Editor’s note: This story’s author, Kate Elliott, is a lecturer of journalism at Ball State and a freelance writer and strategist. She also works with community organizations, including ecoREHAB, Farmished, and Open Door Health Services.

Storytelling is a frustrating business. It’s arrogant to think your words will cut through life’s clutter to impact others, let alone embolden them to act, but you write anyway because truth deserves a voice. It’s intimidating to insert yourself into someone’s life, but you dig in anyway because compelling stories demand it. Then you stare at a blank screen, write, slurp coffee, rewrite, eat Twizzlers and rewrite until you’ve transformed complex situations and people into logical, relevant narratives that — you hope — inspire empathy, understanding, and action.

One of my recent projects started as most stories do: with curiosity. I was curious why east central Indiana is flush with fields and farms, yet 64 percent of Muncie residents live in food deserts, defined as an area with limited access to affordable and nutritious food. I was curious how small family farms not far from where I live manage hundreds of acres, while I can barely pack my kids’ lunch. And I was curious about the diverse culinary traditions and cherished recipes that bring family, friends, and a community together.

Eager to involve students in tackling these and other questions, I proposed an immersive learning course to challenge students to leave their Cardinal nests in search of stories that speak to the region’s needs, diversity, and heritage. Over the past academic year, I collaborated with more than 40 students — a blend of communications studies, journalism, and dietetics majors — to research and narrate the complexities of the region’s food system.

Becker Farms

Kyle and Emily Becker own Becker Farms in Moreland, Indiana, where they juggle four kids, a veterinary business, pigs, turkeys, and about 600 chickens. Here, 3-year-old son Griffin helps corral turkeys on the family’s 98-acre operation. (Photo by Kaiti Sullivan)

They engaged in poverty simulations, dissected reports, talked with residents, schlepped through pig pens, volunteered at food pantries and more to experience community-focused journalism that, in the words of journalism graphics major Kendall Genier, “focused on what brings us together more than what keeps us apart.”

Beyond first impressions

English major Will Aiken met and wrote about Muncie native Jim O’Neill, who came from a long line of factory stock until a 2000 accident left him unable to work. “There were several winter months I thought I might starve or freeze, depending on how I spent my money,” O’Neill said. “Usually, I’d go hungry before going to a food pantry or asking for assistance. There’s a lot of hungry kids in the county, and I don’t like taking food from a hungry child’s mouth. I can go hungry, but a child can’t.”

Jim O’Neill

Among those interviewed was Jim O’Neill. An accident left him disabled and unable to work. Thanks to a local home rehab program, he uses money saved on heating bills to buy food. (Photo by Will Aiken)

When volunteers from Muncie’s Holistic Rehab Program updated O’Neill’s home, he was able to cut his heating costs; he now uses that money to buy food. In appreciation, he gave the volunteers some produce from his garden. O’Neill told Aiken that people look at him and others who are food insecure and think, “They can walk, so they can work. But it’s just not the case. People’s lives and obstacles are more complex than first impressions.”

Using her talents as a photojournalism major, Rachel Ellis captured the faces of those trying to break the cycle of generational poverty, some waiting in line for six hours at a food collection site. In November 2017, our team met with 250 families at Muncie’s Head Start, a federal preschool program, where we invited children to draw and color their favorite food or meal while parents shared stories about meaningful family traditions (and interpreted their kids’ artistry). Building on that success, the Spring semester’s graphic designers produced an education-packed coloring book that the class passed out to hundreds of kids in Muncie.

Magazine media major Emily Cox shared a Fall sunset with Pam and Mark Kirklin at their family farm west of Muncie, where the couple has battled everything from cancer to creek floods. Chickens rode the backs of sheep, Feynman and Bernoulli (named after famous physicists), as Pam insisted that some of life’s best lessons are covered in dirt.

“The Bible says there is a time for every season, and having a family farm encourages us to eat with the seasons, truly appreciating the cycle of life and beauty of each season,” said Pam, who only goes to the grocery store for some dairy products and grains. “Sometimes things work out, sometimes they don’t. The joy comes in seeing what will work and persevering.”

Photojournalism major Carlee Ellison took close-ups of the oh-so-Midwestern Miracle Whip Cake that Muncie native Carol Bradshaw learned to make from her deaf Grandma Carrie. And journalism graphics major Kaylie McKee designed a “how-to” infographic based on local compost enthusiast Dan Wright’s overview of vermiculture (using worms to decompose organic matter).

An invitation to share

On our website, we capture these and many other personal profiles, pairing them with photo essays, infographics, videos, and audio. The site also features information about pantries, farmers markets, and farms as well as a sampling of the hundreds of cards — one side for recipes, the other for memories associated with those dishes — we collected from residents. We kept some cards, but distributed most throughout Muncie’s Little Free Libraries to encourage community connections and more meaningful mealtimes.

The project’s culmination is “Come to the Table,” a book that presents many of the stories and recipes based on the seasons, which is “fresher, tastier, more nutritious and often cheaper because it’s at the peak of its supply,” according to our resident dietetics major, Jonathan Isbill. Copies of the book were distributed at farmers markets and other events throughout the summer.

Forward STEPS

Families gather for weekly meals and workshops sponsored by Forward STEPS, which empowers residents eager to gain economic stability. (Photo by Rachel Ellis)

Students embraced their own narratives as well. Telecommunications and journalism major Demarcus Brookins’ story about growing up on sloppy joes and tater tots ended in a homily about his single mother’s perseverance. Journalism graphics major Ana Batres shared the Spanish phrase “panza llena corazón contento” (“a full belly and a happy heart”) to describe how her grandma, Meche, spends days in the kitchen to provide food and love for her family.

Students also shared insights about what they had experienced and learned. Emily Sabens, whose stories from the class helped her land an internship with Indianapolis Monthly’s dining section, confided feeling “shaky” prior to her first interview. But when it was over, she called her mom to tell her, “Nights like tonight remind me of why I want to be a journalist.”

“Journalism is hard. It’s time-consuming. It’s stressful,” she continued. “But when I get the opportunity to tell stories like I did through our class, I understand why it’s worth it.”

When I hear these and other tangible outcomes, I consider how our project is only one of dozens of courses each semester that reflect Ball State’s commitment to beneficence through meaningful, hands-on learning. It’s an honor to create space for transformational growth, and it’s a gift to watch students emerge with the confidence, expertise, and connections to achieve. All this, along with the heart to produce works that add value to our world.

As the project came to a close, it ended much as it began: with hope and curiosity. We hope the region’s residents read these narratives and are moved to consider each other, the food system, and their own stories with a sense of empathy and collaboration. We’re curious how many neighbors will try a new recipe, start a food-related family tradition, or advocate for those without. We wonder about the longevity of the project and hope this storytelling movement doesn’t disappear into a digital wasteland or on a dusty shelf.

I remain curious and hopeful for my students. They felt struggle because this kind of writing isn’t easy. They felt frustrated when stories fell through, and they felt overwhelmed by the interconnected webs of poverty, ignorance, and access that their work exposed. Will these agitations ignite a gritty determination to continue to tell stories that matter?

I hope they see every story as within walking distance, as long as they put in the time and put on the right shoes.