August 03, 2011

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By Molly O'Brien-Foelsch

LEWISBURG, Pa.- Two representatives from Bucknell University traveled to the White House on Wednesday to attend the kickoff of President Obama's Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge.

Rabbi Serena Fujita, Bucknell's Jewish Chaplain, and Janice Butler, director of civic engagement and service-learning, attended a full day of programming examining the challenges, opportunities and best practices of interfaith service. They joined delegates from more than 200 colleges and universities.

Last March, in a video request for proposals, President Obama urged colleges and universities to become models for interfaith cooperation and community service.

"It's going to take all of us, Christian and Jew, Hindu and Muslim, believer and non-believer, to meet the challenges of the 21st century," the president said.

Feeding our Hearts, Expanding Our Vision
Fujita and Butler have together proposed "Feeding Our Hearts, Expanding Our Vision" as an interfaith service project that will bring students, faculty and staff together to explore and address food-related social issues from a variety of religious and non-religious perspectives. The proposal, developed earlier this summer with the help of a committee of students and faculty, has been endorsed by Bucknell's President John Bravman and Provost Mick Smyer.

"By using service experiences as the learning mode and food as the theme, this proposal can create dialogue about how our faith, family and cultural traditions shape our commitments to each other and influence how we work together for the common good," said Smyer.

Food as a means to action and awareness
The community service-related objectives of the initiative include raising awareness of food and sustainability issues, increasing food available at local pantries and hot meal programs, reducing University meal waste and enhancing conscious choices about consumption, Fujita and Butler said.  The co-leaders believe food is an excellent means to help students understand and address pressing social issues, from poverty, health and well-being to sustainability.

"The need for food, the sharing of food with family and community, and the enjoyment of good food is something we all have in common," Butler said. "In this initiative, we are using food as a reality and a symbol, a catalyst for thinking about what and how we eat, our moral obligations to the poor and hungry, our ethical obligations as educated citizens and our role as environmental stewards."

Food issues are connected to major points of concern both on campus and in the rural communities surrounding campus - and it is in both places that Fujita and Butler believe students can make a difference.  Near Bucknell, the rates of unemployment, poverty, obesity and diabetes and related diseases are on the rise.

"Even though there is rich land for agriculture, many residents do not have access to fresh food, cannot afford it or may lack the knowledge or skills to choose or create nutritious meals," Butler said.

In contrast, students in a spring 2011 waste audit found that about 850 pounds of food per day were being discarded in Bucknell's main dining venue, Bostwick Marketplace. Bucknell Dining has addressed the waste issue in part through a composting program and the removal of trays, but, Fujita said, there are more opportunities to help students learn about consumption and waste.

Strengthening interfaith understanding
In keeping with the purpose of the White House Campus Challenge, "Feeding Our Hearts" is designed to go beyond the subject at hand - food - to help students achieve a deeper understanding of the importance of interfaith work in general.  "Interfaith service, in whatever form it takes, leads to reflection, action and personal and communal growth," said Fujita.

Through the initiative, Fujita hopes that as students work side-by-side with people of differing religious perspectives, they will be prompted to share their own values and motivations for their service work, along with their personal connections to food through religion. "After spending an hour together digging in a garden, students can sit together and reflect: Why do they feast or fast at particular times in their respective religious traditions? Why do they choose to prepare vegetarian, halal or kosher foods? And what do food rituals mean across religions?

 "Our hope is that there will be conversations - that people will talk to each other and discover points of commonality and grow in their respect for people who have different perspectives. Once you discover similarities, then it's easier to talk about differences."

Planned Projects and Events
Representatives from a number of academic departments, administrative offices and student-run groups have joined the Feeding Our Hearts initiative. Faculty from the departments of economics, English and religion will provide an interdisciplinary perspective, while staff members from Residential Education, the Bucknell University Environmental Center, Religious Life, Dining Services and the Annual Fund will encourage students to put their values to practice and reflect on those core values. Students from Muslim, Christian, Jewish and atheist and agnostic student-run groups and Greek Life student leaders have expressed interest in participating.

The effects of these projects will be far-reaching, said Ahmad Towaiq '12, a civil and environmental engineering major who is also a member of the Muslim Student Association and an intern at Community Harvest, a local free hot meal program.

"We are hoping for everyone campus-wide to gain something, whether it's volunteering experience, teamwork skills, cultural knowledge of other faiths or communication skills," he said.

Interfaith Campus Challenge
The president's Campus Challenge is an initiative of the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships and is supported by the Department of Education and the Corporation for National and Community Service.

Contact: Division of Communications