A group of Salem State University students learning about the place of food in society recently had a chance to put the lessons to work.
The 17 students worked with clients of Lifebridge, a housing facility for the homeless in downtown Salem, to evaluate the agency’s dining room and recommend how to make it a better functioning and more welcoming environment for meals.
The findings were the culmination of a semester-long service learning project at Lifebridge that also included 10 hours of volunteer work by each student in the agency’s kitchen.
The project was a key component of an interdisciplinary “learning community” — a set of three linked courses exploring common themes — that Salem State offered to freshmen on the historical, cultural, and health aspects of food.
Elizabeth Duclos-Orsello, an associate professor of interdisciplinary studies who taught one of the three courses, said the project was a benefit to both Lifebridge and the university.
“We as a public university have a responsibility to really engage in the broader regional communities we are in. But our students have the immense benefit of learning through service,” said Duclos-Orsello, coordinator of Salem State’s American Studies program.
Lifebridge maintains 34 beds for people transitioning out of homelessness, and 22 units of permanent housing at its Margin Street facility. The agency also helps its tenants and others through its meals program and services such as a nursing clinic and street outreach.
The learning service project was the second one Salem State has undertaken at Lifebridge. Students enrolled in the same set of food-themed courses in 2011 worked with the shelter clients to develop new meals for the agency’s dining program.
The university and Lifebridge have collaborated in other ways. Last semester, Salem State offered a for-credit composition class at Lifebridge for its residents. Several Salem State students have also done internships at the agency, including a sociology major who is spending 15 weeks at the site.
“Anything we do with the university really helps our folks see what the possibilities are out there for them,” said Mark Cote, executive director of Lifebridge. He observed, though, that the collaboration was a “two-way street. . . . Their students learn from our people and our people learn from the students.”
Salem State began offering learning communities to its freshmen about three years ago as a way of introducing them to interdisciplinary learning. About that time, it also started to incorporate service learning projects in a more formalized way. The two initiatives were brought together with the food-themed learning community.
Entitled “Sow, Reap, Consume: Food, Society, and Culture,” last semester’s program included a seminar in interdisciplinary studies taught by Duclos-Orsello, a world history course taught by Annette Chapman-Adisho, and a health and wellness course taught by Chris Schoen.
Food themes were incorporated in each of the courses, Duclos-Ostero said, noting for example that her seminar “looks at the way that food functions in the diverse cultures of the United States and . . . the implications of public policy around access to food.”
The courses also involved field activities related to the service project.
Joined by three residents from Lifebridge’s transitional housing, the students spent a day observing some of the dining halls at Salem State, and made several visits to the Peabody Essex Museum, where they explored the dining habits of various cultural groups by viewing paintings, artifacts, and four historic houses.
The students drew on their classroom learning, the field trips, and their volunteer work at Lifebridge in carrying out their service project. Working in small groups, each joined by one of the Lifebridge participants, the students analyzed the dining area — where about 7,000 meals are served each month — and developed their recommendations for change.
The suggested improvements included switching from round to rectangular tables to make the seating more accessible, adding pictures and brighter paint colors to the walls, and installing softer lighting.
Salem State has pledged to provide Lifebridge with funding to implement some of the recommended changes, according to Cote. He said his agency and the university will meet this spring to discuss specific plans.
Alejandro Martinez, 19, one of the Salem State students, said he enjoyed being able to take part in the service project.
“We were able to go in a hands-on way and connect what we were learning in the class to the experience we were involved in at Lifebridge,” said Martinez, who is from Mattapan and plans to major in criminal justice.
Martinez said he once had friends who were homeless and he had been struck by how they “weren’t like the stereotypical homeless person you might think. They were people like us, with situations’’ that resulted in them losing a place to live. He said that impression was reinforced by his interaction with residents at Lifebridge.
“I thought it was a good experience,” he said.
Melissa Genest, 19, who is from Lancaster and plans to major in communications, said, “I loved the class. Just . . . helping out in the kitchen was a really good experience. We got to know some of the clients there,” adding that the students also learned a lot by working with the residents on the potential changes.
Perry Robinson, 52, one of the Lifebridge residents who participated in the project, also enjoyed the experience.
“The best part was working with the kids, the whole collaboration. The teachers were great, too. We got to learn about food. It was awesome.”