Senior Jessica Frenkel looks like a woman on a mission. With her baseball cap tipped downward and her sweatshirt zipped up, she’s busy trying to save the world.
One small step at a time. This summer, Frenkel dreamt up The Roots Project, an ambitious venture to bring us closer to our food by educating peers about food sustainability, reducing the college’s food waste, and starting a conversation about our role as consumers in the food economy.
With The Roots Project, Frenkel bridges the philosophical and concrete.
“When you think about food in general, it’s such a deeply nourishing and natural thing that we don’t really talk about,” she said.
Through farm visits, waste composting, and even gardening, Frenkel wants people to feel more connected to the food they eat and think about how it’s produced.
“We go to a grocery store and half of our cart will be filled with what you might call ‘food-like substances’ that are packaged in plastic,” Frenkel said. “We’ve gotten to a point where we’re no longer focusing on real food … things that actually come out of the earth,” she said.
Frenkel points to evidence that consuming food in this way can be harmful to our health, and that’s what initially got her interested in sustainability.
“As I started learning more about the way that we produce food, I realized there’s so much going on that a lot of us are very ignorant of,” she said. “The humane treatment of animals is one side of it. There are also questions of environmental impacts. Those two things are deeply unsettling when you consider the reality of what’s going on,” Frenkel added. “I’m really interested in how we can reverse that or take steps to move away from the harmful effects of food production.”
Frenkel said she was partly inspired to start The Roots Project by a climate change lecture series last semester. Ken Hayes, professor of physics, gave three lectures explaining the physics behind climate change.
Frenkel said that the lecture sparked a lot of conversations and educational moments with fellow students who were becoming more interested in their role as consumers because it was no longer a political issue.
Hayes is an example of someone who has made more significant changes to reduce his own carbon footprint. He eats grass-fed beef and will only board a plane in case of emergency because of how much it contributes to climate change.
Hayes began seriously studying the climate problem in the early 2000s. Because of the urgency it demands, he said he feels “a moral responsibility to educate students” on the topic both in and out of the classroom.
“When you hear ‘environmentalism,’ I think it sends up a red flag for a lot of conservative thinkers because it’s become so attached to the other side of politics,” Frenkel said. “I think that caring for the environment and considering our impact as consumers doesn’t need to be a political issue. I think that it’s a deeply human issue, and I’m really interested in how we can revitalize it as such and have a conversation about that and not about politics.”
As a physics professor, Hayes uses data to tell the story of climate change. He created a miniature model to show the effects that even a small amount of carbon can have on temperature. He points to easy-to-digest graphs to convince students to accept the scientific consensus on climate change.
Hayes’ teaching method seems to work wonders. At the beginning and end of each Great Principles of Physics course, Hayes gives students an anonymous survey to understand their current views on different scientific problems. In the past few semesters, around 45% of students in his classes indicated that they accept the scientific consensus on climate change; at the end of the semester, that number is above 90%.
Hayes will participate in a lecture series next month on food sustainability, hosted by The Roots Project. Another lecture will feature a Bon Appétit fellow and focus on local food sourcing.
According to a Bon Appétit study, one college student produces 112 pounds of plate waste per year. “With around 1,400 students at Hillsdale, that’s potentially 156,800 pounds of food going to waste each year,” Frenkel said.
The Roots Project will kick off the semester with its first event starting Monday, Oct. 21. Frenkel is teaming up with Bon Appétit for an event called Weigh the Waste. “For an entire week, we’re going to weigh food that’s left over from the dining hall,” Frenkel said. She hopes this will bring attention to just how much food we leave behind after our meals, and, eventually, The Roots Project will start composting that food waste.
Frenkel is also planning several local farm visits to show students the tremendous amount of work that goes into food production. In addition, The Roots Project is maintaining and revitalizing the children’s garden at the Barber House.
On Oct. 23 from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., The Roots Project is hosting an event called Garden Fest. Attendees will help clean up the garden while enjoying snacks from the summer’s harvest.
Frenkel offered advice to those who are interested in practicing sustainability but aren’t interested in lifestyle changes.
“There are a lot of organizations that encourage people to uproot their entire lives for the sake of the environment,” she said. “I just don’t think that’s practical or helpful.”
Frenkel suggests carrying a reusable water bottle and thermos, walking or biking short distances, and buying local, grass-fed beef from farms like Chef’s Way, just a short drive from the college. Frenkel also recommends taking smaller portions in the dining hall and going back for seconds, if you’re still hungry.
“We’re geared toward habit and routine, but within that, we can find ways of bettering our own impact everyday,” Frenkel said. “Those little changes add up in the long run to more than we think.”
Those who want to get involved in The Roots Project should watch for events in the SAB newsletter or email firstname.lastname@example.org.