College of

Civic Hacking: Creating Change

Wednesday, October 5, 2016 - 9:15am

"Knowledge," said the Greek philosopher Plato, "is the food of the soul." Lehigh students who participated in a summer civic engagement project now know first-hand that knowledge can also feed hungry mouths.

Five undergraduates and one graduate student explored the issues of food access and security in the neighborhood around the university as part of Lehigh's Mountaintop initiative, which allows students to independently explore open-ended questions and try to implement sustainable change.

The students involved in what was ostensibly termed a "civic hacking" project were asked to identify "potential social issues and community needs" using technological tools to perform research and data analysis.

Thomas C. Hammond, associate dean of Lehigh's College of Education, and Sarah Stanlick, director of Lehigh's Center for Community Engagement and a professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, were mentors.

"For the first two weeks we did a lot around technology tools, what types of things you can use to collect data, what data looks like, what are the ethical issues around data," Stanlick said. "Then we started to do some brainstorming about some issues the students may be passionate about. What came to the forefront was food access, food security, education and public health."

Bill Farina, a doctoral student in the Teaching, Learning and Technology program whose role was to help guide the other students, said the undergraduates became intrigued with how economic and social divides were reflected in the map of Bethlehem.

Lehigh's home city has as its most distinctive geographic feature the Lehigh River, which separates the North and South sides—the quaint, historic downtown at the site of the original Colonial Era settlement of Moravian missionaries and a weathered home of the Industrial Revolution where Bethlehem Steel forged an empire with poor immigrant laborers who settled nearby. Though the South Side has undergone some revitalization in the past two decades following Bethlehem Steel's collapse, parts of the neighborhood have remained home to some of the city's most economically disadvantaged.

The students got to thinking about where people bought their food, what they ate and how where they lived impacted that, Farina said.

Much of South Bethlehem is classified as a "food desert" by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, meaning it lacks places to purchase fresh fruit, vegetables and other healthful foods.

Students mined Census data and other government statistics as well as interviewed local stakeholders, including representatives of St. Luke's Hospital and local food banks and churches.

What they found was that despite an apparent need, the number of applicants for benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP—formerly known as food stamps—has been in decline. They also found that beneficiaries were not taking advantage of opportunities to buy healthful foods at local farmers markets.

"We started looking at these farmers' markets and how convenient they could be if people knew they could utilize them," Farina said. "I think there's also a bit of a perception that if you're on a government SNAP program that you can't go to a farmers market or it's going to cost too much."

In fact, students found the opposite is true, thanks in part to the "Double SNAP" program offered by Buy Fresh Buy Local of the Greater Lehigh Valley, which promotes local, sustainable food sources. Buy Fresh Buy Local will match every dollar up to $10 per day for SNAP beneficiaries who use their electronic benefits transfer cards at a local farmers market.

After weeks of research, the students—Sophie Bysiewicz '18, Maddie White '17, Ellie Hayden '17, Janelle Jack '17 and Kassidy Green '17—concluded that what SNAP and local farmers markets needed was a boost in publicity. They produced a flier touting the Double SNAP benefits and a listing of farmers markets where they can be applied, including one at Farrington Square, on Lehigh's doorstep. The fliers were distributed to food banks, churches and other community organizations.

Buy Fresh Buy Local has told the group that they are beginning to receive more calls from seniors inquiring about the program.

Story by Daryl Nerl