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Feeding sustainability into nutrition education

Series contributors: Mary Hendrickson, Faculty Fellow, and Sarah Staples, Student Fellow

This Sustainability Education Fellowship (SEF) program presented us with the opportunity to revise the CÉGEP level course The Science of Food (FMTP 074) in the Farm Management and Technology program. We were able to enhance our understanding of sustainability and work to actively incorporate this knowledge into the Winter 2023 semester course through various aspects of pedagogy, curriculum, and assessment.

Sustainability is interconnected with the field of nutrition through each of its three pillars: environmental, social, and economic. Environmental sustainability in nutrition plays vital roles throughout the food system, from the protection of ecosystems, conservation of natural resources, to the reduction of waste. In the course, environmental sustainability was incorporated through various means: discussions on regenerative farming, food innovations and the potential use for 3D printing, creating plant-based recipes in lab using locally procured products from Lufa Farms, a grocery store tour where students identified upcycled products and grocery store waste reduction methods, and a family interview assignment where students could reflect on transgenerational changes in food practices and the food system as a whole.

Social sustainability in nutrition essentially revolves around securing adequate access to culturally diverse, nutritious foods for all, and promoting food systems of local and equity-deserving groups. In the course food lab, the social pillar was included using the aforementioned interview assignment and local products in lab whenever possible, alongside the creation of Indigenous recipes, such as Three Sisters soup and Bannock, as well as other culturally inclusive recipes, like Dahl soup, curry, plátanos, and cricket burgers. Lastly, economic sustainability in nutrition consists of food systems conducive to the growth of local economies through sustainable agriculture, fair trade, food and packaging waste reduction, etc. With this course, students were educated on grocery shopping techniques and healthy eating on a budget. They also had the opportunity to: complete an assignment where students created balanced meals on a budget using local circulars; create recipes in the lab from food waste reduction cookbooks; and answer questions in weekly lab activities on methods to reduce waste.

The SEF program allowed graduate student Fellows to gain insight into the processes behind course design, such as the creation of pedagogy, curriculum, and assessments. From a student perspective, the most surprising aspect of course design was the challenges encountered throughout the redesign process. Many course content alterations presented challenges about adding concepts of sustainability while respecting allotted periods for the lectures and labs. The creation of pedagogical material was also an area of particular interest, as it required much creativity to devise material appropriate for the more technical learners in the student cohort.

From the Faculty Fellow perspective, working with a graduate student who is also a dietitian facilitated the revision, development, and implementation of the course adjustments. Shared knowledge allowed for mentoring to occur and more autonomy to be given to the graduate Student Fellow. Involving the graduate Student Fellow in teaching classes in The Science of Food course and a related course, Professional Practice Stage 2B (NUTR 311), increased self-efficacy, knowledge transfer, and teaching skills development, while efficiently achieving the objectives of sustainable course revision.

Participation in hands-on fellowship meetings allowed new connections to be created within the McGill community across different departments and Faculties. This enriched our educational journey on sustainability outside the field of nutrition and inspired continued learning on sustainability. This like-minded group of individuals fostered an energetic environment conducive to collaboration and idea sharing that aided our active course redesign process. Additionally, this program presented the Student Fellow with opportunities to gain hands-on teaching and assessment experience, join food labs to better understand the competencies and approaches of conducting labs, as well as learn about simulated education.

Programs such as the Sustainability Education Fellowship have the potential to increase access to courses that incorporate concepts of sustainability, ultimately cultivating an environment at McGill more supportive of sustainable practices. These courses could be the driving force leading to long-lasting, positive change at individual and community-based levels. They could potentially lead to the development of more innovative ways in which McGill could continue to adopt sustainable practices, both within the university setting itself and in its surrounding communities.

Our advice for future Fellows would be to make use of the in-person meetings to support your course redesign process through interdisciplinary collaboration between Student and Faculty Fellows. Ensure that you communicate frequently with your Fellowship partner, and make note of your successes and challenges with each change. This will allow you to make further improvements on the incorporation of sustainability in subsequent semesters. Also, having a partner with a similar background, which in our case was dietetics, was particularly useful, as many classes had a heavy focus on this subject. Overall, this program was an enriching experience that would be especially valuable for students in search of career opportunities in academia or for students and faculty who simply want to enact change for the betterment of future generations no matter the department that your course resides in. It would also be helpful for the SEF program to add small group work sessions lead by a Teaching and Learning Services expert to individualize the sharing of expertise.

In addition to The Science of Food course, we were able to develop and implement a new patient-centered hospital case-based OSCE at the Steinberg Centre for Simulation and Interactive Learning for the Professional Practice Stage 2B (NUTR 311) course, which also included a group discussion on sustainability in healthcare. Given that balancing nutrient intake and food waste in healthcare institutions is vital to reducing the risk of patient malnutrition and healthcare costs while improving patient outcomes, educating “stage” students on concepts of sustainability was of great importance. The discussion group involved conversations about patient, staff, and institutional waste, and barriers to the implementation of sustainable practices for improving patient outcomes and quality of life while reducing waste and associated healthcare costs. Strategies to overcoming barriers, such as reducing oral nutrition supplement waste, incorporation of sustainable menus that are culturally inclusive and local/seasonal, and the sustainable procurement of goods, were highlighted alongside methods for evaluating readiness and success of sustainable food systems in healthcare.

Learn more about including sustainability in your course content, teaching, or assessment approaches, by exploring the Sustainability Education Resources article in Teaching and Learning Services’ Teaching and Learning Knowledge Base.

Read more blog posts in this SEF series and find information about the McGill University Sustainability Education Fellows Program.

Photo credit: Image created from “Top view of assortment of vegetables in paper bag” and “Sustainable development goals still life” on Freepik.

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