the then–Journey East program, which was based in travel to China.
She used Project-Based Learning (PBL) time - 100 minutes each week for middle and high school dedicated to the new program on Wednesdays - and set out to redesign the Journey East program while raising money for and designing a program to study climate disasters in New York City and New Orleans.
Last year, a group of students, including Wright and White, spent 10 days traveling by train to New York City and New Orleans, interviewing people in both locations about their experiences with major storms such as Hurricanes Katrina and Ida in New Orleans, and Superstorm Sandy in New York City.
As it turned out, the new program was just what Harger was looking for, and Journey Away became the new vision for the school's foreign travel program.
"It opened things up,"says Harger. "We don't have to just go east; we can go anywhere."
Raising the funds
With Journey Away open to all students, fundraising is essential.
Apart from fall fundraising, the course has received a $15,000 grant from the Stratton Foundation, which also contributes $22,000 overall to Leland and Gray's Project-Based Learning initiatives. The West River Education District continues to support Journey Away with $31,000 each year as part of the Leland & Gray school operating budget.
Grant applications are in process with a number of local foundations, and Harger will be applying for the Farm-to-School Vision Grant with the Vermont Agency of Agriculture.
'It's not nothing'
Harger is also working with other programs that focus on helping youth around food systems in partnerships, such as Food Connects and Shelburne Farms.
She clearly has a passion for helping her students not only broaden their horizons but better understand food systems and culture - at home and abroad.
"Getting these kids from rural New England out in the world is not nothing," she says, noting that last year one girl had never been to a city before she stepped off the train in New York.
"And for so many students, having random adults in the world taking these kids seriously really changed things for them. Plus their ability to work together and understand cultural context. It's remarkable, really. It's moving," Harger says.
"We're looking at food - everything from how it is grown to how it is produced, distributed, prepared, and consumed," she adds. "Food is so much part of Vermont culture. You can't go anywhere without someone proudly handing you a slice of apple pie or a piece of cheese."
The study, says Harger, also includes working with hunger questions, including, "How are we going to solve world hunger when the global population is due to hit 9 billion people in the next 50 years?"
And, she adds, "we're looking at small-scale farms in the East versus massive tracts in the west growing only a few products; corn, soy, wheat, and rice are grown the most."
Selecting the itinerary
Students will return to the South, says Harger, because, "when we were in New Orleans last year looking at climate disasters and mitigation strategies, we learned there are a lot of geographical similarities between the Mississippi Delta and Mekong Delta in Vietnam. Additionally, many refugees from Vietnam immigrated to the Southern states during and after the Vietnam War, bringing Vietnamese culture to the Mississippi Delta."
The common bond of students in both New Orleans and the West River Valley - that both have seen their homes damaged or destroyed by extreme weather caused by climate change - is also a part of the choice.
"Here in central Windham County, we know well the destruction that comes with severe storms, which is something that folks in the Gulf states have been experiencing for a long time," Harger says.
"We can learn a lot about adaptive practices from the places we visit, as the entire world is faced with these increasingly dramatic and destructive storms," she adds.
In addition to food culture and production, the trips will include explorations of how the region's history and culture intertwine.
The first stop is to be Birmingham, Alabama, where students will spend time exploring the Jones Valley Teaching Farm, Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, and the Equal Justice Initiative.
In Leland, Mississippi, they will learn about food and land cooperatives organized by Black folks during the Civil Rights era.
In New Orleans, the group will volunteer with Common Ground Relief in the Ninth Ward, the area of the city that suffered the most from Hurricane Katrina, helping plant sea grass in salt marshes and working in a local food hub.
"It's impossible to explore the topics of climate and food without also understanding racial justice and equity," says Harger. "Blues and jazz are big in the Delta, and we will try to see some music and learn some music history while in the area, too."
From New Orleans, students will depart for Vietnam and spend a week living at a farm stay in the Mekong Delta region before heading north by train to Hanoi and Ha Long Bay. This will be the first school-sponsored international trip since the pandemic.
"Many Vermont students have family members that were impacted by the Vietnam War, and we will look at ways in which repair has happened for the landscape and people of Vietnam," Harger says.
In France, the group will look at fruit and dairy production to "see the similarities and differences between food production in Vermont and France" and spend time exploring the concept of "terroir," or food being special because it's from a special landscape, as expressed through culture.
"Everywhere we go we will explore the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals and make observations about where and how they are, and are not, implemented," says Harger. "We will look at large- and small-scale farms to learn various practices and techniques. We hope to share meals with all of the people we meet with to learn ways in which food brings people together."
While the choice to travel to the East has no particular tie-in to the lifting of travel bans to Mongolia and China, says Harger, Leland & Gray has had a long-standing commitment to cultural exchange, starting with the Journey East program.
"Journey Away has enabled students to explore different themes and parts of the world, and if it makes sense to revisit the partnerships with inner Mongolia and China in the future, we certainly can," Harger says. "It's an absolute privilege to be able to take these kids and show them the world."
To donate to the Journey Away program, visit app.99pledges.com/fund/journeyawa.
This News item by Virginia Ray was written for The Commons.