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  • Molly Jensen and students in her First-Year Seminar test soil samples from Southwestern's Community Garden.
    Molly Jensen and students in her First-Year Seminar test soil samples from Southwestern's Community Garden.
  • Students in Molly Jensen's  First-Year Seminar  visit Green Hill Farms east of Austin.
    Students in Molly Jensen's First-Year Seminar visit Green Hill Farms east of Austin.

New First-Year Seminars address topics close to home

When Chemistry Professor Kerry Bruns was developing a new First-Year Seminar class about water issues to teach this fall, he never imagined how timely the topic would turn out to be.  

As students met for the first week of class, Georgetown had not had rain for more than a month and a half.  

Bruns is teaching a new First-Year Seminar this fall titled “Water in the West: A Sprinkling of Problems Close to Home.” Students taking the class will read classics such as John McPhee’s Encounters with the Archdruid and visit the nearly dry San Gabriel River in Georgetown to see how water issues hit close to home.  

Although teaching chemistry is his mainstay, Bruns said he has long been interested in water issues both because he is a gardener and because he lived in New Mexico for 12 years. As an undergraduate at Western New Mexico University, Bruns said he took an anthropology course about indigenous people in the Southwestern United States. Researchers believe many of these people were forced to leave their homes around 1100 A.D. because of an extended drought.  

“It made me realize how human existence was very determined by climatic conditions,” he said. Bruns also noted that almost every issue of Science magazine he reads has some article related to climate change. He said he decided to develop the new First-Year Seminar after offering a Paideia Conversation on water issues last fall that was well received.

With one in seven Americans relying on food stamps to purchase food, students in Religion Professor Molly Jensen’s First-Year Seminar will learn first-hand how difficult it is to feed a family of four on the average daily food stamp allowance.

Jensen is teaching a new First-Year Seminar titled “Seeds of Change: ‘Unconventional’ Farming in Fast Food Times.” Like Bruns, Jensen is a long-time gardening enthusiast. Before coming to teach at Southwestern full-time, she worked at the Sustainable Food Center in Austin and helped organize the opening of the Austin Farmer’s Market, which was a project of the Sustainable Food Center.  

Jensen’s interests focus on the intersection of gardening and social justice. “A huge part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s budget goes to anti-hunger programs such as food stamps, but these programs do not necessarily help create stable, sustainable access to healthful nourishing food,” she said.  

Jensen explained that many food assistance programs respond to immediate hunger rather than overarching problems with the food system. What we need to consider more carefully are ways to promote food security and healthy communities.  

In her class, Jensen will introduce her students to the complexity of food access and tell them about models that have emerged in the last two decades to reduce people’s dependency on emergency food assistance. Students will spend time getting acquainted with Southwestern’s Community Garden and also visit Green Gate Farms east of Austin.  

As part of the class, students will be asked to prepare a plan to improve food access for economically disadvantaged people in a local community. The class will culminate Oct. 6 when the students participate in a “Food Access Chef Showdown,” in which students will be challenged to prepare healthy, low-cost dishes on a representative food stamp budget of $4.50 per meal for a family of four. Along with the dish itself, the student will submit the recipe, the source for each of the ingredients, nutritional content and the cost of the preparing the dish. The results will be rated by a panel of judges.


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