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Veg­etables from The Root Project’s summer harvest in the children’s garden at the Barber House. Courtesy | Jessica Frenkel

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 jfrenkel1@hillsdale.edu.