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Elon Academy students separate wheat from the chaff

High school scholars in the university's college access and success program receive a hands-on lesson on the history and complexity of wheat cultivation.

Elon Academy scholars in the "Life Cycle of a Pizza" course learned about wheat production this summer at a biointensive garden on South Campus.

What does it take to make your own pizza from raw ingredients? And what does it take to grow and harvest those ingredients? As scholars in one Elon Academy course have learned this summer, the answer is “a lot,” and perhaps more than they realized.

From growing tomatoes for sauce to raising dairy cows for the cheese, building a pie from scratch is no easy task - especially when it comes to making dough.

Fourteen students in the academy’s “Life Cycle of a Pizza” course spent a recent morning learning how to cultivate, harvest and mill wheat grown from a biointensive research garden at the Elon Environmental Center on South Campus.

“The ultimate goal is for them to have an idea about the process from which their food comes. They’re disconnected,” said class instructor Crystal Black, owner of Urban Roots NC, a local company that helps clients grow their own food. “I get responses like, ‘I won’t eat at McDonald’s again,’ and a lot of them don’t even realize that produce is cheaper at the farmer’s market compared to the grocery store.”

Steve Moore in the Department of Environmental Studies shared with students on June 27 a very brief history of food production and agriculture.

On a late June morning, the class visited an organic garden under development on South Campus where Steve Moore, an agroecologist in the Department of Environmental Studies, shared a brief history of agriculture. As early populations grew, a need developed to settle in one place and grow food, as opposed to the hunting and gathering that the earliest communities relied upon for food.

Food later was used as a weapon in empire conquests. Moore told scholars how the Roman Empire wouldn’t have been possible without the cultivation of grains. Even today food remains a source of friction and hostility in parts of the world as access to arable land and water are the focal points of conflict.

“Hopefully, we bring in some of the social and political implications of a world that’s going to be stressed to feed itself, and how some people have challenges brought on themselves, either environmental or social justice issues, because of the way we farm,” Moore said. “Being aware of the process and implications of that will expand to help meet the challenges we’re going to face in the next 20 to 40 years.”

Elon Academy scholars took turns whacking harvested wheat to seperate out wheat berries for milling.

Students soon found themselves using flexible tubing to whack harvested wheat to shake loose berries. They took the berries and chaff to a small fan that blew away chaff as the berries fell to the ground. About a hour later, the class returned to a basement classroom in the McMichael Science Center where they used a bicycle and hand crank to mill into flour previously dried wheat berries.

Another component to the course is working with The Campus Kitchen at Elon University, a program through the Kernodle Center for Service Learning and Community Engagement. Campus Kitchen packages unserved dining hall food - as well as vegetables grown in campus gardens - for delivery to local residents in need of food. As he watched students harvesting wheat at the Elon Environmental Center, program coordinator Steve Caldwell reflected on the misconceptions many people have about food.

“One of the first things I try to get across is that food doesn’t come from a store,” Caldwell said. “Food ends up in a store. Food comes from the earth.”

Scholars would later mill previously dried wheat berries using a bicycle and hand crank in a McMichael Science Center classroom.

Kena Brincefield, a rising junior at River Mill Academy, said the course has instilled in her a stronger confidence to prepare her own food. It also opened her eyes to how labor intensive it can be to raise your own crops.

“You have to work hard for food instead of just going to the grocery store without knowing who worked on it and how far it traveled,” she said.

Tyler Ceperano, a rising sophomore at Southern Alamance High School, shared his own newfound respect for food production. “I’ve started to really appreciate food and the people who make it for us,” he said. “I’ve definitely started looking at trying to get more organic food and more local food instead of just asking to eat at McDonald’s.”

Launched by Elon University in 2007, the Elon Academy is an intensive college access and success program for local high school students with high financial need or no family history of attending college. It combines a month-long residential program over three successive summers with follow-up experiences during the academic year.

The academy is a multi-year, year round program beginning in the summer after the ninth grade and continuing to and through college.

Eric Townsend,
7/5/2013 8:00 AM