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Student documentary examines local food availability

Students in the "Community Study through Documentary Film" class captured Broughal Middle School's Garden Club on video.

A new partnership between Lehigh University and the local PBS affiliate is addressing issues of access to fresh, affordable food in Bethlehem’s South Side.

Students in a new graduate American studies class, “Community Study through Documentary Film,” worked with John Pettegrew, associate professor of history and co-director of the South Side Initiative (SSI); Peter Pellegrino, a community partner; and PBS-39, the local PBS affiliate, to raise awareness of the problem and examine some of the solutions.

The class follows the existing model of an SSI community partnership course, which pairs Lehigh students and an instructor with a community member or institution in a class that mixes experiential learning with traditional learning, and focuses on a practical matter such as economics or social justice.

However, the class also takes advantage of the renewed attention being paid to documentary film in this digital age, which encompasses everything from a five-minute amateur clip on YouTube to a feature-length, theatrical release.

“Lehigh has the expertise, the time and smart, motivated students to embrace a topic and study it closely and critically,” Pettegrew says. “And in this class, students produce their analysis in a form that can be broadcast to the 2 million viewers of PBS-39.”

The students learned the basics of documentary film production and used professional-grade cameras, microphones, lighting and an editing suite provided by PBS-39, which recently relocated to the SteelStacks campus on land formerly owned by Bethlehem Steel.

The result is the documentary film, “Planting Seeds of Change in South Bethlehem,” which premiered at the PBS-39 Public Media and Education Center at SteelStacks in Bethlehem on Dec. 15. The program is scheduled to air in January. For details, check the PBS-39 website.

‘A narrative steeped in research’

During the semester-long class, students conducted background research, produced storyboards for the film, interviewed experts and residents of the South Side and edited the video footage. They also worked closely with professionals at PBS-39 to make sure their documentary meets the station’s production standards.

“One of my main academic interests is exploring the ways traditional academic theory can be repackaged to make it more accessible to disenfranchised groups,” says Elizabeth Erwin, a graduate student in American studies.

“Documentary film provides us the chance to create a narrative that is steeped in research but also taps into the culture’s visual literacy.”

The film focuses on efforts to alleviate hunger and obesity in the South Side through community gardening, education about nutrition and improving the nutritional value of food served in schools. The film paid special attention to work taking place at Broughal Middle School, a Bethlehem school located adjacent to Lehigh’s campus.

“This class has really put into perspective the importance of grassroots initiatives and the media’s part in responsibly disseminating those messages,” says Lynn Farley, also an American studies grad student.

“I hope our project will prompt those who watch it to become involved with their local community like the people we profiled for this documentary.”

Story by Emily Groff

Posted on Thursday, December 15, 2011

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