Students on college campuses often find themselves within a paradox. While they are in an environment that provides endless resources and knowledge, they are also incredibly prone to becoming lost in an academic-based version of reality.

In effect, students can forget how to civically engage in their communities outside of campus, which is exactly the principle of UW-Madison’s Wisconsin Idea – to improve people’s lives beyond the classroom.

A course from the Nelson Institute of Environmental Studies called “Building Food Justice Capacity in South Madison” aims to address this paradox by focusing on issues close to home in the nearby community of South Madison. It is an impactful project that is working to improve access to healthy food via sustainable, urban agriculture.

Even though it’s just two miles south of campus, south Madison is a place most students are unfamiliar with.

“Before this class I had few assumptions about South Madison. I never had reason to visit or think about the area,” said UW student Rebecca Cownan. “I believe that’s a combination of both my naivety and a fault of the University. I know from speaking with friends that I am not alone in my ignorance of the composition of campus’s surrounding communities.”

This fall, 14 students are enrolled in a service learning class called “Building Food Justice Capacity in South Madison.” In general, the project builds food justice capacity in South Madison by forging a network of entrepreneurship opportunities in the field of urban agriculture for formerly incarcerated citizens while improving healthy food access to the broader South Madison community.

It is a continuation of a project started in the fall of 2013, made possible by a generous grant from the Ira and Ineva Reilly Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment.

The South Madison Farmers’ Market
The South Madison Farmers’ Market

The project works to understand and combat racial discrimination and food insecurity by working with community leaders. It was designed to address inequities in South Madison’s current food system, while at the same time establishing employment opportunities for former inmates.

This semester, students are collaborating with community leaders to recruit two formerly incarcerated men who will train in commercial urban agriculture.

Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of the class is the face-to-face connections. Students regularly visit and volunteer at organizations in the South Madison community such as feed kitchens, community dinners and leadership development meetings for incarcerated men, which are part of the ManUp program ran by the Nehemiah Center.

“One of the best parts of the ManUp meeting was that I was finally able to put a face to the formerly incarcerated individuals we talk so much about,” explained UW student Hallie Duffy. “I found it extremely rewarding to be able to sit with men with whom I superficially had very little in common with and be able to talk openly about difficult issues regarding race and incarceration. Seeing their willingness to bring us into an intimate discussion about issues that affect them so personally was humbling.”

Students are also working to promote the South Madison Farmers’ Market, where the future farmers will sell their produce.

The market is one of the only sources of fresh produce in the South Madison community. It is a valuable asset, considering that nearly 26,000 Dane County residents reside within a food desert, as defined by the USDA. Most of these residents are minorities.

The issues of race and incarceration are echoed in this semester’s Go Big Read book selection, Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. The class was among one of 170 courses that read Just Mercy this semester, setting a record participation in the Go Big Read program. Stevenson’s book narrates disturbing cases of racial discrimination and blatant injustices in our nation’s legal and criminal justice systems.Just-Mercy_Stevenson

According to the Race To Equity report by the Wisconsin Council on Children & Families, Wisconsin and Dane County are home to some of the widest arrest and incarceration disparities in the country. For example, in 2012, African American adults were arrested in Dane County at a rate more than eight times that of whites.

“It’s easy to believe racism and terrorism against blacks isn’t prevalent when you grow up in a white, suburban area of Minnesota and go to college at a university with 70 percent white students,” said Cowan. “Just Mercy, in combination with the ManUp meeting, put real faces, stories and names to the issues.”

This class allows students to step outside of academic boundaries and actively address themes and issues present in the book. The social interactions provide for a deeper understanding of racial issues that are connected to their local communities.

“My increased exposure to the incarceration system has truly changed my thoughts on incrimination and our justice system,” said UW student Maggie Agnew. “I’m thankful our class is addressing issues that I would’ve otherwise been pretty unaware of. By sponsoring two previously incarcerated men for a opportunity with urban agriculture, we are addressing the issue in an impactful way.”

Building Food Justice Capacity in South Madison not only aims to promote justice through food, but it also encourages students to try and understand the root of these problems by asking why these injustices and inequities exist in the first place.

“People know that there are problems with the system, but they are so ingrained that we don’t know how to address them,” said Duffy.

This class gives students the opportunity to begin addressing food inequity and racial disparities through conversations and experiences in their own communities.

“We may not have the resources or time to contribute as much as Stevenson did, but that does not mean we cannot make a difference,” stated UW student Abe Lenoch. “I hope that the remainder of the semester allows us to create a little more justice for the Man Up members and the South Madison community as a whole.”