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A Nursing Program Comes Together with Community Supported Agriculture

By NANCY LaPLANTE PhD, RN

NursingNancy Laplante is a Registered Nurse, and holds a MSN in Community Health Nursing and a PhD in Nursing. As an Assistant Professor at Neumann University, her teaching responsibilities include undergraduate, graduate, and RN completion nursing courses. Nancy spends her free time tending to her flower and vegetable gardens and learning about the many species of birds in her own backyard. This passion has encouraged a student Service-Learning experience with organic gardening, which has been transformative for all parties involved. 

I love gardening. I love planning for the upcoming spring growing season, browsing around nurseries, catalogs, and online resources. When Mother’s Day comes around, my family has no trouble finding the perfect gift for me- flowers, bulbs, or seeds of some kind. There is something very peaceful to me in spending a day puttering around my backyard, nurturing my flowers, herbs and vegetables. Gardening for me can relieve stress and create a sense of calmness, as well as provide physical exercise that is beneficial in many ways.

It comes as little surprise then that I was pleased many years ago to discover a community farm on the grounds of my university. The farm is nestled within 183 acres of beautiful meadows and woodlands; some of the last undeveloped land in the county (The Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia, 2011). From this, six acres of land are cultivated for the farm, producing about 30 types of vegetables, and offering some u-pick options as well. The farm provides food for about 130 co-op members as well as the Sisters who own the land and reside on the campus. From the time I discovered this hidden gem, I wanted to get involved in some way; little did I know then that my involvement would come in the form of an undergraduate research course.

NursingI began teaching undergraduate nursing research about four years ago. I was a little hesitant when I first began teaching this course, which is not usually a favorite of students, but I have come to enjoy it very much over the past several years. The course is writing intensive, and students sometimes struggle to understand why they need this content at their level of education. One of the main reasons I have come to enjoy teaching this course is because of a Service-Learning component that we have. Although it takes much time for me to organize this part, each year I get wonderful feedback from the majority of the students as to what they have learned, how they connected the service to research, and how the experience has influenced them. The community partners have also been overwhelmingly positive and supportive of the experience and our students. Over the years I have established a number of community partnerships, including one with the six acre farm that sits on the campus where I teach.

Service-Learning has many definitions and I believe each person needs to find the one that best summarizes their belief. The definition I have come to favor is from Jacoby (1996): “a form of experiential education in which students engage in activities that address human and community needs together with structured opportunities intentionally designed to promote student learning and development. Reflection and reciprocity are key concepts of service-learning” (p 5). The keys here for me are the reflective component, which helps students connect the service to coursework and life, and the focus on addressing human needs. What better way to address human needs than through the food we eat and organic farming. I have always found being in a garden a place where I can pause to literally smell the roses, appreciate the wonders of nature, and reflect on life. My hope in planning this experience was that my students would have a similar response to working at the farm, and I am happy to say, this has happened.

My students are required to commit eight hours of their time for this experience, during the spring semester. Although the purpose of this paper is not to discuss the process of Service-Learning, I want to encourage readers to not get caught up in the number of hours- there are many good reasons for why eight hours is more than sufficient in this course, and the point of my writing this is to encourage others to consider like experiences, not debate pedagogy. For the purposes of the farm, my students spend two, four hour days doing physical labor of some kind, dependent upon the needs of our partner. It is interesting to point out that the farmer was initially very surprised to see interest from nursing students to do this work- most often it is science or theology students that contact her for service opportunities.

I am beginning my third year with the farm, and each time more students are welcomed to serve there. This reception is due to a good relationship between me and the farmers and the positive impression my past students have made on the farmers. It takes much time and effort to set up Service-Learning for a class that tends to have over 70 students enrolled, but all effort is worth it when I read those final reflections by students and get positive feedback from my community partners.

The nursing program at my University is by far the largest undergraduate program on campus. Many of my students are the first in their families to attend college, and the majority of our students work at least part time. On the whole, I find them to be hard working and juggling multiple responsibilities. Given the urban area that we are set in, and the fact that most of my students come from similar areas to this, it is impressive to see them engage in farming, and want to learn more about the environment around them.

The first year my students worked mostly independently and away from the farm. They researched and developed information sheets on the crops grown, and collected these to create a binder for the farm. The idea behind this activity was that the information sheets could be shared with members of the co-op, and provide vital information about the benefits of the various crops. After the experience was completed, the farmers told me that although the information sheets were very well done, they perceived that an important opportunity to educate my students about organic gardening had been missed. I had not thought about the experience in that way- I was Nursingfocused on the fact that we were helping the co-op members and providing education to them, not that the farmers would miss educating my students. Based on this conversation, for year two, it was decided that students be offered the two four hour shifts to work on the farm. I remember the farmer expressing concern that perhaps the students would not agree to this service, that they would not want to get dirty and do physical work. My response was that if students would not come, I would welcome the opportunity to get my hands dirty and do some physical labor in the fresh air. Fortunately for the students but unfortunately for me, I had an overwhelming positive response from students to this idea, and easily placed the maximum number I could. The remainder of this article will focus on this latter experience, that of my students physically working in service on the farm.

The Experience
In March 2010, six of my undergraduate students began their experience with the farm. Two men and four women participated, and all had picked this service as their first choice, from the list of ten partners I had offered them at the beginning of the semester. I admit to being envious that they were having the chance to work on the farm, something I would not get to do during the semester due to my work schedule. I am fortunate that the farmers are very flexible and generous with their time, and so it became very easy for my students to schedule their dates around a busy spring academic schedule.

The projects completed were many, including hours of planting, weeding and tending crops, as well as building a cement block retaining wall and painting shelves that would hold the precious harvest. The weather was a challenge for all, as we had a difficult winter and much unpredictable weather into the start dates in March. All parties involved worked well together though to complete the required hours in a meaningful way.

NursingWhile the building of a cement retaining wall is hard work, my student expressed great satisfaction in completing this project.  One student wrote:

“For the first 4 hours of the service-learning project, this writer moved around 300 cinder blocks from one area of the farm to the next. The reason this writer was told to move cinder blocks was because the managers wanted to make a new crop bed.”

This same student also filled bags with dirt to make sand bags that would hold down tarps and to help stabilize the beds. This student had a landscaping business a few years back, and chose to work on the farm precisely because it involved hard work and being outside.  Students are asked to reflect on their experience in a written paper, and this is where I find some of the most moving details of their experience. This student wrote that he would encourage others to do their Service-Learning on the farm. He reflected “I believe we need people today to realize how important it is to help out the environment by doing environmental friendly tasks.” The student easily tied the experience to research as well, linking proper nutrition to maintaining well-being and increasing one’s mood.

Another student made the point that the farm’s value greatly outweighs its size- he felt that some people initially would view the six acres as a “project put together to ease the consciences of the environmentally aware.”  This student chose the farm because he felt it was the option most unrelated to nursing practice, and wanted the satisfaction of physical labor. This student concluded the following:

Nursing“The nurse and farmer both work with life. They both seek to see the focus of their work grow strong and healthy….” “Physical labor is cleansing to the spirit in that it must be approached steadily…  In a world where the pace of life is only getting faster, and for many people food is no farther away than the refrigerator, working hard to raise crops is humbling and enriching.”

As a faculty person, I could not hope for a better outcome for this student, and all students came away from this experience changed for the better. In education, sometimes I think we look too far to the end results, for example in nursing it is the licensing examination students take and must pass after graduation to become a registered nurse. I must remain conscious of this fact, and be sure that along the way I provide rich educational experiences on a variety of levels. Sometimes we all forget to see the beauty and opportunity in front of us, because we are too future focused. Another student explained “As we painted shelves for storage of the fruits and vegetables, the farmers took the time to explain how these fruits were managed and cared for. The experience….brought new and exhilarating challenges.”

The students came away with an appreciation for the hard work and commitment the farmers have. They worked side by side in good and bad weather conditions, and found that as much as they learned, the farmers “were just as interactive about learning” about their major. The hard work allowed one student to forget her worries for a little while, and deeply engage in the tasks at hand.

NursingFinal Reflection
The farmers were very pleased with the outcome of this experience. Although initially surprised that nursing stepped forward to serve, they welcome us back each year and indeed this spring have increased the number of students who can serve on the farm. The farmer’s advice to others like her is to not be afraid to try this, it may be overwhelming in the beginning and realize there is work up front to prepare, but in the end, the experience benefits all parties. The farmer relayed one of her best outcomes, in a shy student who expressed to her that this one of the best experiences of her life. The farmer encouraged all students to investigate community farms in their own home towns as well, and not be afraid to get involved. The students not only learned about organic farming, but that much hard work goes into farming. Students were pleasantly surprised about how much they learned overall from this experience, and valued the relationships they forged with the farmers.

I could not be more pleased with the outcomes for my students and the farm. This is a way I can give back to my university, through the service of my students and increasing awareness of the farm’s presence. My students all recommend the continuation of this partnership, and one student sums it up very nicely: “….a phenomenal opportunity and I am sincerely thankful for the time spent on the farm. I was able to personally grow….and educationally advance my holistic view on how the hard work of hands help others everyday.” As I write this, I sit in four degree weather, but dream about my own gardens, and the hope that spring brings to all of us.  I encourage other faculty from all disciplines to think outside the box and be creative in their community partnerships- I think you will be pleased with the results.

References
Jacoby B. (1996). Service-learning in today’s higher education. In Jacoby B. eds. Service learning in higher
education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass; 1996: 3-25.

The Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia. (2011). What is Red Hill Farm? Retrieved from http://www.osfphila.org/red/what



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