A Focus on Global Hunger

In Fall 2015, Features by Aleisa Dornbierer-Schat

ACROSS MUCH OF SIOUX COUNTY, FIELDS OF CORN AND SOYBEANS STRETCH FROM HORIZON TO HORIZON.

These crops are destined for the mouths of livestock, or processing in ethanol plants. A portion of the harvest will wind up in factories, transformed into cooking oils and tortilla chips, tofu and sweeteners. More than 80 percent of the county’s land is devoted to these crops. Much of what remains supports the production of meat, milk, and eggs, which feed people across the country and, in some cases, around the world.

In this region of thick topsoil and agricultural abundance, there are people—many of them children—who do not have enough to eat. Students at Dordt College will learn more about these children and families this year.

“While Sioux County and Northwest Iowa remain relatively wealthy in comparison to other parts of the country, food insecurity is an issue faced by many families and children in the area,” says Dordt Professor of Social Work Erin Olson. Rather than position hunger as something that happens “out there,” in the developing world, students at Dordt will also be invited to consider the ways hunger affects their own communities—in forms that may be hidden or difficult to recognize.

Dr. Nathan Tintle, director for research and scholarship at Dordt College, envisions the hunger initiative as a means to “foster a cross-disciplinary, campuswide discussion on a global, critical issue.” Despite the learning theme’s global scope, the issue also hits close to home.

Tami Degen, who heads up the weekend Snack Pack Program for the West Sioux Community School District, 20 miles southwest of Dordt, is on the front lines in the fight against hunger in Northwest Iowa. According to Degen, 64 percent of students in her district qualify for the free-and-reduced lunch program, which also qualifies them for participation in the weekend snack-pack program.

“That’s a high amount of poverty,” says Degen. The program, funded entirely by donations, is a collaborative effort between schools and the community. Each week, individuals and groups volunteer to pack the snack bags and distribute them to the district’s elementary, middle, and high schools.

The snack-pack program receives funding from Hunger Free Kids of Sioux County (HFKSC), an organization that regularly partners with Dordt College to organize fundraising and awareness-raising events on campus. In September, Dordt partnered with HFKSC to sponsor a football tailgate, run in part by student volunteers from the agriculture and social work departments. For the past several years Abby

Foreman, Dordt professor of social work and HFKSC board member, has worked with the organization to host a spring fundraising auction.

“It isn’t much—about $3 a bag,” says Degen. “But it ensures they have something to eat over the weekend.” She lists among the bag’s contents a pudding cup, beef stick, granola bar, bowl of cereal, crackers and cheese, and fruit cup. “If you don’t have anything to eat, this is at least something in your belly.”

According to Degen, the biggest challenge is getting students to accept the food. “Rarely do you see a kid that says, ‘You know, I’m hungry.’ They hide it. They don’t want everyone to know that there isn’t enough to eat at their house.” Because of the stigma attached to hunger and poverty in small communities in the area, the weekend snacks are packed in inconspicuous grocery bags.

Engaging hunger—locally and globally—at Dordt College

This year, these joint efforts to promote food security for local children and families will be brought into sharper focus through a campuswide initiative to better understand the issue of hunger, in both its local and global dimensions. As part of the yearlong learning theme, students will be challenged to confront the issue from a variety of disciplinary perspectives and consider the ways they might put their learning into action.

“Our hope is that these conversations are helping students, along with the broader community, to seriously engage a challenging issue in our world today, helping us explore how we might participate, individually and corporately, in Christ-centered renewal in our response to it,” says Tintle.

Hunger and the historian: Reacting to the Past

Over the course of the academic year—in classrooms, through guest lectures, and at public events—members of the Dordt community will look at hunger in a variety of ways. This fall, for example, Dr. Paul Fessler will audition a novel way of teaching American history in his introductory-level survey course.

Students in the class will play a Reacting to the Past game set in 1913 Paterson, New Jersey, just prior to the strike in silk manufacturing mills. Guided by their careful reading of primary sources, they will take on a variety of historical roles related to the silk strikes: workers, labor leaders, and government officials, among others. After completing a series of writing tasks from their character’s perspective, each student will assume a character and participate in a debate.

“They have to figure out how the labor conflict will be resolved as hunger and desperation influence decisions and perspectives,” explains Fessler. He sees the game as a powerful way to bring history—and hunger—to life for students.

“We talk a lot about worldview and perspective in my courses,” he says. “This game allows students to inhabit, temporarily, a worldview different from their own.” As students act out their roles in the clash of competing interests, they engage in more than just an academic exercise: “When hunger enters into the game—even if it’s only in a game—they are more likely to understand how hunger can lead to desperation, and to choices they might not normally consider,” Fessler says. In this way, Reacting games encourage empathy and help students understand how their worldviews affect their choices.

Hunger and the communicator: Raising awareness through public relations

Communication Professor Bruce Kuiper is convinced public relations has a higher calling than “simply increasing corporate recognition.” To that end, he reconceived the capstone project in his public relations course in line with this year’s learning theme. Near the end of the semester, students will create an issue- or event-focused media kit for a community organization. Through this final project, they will explore how an organization might address hunger, and they will be challenged to publicize those efforts as a way to increase awareness and move toward solutions.

“As a profession, public relations is well-poised to address key social issues,” says Kuiper. “We need all parts of the body to work together to address world hunger; in this metaphor, I believe communication can act as the mouth to help people understand how Christians might respond.”

Hunger and the economist: A cross-cultural perspective

Students in Dr. Jan van Vliet’s global economics course are also confronting the issue of global hunger from an unexpected perspective. Though they will discuss the “traditional, textbook ways hunger has been handled”—through government policies and other organized efforts—they will also be invited to consider how their cultural perspectives can blind them to important hunger-related considerations.

“We in the developed West simply assume that food is the most important thing one needs to survive, and we’ll spend our last coin to obtain at least enough to quell the pangs of hunger,” says van Vliet. Surprisingly, though, in some cultures, “There are actually things more important than food!”

“Imagine,” says van Vliet, “spending your last dime not on food, but on elaborate funeral festivities, with all the associated fanfare, which you attend, hungry.” According to van Vliet, if we are to fulfill Christ’s command to care for “the least of these,” then we need to understand differing cultural perspectives before “our hunger-related policy recommendations can be put into place and enacted with measureable success.”

Building bridges: Dordt’s global reach

The campuswide focus on hunger won’t be confined to the classroom, and it will even take some students across the globe. A group of enterprising Dordt engineering students have laid the groundwork for their senior design project: a bridge to be built in Grand Bassa County, Liberia. The bridge will serve communities near the larger community of Harbel, where an 18-acre farm, started by One Body One Hope (OBOH) two years ago, is undergoing a dramatic expansion.

OBOH was founded in Sioux Center in 2007 and works alongside a network of Abide in the Vine Disciples churches in Liberia; the partnership includes 14 churches, two farms, three schools, two orphanages, a radio ministry, a church-planting network, an adult night school, and numerous other community development initiatives.

The seeds for the engineering project were planted in January 2014, when a group of Dordt students traveled to Liberia over Christmas break as part of the AMOR (A Mission OutReach) program. On that trip, Austin Lindemulder, one of the students involved in the bridge project, got into a conversation with Aaron Baart, dean of chapel at Dordt and co-founder and president of OBOH.

“We were talking about the farm near Harbel, and how they hope to expand the farm to provide the churches with rice, corn, and okra and even sell the goods in the market once the farm grows,” says Lindemulder. He learned from Baart that the local church working to develop the farm is facing difficulties because of a creek, which impedes transporting goods to and from the farm. The creek also means the farm’s rice mill is accessible by only a bamboo bridge, which workers must traverse by foot, carrying heavy bags of rice.

“We got talking about building a bridge, and as an engineering student, the idea hatched of making it a senior design project,” says Lindemulder. “The goal is to offer vehicle access to the farm to export food to market and to church. As the farm grows, more food will need to get across.”

The students involved in designing and building the bridge include Lindemulder, Eric Fedders, Peter Hoelsema, and Kyle Vander Zee, under the guidance of Dordt Professor of Engineering Dr. Joel Sikkema, with structural design assistance provided by Dr. Justin Vander Werff, department chair.

The initial stages of construction are already underway: this fall the students recycled beams from the recently demolished hospital in Sioux Center, which were donated by Kellen Excavating in Le Mars. The sandblasting was donated by Sioux Commercial Sweeping, and the painting was done in Rock Valley by Valley Industrial Powder Coating, which provided free labor and used paint donated by Diamond Vogel. Other local contributing businesses include MK Industries, Interstates Electric, and Link Manufacturing. In early October, the beams were shipped to Liberia, where remaining materials will be purchased once construction has begun. Over Christmas break, the students plan to travel to Harbel, where they will spend three weeks building the bridge alongside local community members.

“I still can’t believe what these students bit off,” says Baart. Senior design projects have a $750 budget from the engineering department, a meager sum given the scope of the bridge project. “They are tackling a project that was estimated at the outset to cost around $40,000, including travel,” says Baart.

“These students are on a mission—on multiple levels,” says Sikkema. “From day one of the fall semester, they moved forward on this project with incredible focus and attention to detail.” According to Sikkema, students took the initiative to develop relationships with local industries and other supporters to secure materials and prepare them for use in Liberia.

“Throughout their work,” says Sikkema, “these students have emanated true servant leadership. They aren’t doing this for personal gain; they seek to serve God by meeting the critical needs of the people who live in the area served by One Body One Hope.”

You can follow the students’ progress, as well as pray for and donate toward the project, through OBOH’s website (www.onebodyonehope.org) or through any of its social media outlets: Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.