Early in his online Food Systems course, Josh Gruver, associate professor for Environmental, Geology, and Natural Resources, asks his students to step away from their laptops and go interview someone who functions as a link in the local food system.
From conversations with a chef, farmer, fisherman, food pantry manager, or truck driver, students learn where food is grown, produced, distributed, transported, and, most importantly, how it landed on their plates.
It’s not a typical assignment for online students, who pursue Ball State programs wherever they have an internet connection. But Ball State programs are not so typical.
Assignment for Local Involvement
Another assignment, which Josh requires of students in both his on-site and online classes, asks students to volunteer in a setting such as a soup kitchen, a food pantry, or a local farm.
“Students like this exercise. It gives them an appreciation of the day-to-day food work system that is continually in process,” says Josh, who teaches in the graduate certificate in sustainability program. “I thought online learning would inhibit my ability to help students learn by doing – but that turns out not to be the case.”
His passion for sustainable natural resource management, he says, was ignited during his Peace Corps experience in Papua New Guinea (PNG) nearly 30 years ago. He spent two years helping communities manage their resources – their forests, their fisheries, their clean water.
Peace Corps Lesson
“The ocean waters there are teaming with tuna – but you can’t get tuna on the island. It’s been fished out by the Japanese,” says Gruver. “As a 24-year-old, it blew my mind and woke me up to the kinds of dehumanizing and ethically dubious things that happen in places like PNG.”
Realities such as this on the other side of the world is why Josh, in 2015, put together a local team of volunteers—students and colleagues—to create the Muncie Food Hub Partnership (MFHP) which today is, in his words, “still connecting area growers and eaters.”
Helping to Nourish Muncie
“Our mission is to nourish and strengthen the Muncie community through the robust exchange of fresh and affordable local food,” says Josh, director of the MFHP. “We are helping small-scale, diversified crop farmers sell more produce, and we’re helping residents who live in low food access areas connect with healthy fresh nutritiously dense foods.”
He says that at least two of his online students have visited MFHP and one is managing a farmers’ market in Yorktown, Indiana.
“My central goal as a scholar is to integrate knowledge produced at the university with local knowledge and experience to create working solutions toward natural resource-related issues.”
How He Buffed Up Online Teaching Skills
During the COVID-19 pandemic, his central goal was buffing up his online classroom skills with consultation from Ball State’s Online and Strategic Learning.
“They helped me go from never having taught an online course to putting one together that I am really proud of – with a very short timeline,” he says. “Learning how to develop and teach an online course really kicked up my course management system game.”