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University Beat

USF Students Empower The Impoverished Through Food Sovereignty

A professor and his students sitting around a table surrounded by trees.
Dell De Chant's Agriarianism and the Sacred class meets at the USF Botanical Gardens, where they've been learning how to maintain an urban garden. THOMAS IACOBUCCI/WUSF PUBLIC MEDIA

According to Feeding Tampa Bay, over 700,000 people in the region are food insecure, which means they don’t have access to affordable, nutritious food.

Some believe that food sovereignty is the answer.

The concept is defined as the right to create agricultural systems that provide healthy and culturally-appropriate food to the community through ecologically sound and sustainable methods.

Dell De Chant is a professor of religious studies at the University of South Florida. He teaches classes that discuss the connection between religion and ecology. His studies have led him to becoming a food activist in his hometown of New Port Richey.

De Chant believes preventing food insecurity, instead of just responding to it, is a more effective long-term solution.

Professor Dell De Chant sits between two book cases and gestures while speaking.
Dell De Chant is a religious studies professor at the University of South Florida. He teaches classes that connect religion and ecology. THOMAS IACOBUCCI/WUSF PUBLIC MEDIA

“What we’re not so good at is empowering folks to produce their own food,” he said. “If we could take a fraction of the amount of resources that’s being poured into trying to resolve food insecurity and devoted it to food sovereignty, the difference that would make would be incredible.”

One of his classes, Agrarianism and the Sacred, is devoted to understanding where food comes from and attempting to sustain those sources.

On a small plant of land on the edge of the USF Botanical Gardens, De Chant teaches his students what kinds of produce grow seasonally in their area and what they can grow in quantity.

It’s a skill they will use for their final projects: creating food sovereignty programs in their own communities.

Dinah Hunsicker, a senior in the geology department, is a student in the class. She plans to work with local ecological organization, IDEAS for Us.

“I’m going to go to them and introduce the idea for an eco-action project, and then try to get the model of Fleet Farming brought to Tampa,” she said.

Fleet Farming brings groups of volunteers together to plant and maintain farmlets, or produce gardens, in people’s yards.

The families living in the home have first pick of the fresh fruits and vegetables, which is a better source of nutrition than canned or boxed foods. The excess is sold at local farmer’s markets to raise money for the farmlet’s upkeep.

“I’m trying to bring it into the more impoverished areas of Tampa that have food insecurity or just lack of access to quality food,” Hunsicker said. “Bringing that here would not only introduce a sense of community, it would bring healthier foods closer to home.”

Laina Strickland, a senior in the English department, is also in the class. She comes from Kathleen, a small community in northern Lakeland. The area is a food desert, which means it’s difficult to get affordable or good-quality fresh food.

It’s an issue she wants to address with the help of her church.

A female student kneels near a plot of land with collard greens growing.
Students in Agrarianism and the Sacred learned how to maintain an urban food garden on the edge of the USF Botanical Gardens. THOMAS IACOBUCCI/WUSF PUBLIC MEDIA

“We’re going to try to start a community garden there,” she said. “And because it’s a multi-generational church, we have older people in the church who have the skills necessary to implement the garden, and then we have younger people who can learn skills from them and participate.”

The church runs a year-round food pantry called Hope House. In addition to being a haven for homeless veterans, they also serve dinner once a week and provide groceries to those in need.

The garden would give them a chance to provide fresh and more nutritious food.

“If we’re growing that, we can provide that to these people who wouldn’t normally be getting it,” Strickland said.

De Chant said the key to food sovereignty is education. From high school to universities to local governments, he believes in giving communities access and skills to produce their own food.

“So you’d ask yourself, going forward into the next generation, going forward into the future, food sovereignty: is that something that might be helpful for people to know about?” De Chant asked.

“I will go out on a limb and say yes, I think that’s something everyone should know about. If you can grow your own food, minimally, you’ll be in a position to have resources in order to survive.”

After all, as the old proverb says: give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

To find out more about bringing food sovereignty to your community, contact USF's Urban Food Sovereignty Group.