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Service Learning and Food Access Research

​​​​Humboldt Park has a high concentration of well-organized residents who work with other groups to challenge persisting gentrification that threatens to change the community. Part of the process of community organizing has been an effort to explore and address a major challenge facing the community – the challenge of improving the health of residents. The neighborhood faces a dearth of fresh foods and a myriad of other factors that inhibit healthy living. A research study by the Sinai Health Institute in Chicago published in 2004 (Whitman, Williams, & Shah, 2004) clearly shows the scope of health disparities in a number of city neighborhoods, including Humboldt Park. Especially alarming was the high levels of ailments such as diabetes and obesity that relate directly to lack of access to healthy food and opportunities for physical activity.


For the Steans Center, food access and community food security has been the central concern of a two-year community-based research and service learning project integrated into numerous DePaul courses. The project involved anthropology, geography, psychology, and community service studies courses all of which contributed to a final report

to be completed this June 2009. The effort builds off of a long-term relationship with the Puerto Rican Cultural Center (PRCC) which has supported dozens of DePaul courses and students over the last seven years. For the past two Fall terms, Anthropology Professor Nila Ginger Hofman partnered with a PRCC program, CO-OP Humboldt Park (Community Organizing for Obesity Prevention), to conduct research on food access issues with students in her course titled Community- based Applied Practice. She and her students worked closely with CO-OP to find out more about how the community viewed various health issues as they relate to diet and physical activity. 

Course-based action research In Humboldt Park

According to Hofman, her course “focused on working with this community, figuring out what their research needs are, and bringing students in to help fulfill those needs. Our objective was to provide a service for the community partner.” Students had an opportunity to document food resources at local stores and observe activities focused on healthy living in public places in Humboldt Park. Later, they interviewed PRCC staff, high school students and employees on food and health-related issues.

Jose Luis Rodriguez, program manager of CO-OP Humboldt Park, acknowledges that the goal of this project is not about to be realized overnight. “Trying to change people’s behavior and attitudes is a long-term struggle,” says Rodriguez, who has been involved with PRCC in various capacities for more than 30 years. “But that’s what we’re trying to do – and for good reason. It's not just that studies have shown that obesity rates in Puerto Rican and Mexican communities in this country are high — they are especially for children between the ages of 2 and 12.” In response, CO-OP has developed a market-basket program to make produce available to Humboldt Park residents at a reasonable cost and has conducted nutritional workshops in the community. They also support Muevete, a dance aerobics program as well as a local farmer’s market on Paseo Boricua, a commercial corridor along Division Street that is the hub of Chicago’s Puerto Rican community. In addition, CO-OP partners with the Greater Chicago Food Depository (GCFD) and the Park District to promote GCFD’s monthly Produce Mobile which distributes fresh fruits and vegetables to residents in the park.

While working with Hofman’s class last fall, Rodriguez asked himself “How many PRCC staff were utilizing local health-related programs in their own lives? We wanted to find that out — and be able to explain why. Our staff is really the community; we can’t separate what we do from what the community at large does. If we understand what our own challenges are, it makes it easier to know what the community needs."

Rodriquez says the organization’s partnership with the Steans Center supports a specific continued from cover research need that is central to finding ways to promote health and wellness in the community. “We are so involved in day-to-day operations, but sometimes you have to step back and look at the whole picture. Unfortunately, we often don’t have time to do interviews and compile information. Our relationship with Steans gives us something we don’t have — a research arm to come up with or validate conclusions about what we are doing and whether it is working or not.”

At the same time, Rodriquez is aware of how having students in Humboldt Park can benefit them, and the community, in the long haul. "The fact that you have students doing the research serves a number of purposes," he says. "It introduces students to issues they may not have known existed. Plus, you develop a set of volunteers or allies that somewhere down the road — while they are in school or after they are finished — has memories of the community."

Julie Hwang, who teaches geography at DePaul, worked with students to support the mapping component of the food access project. In her class, students incorporated food data into maps using Geographic Information System (GIS) software — a visual representation that gives another dimension to this work. “Members of the community,” Hwang says, “can use this research to identify areas where desirable foods are lacking. I also find that students learn this subject matter in a more active manner — they are more engaged in the learning process.”


Hofman explains that her course employed course-based action research to build on the partnership between the Steans Center and PRCC. “Our idea was to have an anthropology practice course that would lead students to do original research within a community-based organization,” she says. “Action research calls for action in the name of social justice.” Steans has a community partner in PRCC that has already taken social and political action in its neighborhood on gentrification, police brutality and other issues.

Students as community- based researchers

Near the end of Fall quarter 2008, students in Hofman’s course completed a report on the project and presented it to PRCC. In "Toward Healthy Living: Documenting Food Consumption and Exercise Habits in Humboldt Park in Relation to a Cultural Context," students sought to "better understand social factors that drive health-related issues" in the community. The wide-ranging project featured interviews and analysis on health in public spaces, cultural and gendered perceptions of health, experiences with organic foods, and other topics. The class, students say, also provided them with a unique experience. “This class gave me hands-on experience in using anthropological skills in a real- world setting,” says Blanca Virto, a senior majoring in anthropology.

Before conducting interviews, Kelly Fleming did field work on food access in the community. “I went to all of the grocery stores and saw what kind of food was there and how much the food cost,” says Fleming, a senior in anthropology. “Only one had produce, and a very small produce section; the other stores had mostly prepackaged or nonperishable food – a lot of spices, corn meal, flour and other foods that would not go bad.” ​

Gabrielle Brodsky, a junior in anthropology, noted that when students first came to the community, there was tension between students and members of the community. “In some cases, there was this sense of ‘Who are these people coming in to tell us about our community?.’” she says. “It was our job to show community members that we were going to listen and pay close attention to their perspective.” By observing, going to workshops in the community and completing copious field notes about the community, she learned that students had an important role in this process. “We got to participate, create our own interview questions and do first-hand research,” she says.


Brodsky and other students who took Hofman’s class last fall found that community members were willing to talk about many critical issues related to health. One of the lessons they learned is that “health” is defined in a broader way. Health for these residents is not just about exercise and eating, but is mental and spiritual in nature. It is also, according to many who were interviewed, often something that is closely tied to the community — not just an individual's health.

One recommendation of the students’ report calls for “all inclusive health education for community residents of all ages.” Another finding, was that many community members do not view organic food as being "for them," but perhaps linked to gentrification and an increased presence of more affluent white residents in the neighborhood.

Randall Jenson, a senior majoring in anthropology and women’s studies, said he learned through the class that “You may be carrying assumptions when you start doing this kind of research, but be conscious that they are your own assumptions. The class was about addressing issues in the community – and seeing the patterns our data showed.”

Jenson adds that being part of a research team during the 10-week course was also a positive experience. “The class had a momentum about it,” he says. “You throw the ball to everyone, and you can’t let it drop. If you were absent, it was a big deal because everyone was needed.”

Hofman says this kind of project is geared to benefit the community but can also impact students in a lasting way. “Students are empowered through their participation by doing research that really matters,” says Hofman. “It’s no longer just a class project. How many undergraduates get to do work that can potentially impact social justice and public policy? It’s one thing for students to read about a community. Here, they are face to face with it.” ​