Published on 04/28/16

Agricultural communication students explore the intersection of agriculture, food systems and hunger in the U.S.

By Merritt Melancon

On a typical Friday morning in the middle of the semester, Abigail Borron's students aren't in class. They're out working in food pantries across north Georgia, helping to give a face to food insecurity.

By interviewing food bank clients, telling their stories and documenting the work of northeast Georgia's largest anti-hunger nonprofit, the students are learning more than how to use a camera or connect with strangers. They're expanding their worldview, developing empathy and building a greater understanding of how the food system works in the U.S.

They're volunteering, but I'm also teaching them observation techniques and this idea of ethnography in communication," said Borron, who has taught agricultural communication in UGA's College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences since 2015. "The goal is that they realize that it's not just about telling the story; it's about recognizing how to engage — in this case, with food pantry clients — for the purposes of constructing a story that the food pantry clients would say, ‘Yes, that captures my experiences.'"

Borron built the course, Culture-Centered Communication and Engagement, in the agricultural leadership, education and communication department, as a way to help her students deconstruct biases and assumptions around hunger and food insecurity to help them become better communicators, better advocates and better journalists after graduation.

By the end of the semester, students produce a series of personal narratives that will be used for fundraising by network food pantries served by the Food Bank of Northeast Georgia.

Agricultural communication has long been a major for students who want to advocate for agriculture, but Borron has adopted an expanded view of what that advocacy means. The story of agriculture is a great entry point for talking about everything from food access, to nutrition,to environmental sustainability, she said.

Students in agricultural communication still learn about the science and economics of large-scale agriculture so that they can explain these issues to the nonfarming public, but there's an increased emphasis on how these issues impact life off the farm, in topics like nutrition, food security and public health.

"Students oftentimes come into agriculture (communication) from an agricultural background," Borron said. "When they do, they often see themselves as being an advocate for all of agriculture. And that's one of the things that I want to help them to understand: Not every aspect of agriculture is perfect. I want them to be an advocate for something, but they need to figure out what that's going to be."

Borron's research always has focused on the intersection of marginalized audiences and effective community engagement. Drawing from areas of research in sociology, anthropology and communication, Borron extends to her students the benefit of learning about applied practices from all of those disciplines.

In addition to learning technical storytelling skills through exercises in news writing, photography, web design and video production, she also works to expand students' understanding of how the public interacts with the food system.

"From science communication, to agricultural communication, to environmental communication — there are lots of opportunities to tell those stories through an agricultural lens that we don't really capitalize on, and that's why I do this type of work," she said.

Borron received her Ph.D. and master’s degree in youth development and agricultural education from Purdue University and her bachelor’s degree in English from Indiana University-Purdue University.

Merritt Melancon is a public relations manager with UGA's Terry College of Business and previously served as a public relations coordinator for the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and UGA Extension.