In Food for Thought, students use food as a lens to examine issues in society and their own lives
By Lee Owen P ’24
Inside the kitchen of a house in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, a meal is being prepared. Water is boiling, ingredients are dutifully measured, ovens are heated to the appropriate temperature, biscuits are baking, and dessert is taking shape.
On its own, this is not overly remarkable. Meals, of course, are created and cooked every day all across the borough of Mercersburg, the state, the country, and the world.
What makes this meal notable is that it is being crafted specifically for a group of people who might not otherwise be able to partake of a meal at all. Those preparing the goulash, butternut squash soup, biscuits, and brownies are members of Mercersburg’s senior class enrolled in the Food for Thought Springboard course, and are making the meal for a group living at the Franklin County Shelter for the Homeless in nearby Chambersburg.
Later, two students in the course will leave the kitchen of the 1893 House on campus and join faculty members and Food for Thought teachers Maggie Howes and Michele Poacelli P ’24 to deliver the meal to the shelter, which is located about 15 miles northeast of the Academy campus in Chambersburg (population: 20,000).
Sadly, in Franklin County (as in almost all of the 3,100-plus counties in the U.S.), issues of food scarcity and insecurity are not limited to large urban areas. In April 2021, a community food pantry called My Neighbor’s Bounty opened on Church Hill Road in Mercersburg, just a short walk from the Academy. Groups from the school (including the Food for Thought course and the Community Engagement team, under the leadership of Mercersburg native and faculty member Emily Parsons P ’21, ’22) volunteer regularly at the location, which supports community members in need without requiring proof of income, an application, or anything similar.
“It was a really special experience,” Poacelli says of having the students prepare the meal for the homeless shelter in Chambersburg. “I loved that moment.”
“Our students want to act, and that’s why the food pantry was so inspiring to them,” says Howes. “Amanda [Woodring, a local resident who is the chairperson of My Neighbor’s Bounty] saw a need locally and handled it in a no-nonsense way. It really draws attention to the reality that not everyone has the same choices in terms of having access to food. For some of our students, this has never been an issue; for others, it may have been a constant issue in their lives. It’s really important for our students to learn this as they go out into the world.”
Springboard is in its ninth year as a capstone experience for members of Mercersburg’s senior class. All seniors must complete either a yearlong Springboard course or MAPS (Mercersburg’s Advanced Program for Global Studies, a two-year program) to fulfill the school’s graduation requirements.
Howes and Poacelli are both members of the English department; Poacelli serves as head of the department and director of the school’s Writing Center, while Howes also teaches American studies in the history department. Both of their spouses—Assistant Head of School for Student Life and Culture Chris Howes and fellow English teacher Todd McGuire P ’24, respectively—also serve on the faculty. Poacelli and Maggie Howes are teaching the course together for the second year, and have intentionally utilized various concepts surrounding food in a number of their other classes in addition to the Springboard course.
“Food can be a very disarming way to investigate lots of issues in our world,” Poacelli says. “Many of those issues can be of a sensitive nature. For example, one of the topics our students examine in the course is that of cultural appreciation versus cultural appropriation as it deals with food. It’s not an easy topic; it’s extremely nuanced and complex and thorny. But food itself is a way into a lot of difficult topics. Everyone has their own personal connection to food.
“We’ve talked about food and faith practices, and food and spirituality, where they may not have thought about connections—such as, why do some groups eat fish on Christmas Eve? We’re encouraging deeper dives by our students into the material and going down rabbit holes, in a good way.”
“We want our students to be interested enough in parts of their own lives that will allow them to link to other people in their lives,” Howes says. “In their research, we want them to find themselves three hours later immersed in an investigation that’s intriguing and meaningful. Springboard really is perfect for that.”
The course’s guiding principle—its “North Star,” as Poacelli calls it—is that food is a shared lens through which to explore topics of identity, culture, community, equity, and the environment. Instead of a textbook, students are issued an apron, a whisk, measuring cups, a mixing bowl, and various pots and pans.
“Food for Thought is unlike any class I’ve ever taken, which is one of the things that makes it special,” says Molly Willis ’22, one of the 13 students enrolled in the course. “I’ve never had a class that’s been as hands-on in the same way as this one. In science classes, you go into the lab, but it’s different because there’s usually not as much room for creativity. You really have the opportunity to explore in this class.”
Willis, the daughter of longtime Mercersburg faculty members Betsy Cunningham and Will Willis, calls the work the students have done with My Neighbor’s Bounty the “most valuable moment” of the course. “I’ve lived here my entire life, and didn’t really know about the issues of food insecurity and poverty here until just recently,” she says. “It’s great to see how this is helping with some of those issues.”
The structure of the course has allowed for collaboration with Mercersburg alumni, parents, and employees. Arlo Crawford ’96, who wrote a book titled A Farm Dies Once a Year about his family’s farm in Huntingdon County (north of Mercersburg), spoke to the class about the expression of experiences. Rahde Franke ’06 prepared five different flatbreads sourced from his experiences traveling around the world as a recipient of the Watson Fellowship. Director of Library Services Alexandra Patterson helped the students bake her family’s recipe for Italian waffle cookies called pizzelles, and talked about her grandmother’s experiences as an immigrant to America. Cookbook author and Food Network host and personality Melissa d’Arabian P ’24, ’25 worked with students in last year’s course on cookbooks they created.
“The course really is a vehicle for the generosity of our community,” Poacelli says. “People have generously offered to share their passions with our students.”
Students in the course nominate and tackle what are termed “passion projects” as a culminating experience in the class. Last year’s crop of projects included a video by a student from China describing how his grandmother would reward him for good grades by taking him to McDonald’s (a trip to a Western fast-food establishment was a special treat) and a PowerPoint-style presentation by another student on how many of her experiences over food at different locations across the U.S. have shaped her memories and outlook on life.
“We’re really excited for our students to find a topic that they really want to claim and pursue,” Howes says. “The class is structured and built exactly for this—and all classes should be. It’s really exciting as a teacher to be part of that process.”