Dr. C. Patrick Heidkamp describes his work as “moving from drinks to food.” He started by studying eco-labels in the coffee and later wine industries, but in the past few years his research focus has shifted to the analysis of food systems, especially Connecticut’s food system, which allows him to better engage students and the community.
So far, Dr. Heidkamp, chair of the Department of Geography at SCSU, has sponsored a number of student research projects related to food in Connecticut that have led to honor’s and master’s theses, published peer-reviewed journal articles, and even a book chapter. It was important for Dr. Heidkamp to get students involved in research in order to prepare them for an increasingly competitive job market that requires follow-through, research skills, and critical thinking.
To engage students, Dr. Heidkamp has worked on a number of classroom initiatives in the popular Food Systems course (GEO 105) ranging from independent research projects to emerging collaborations with Southern’s Department of Public Health and the wider New Haven community. “It is my goal to help students and the general population to be better informed consumers about issues related to our food system. I want them to realize that every food-related purchase they make has implications—sometimes significant implications—not only for them, but also for environmental sustainability and social justice,” he said.
Food is an important part of everyone’s day-to-day life, making it a great way to get students thinking about sustainability. “We felt there was a disconnect among our students in how they understood the food system. We wanted more of a presence of people thinking about sustainability and food… Essentially, we wanted to use food as an avenue to discuss sustainability. Food is an easily-accessible and highly-controversial medium to teach our students critical thinking. Everyone can relate to food studies. We all eat. It makes entrance into the discussion fairly easy,” said Dr. Heidkamp.
Food studies have become an increasingly important topic in America, which has high rates of hunger for a developed nation. About 15.8 million children under 18 live in food insecure households in the US and experience hunger on a regular basis. In Connecticut, one of the wealthiest states in the nation, about 12% of households have food security issues as of 2012.
Along with Dr. Susan Cusato (Department of Science Education & Environmental Studies) and Suzanne Huminsky (SCSU’s Sustainability Coordinator), Dr. Heidkamp helped create an on-campus garden to boost students’ awareness of food system sustainability and to create a sort of “outdoor lab space” to be used in coursework, research, and community engagement.
Recent projects related to the on-campus garden include a composting research project overseen by then senior geography student Michelle Ritchie, as well as a community outreach project where food from the garden is donated to local food pantries and homeless shelters.
Studying the barriers that make it difficult for the poor to access healthy, affordable food is essential for improving the wellbeing of residents of the Nutmeg State. Price, while important, is not the only issue at hand. Geographic, cultural, and informational barriers are also at play and Dr. Heidkamp and his students are at the forefront in researching the geographical aspects of food access. For example, they studied the effects of the closing of a Shaw’s supermarket in New Haven in 2010, which led to the creation of a food desert – a geographically-limited area where it is difficult to obtain healthy and affordable food. Dr. Heidkamp and his students have also completed a project related to food access in New Haven’s Fairhaven neighborhood, which will be published in the near future. Student Michelle Ritchie also worked on a Departmental Honor’s thesis focused on the neighborhood just north of campus.
The key of Dr. Heidkamp’s approach is its interdisciplinary nature. It involves other departments on campus, such as the Department of Science Education and Environmental Studies, the Department of Public Health, the Sustainability Office, and “hopefully dining services,” he said. “It is not just focused on geography, we are trying to do it in a multidisciplinary way. The really relevant questions of our time will have to be answered collaboratively.”
Dr. Heidkamp encourages those interested in finding out more on how to stop hunger in Connecticut to visit End Hunger Connecticut.