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Food for Thought: Communication studies professor will use Fulbright Fellowship to study urban farming and building community

Samantha Senda-Cook, PhD, Department of Communication Studies.Take a westerly stroll from the Creighton University campus down California Street and it won’t be too long before you encounter at least one of the five farming plots dotting the Gifford Park neighborhood.

These plots — the work of Big Muddy Urban Farm, an Omaha-based nonprofit aiming to expand access to sustainable agriculture — and the lively social structures they foster in Gifford Park have become part of a locus of study for Samantha Senda-Cook, PhD, an associate professor in Creighton’s Department of Communication Studies. Last month, Senda-Cook earned a Fulbright Fellowship to study food and community engagement at the Asia Rural Institute (ARI) in Japan in the spring and early summer of 2019.

With a plan to spend several months alongside ARI participants from around the world, learning about the intersections of agriculture and advocacy and the central role of food in fueling both individuals and the community, Senda-Cook said she hopes to return to Omaha with strategies to enhance the role of urban farming and investigate the ways food brings people together.

“Having those plots in Gifford Park has changed the feel of the neighborhood,” Senda-Cook said. “They create a conversation for people walking past. It creates a deterrent for someone who may be looking engage in a crime. People in the community become more active in the neighborhood and people outside the community become interested in what’s going on there. There’s a growing inclination to participate, a growing sense of empowerment.”

Smack in the middle of America’s vast farmlands, Senda-Cook said Omaha and Nebraska might seem odd places to begin a refresher on the centrality of agriculture to human life. But, though the state is dominated by an agricultural economy, very few Nebraskans grow their own food and most of the crops, corn and soybeans, aren’t edible without at least some processing. Even rural areas surrounded by acres of cropland are now subject to the “food-desert” designation and the arrival of new populations of immigrants and refugees, along with their diets, is shaping food and food production anew.

At the ARI, Senda-Cook said instructors are trying to create a more intimate bond between people and their food, training leaders who are schooled not only in farming techniques, but in providing leadership and community-building.

“It sounds simple but if people can eat, they are more likely to seek peace,” said Senda-Cook, who first spent time at ARI in January 2017. “In learning farming techniques, you can learn more about equality, because we see in collectives that are producing their own food, everyone does the work. If you address food deserts by empowering people to be activists and advocates, everyone shares in the work and shares in the leadership.”

Further, Senda-Cook said the ARI strives to teach local, small-scale agriculture to people who are living in a place far from their native lands, which might seem especially challenging. But by inviting back past graduates of the program, they are able to teach farming as well as leadership skills.

In addition to working with Big Muddy, Senda-Cook has also engaged with the Refugee Empowerment Center in Omaha to understand how resettling families use community gardens to produce their own food and contribute to their communities.

“In interviews with refugees, I learned that some refugees are frightened to engage,” she said. “There’s a language barrier, often a cultural barrier. They reported that working on a plot in a community garden builds confidence and community. They’re more willing to join in and to talk with the neighbors and the neighbors are more willing to talk to them.”

Once the food is farmed, Senda-Cook said there’s another encounter she hopes to study: how do you cook it?

With new produce showing up in small plots and at farmer’s markets of late, there has been a more concerted effort to disseminate culinary knowledge alongside the agricultural knowhow.

“That’s a question that’s asked frequently, ‘What do you do with the food you grow?’” Senda-Cook said. “And more community supported agriculture groups are trying to answer that. There are recipes showing up with produce, giving people ideas. The ARI also provides a model for long-term planning when growing food. In addition to feeding everyone who works there, they sell food products such as soy sauce and carrot juice. And, they not only compost their waste but also work with local schools to compost their food waste as well. We talk about it as a cradle-to-cradle way of thinking about food.”

Passing this knowledge from generation to generation hearkens back to the dawn of agriculture, but Senda-Cook said she tries to eschew any bucolic romanticism. It’s hard work, even in small plots in the city, and work that demands a sustainable approach that speaks not so much to the lone yeoman farmer but concentrates on a united, committed community. “Around the world, similar things are happening in being divorced from our food,” Senda-Cook said.

“Through environmental changes, colonial legacies. It’s been a way for me to apply scholarship in a helpful way. I’m hopeful that in going to ARI next year I will return with more to share. My main plan is just to listen to people, to see what they’ve learned and what works for them. There is a lot of farming knowledge there and people from all around the world who know what works and how community leadership and advocacy emerges from that.”


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