“Rocky Top”: The Sound of Unity, Food Justice, and Alternative Break
By Matt Scott, senior CHP student in microbiology
For months, we had anticipated this day. As the sun continued to rise on a frosty March morning, vans were loaded down with luggage, sleeping bags, pillows, and 15 sleepy alternative breakers who had only met awkwardly three times beforehand. My co-leader, Sam England, and I had spent countless hours since August preparing for this incredible trip, and finally we were ready to put our plans in motion. We headed down the interstate and began our trip to Raleigh, North Carolina.
Honors Alternative Break is a new version of a classic UT program, developed for the first time as a collaboration between Honors and Scholars Programs and UT’s Center for Leadership and Service. Alternative break programs teach students about a specific issue through a combination of classroom study and service-learning. Classroom education occurs during pre-trip meetings that introduce an issue in short hour-long discussions. The service-learning component occurs over spring or fall break, when students travel to a community chosen for its expressed need related to the theme. The students perform service related to the theme, taking time to truly understand the issue and bring meaning to the service. The program aims to make a positive impact on the chosen community while creating a more informed and critical understanding of the topic for the participating students.
From the beginning, Sam and I knew we wanted to create a trip that focused on people’s health. This desire naturally led us to issues surrounding food.We did not want to build a trip on teaching better food choices but decided to focus instead on communities with inadequate access to affordable foods needed for proper health. After days of deliberation, we finally settled on Raleigh as our location.
While the City of Oaks boasts a rich economy, there are still high levels of food inequality localized among poor communities of color within the city.The disparity is so great that United Way of the Greater Triangle has recently highlighted food security as one of its top three priorities for community improvement. In Raleigh, we knew we would have the opportunity to make a difference while also showing our student participants how to begin addressing some of these critical issues.
Our week began with a cold Monday of building garden beds and planting vegetables to be donated to mobile food markets for areas in Raleigh without access to fresh produce. We continued the day by derooting a large garden plot at Neighbor 2 Neighbor, a local community development organization that was the focal community partner of our trip. That night—and every night for the rest of the trip—we set aside time to reflect on our experiences as a group. This process was not only a great way to share fun stories about the day and build personal connections but was also integral to understanding our topic and our service at a more profound level.
The next day, we worked in the food pantry at the Salvation Army and even spent the afternoon sorting donations at their Family Store! On Wednesday, we spent an incredible morning providing meals at Shepherd’s Table and built brand-new garden beds when we returned to Neighbor 2 Neighbor. By Thursday, we were tired but unwilling to admit defeat. We spent the morning packing pallets of food at the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina—one of the nation’s largest food bank systems. That afternoon, we prepared the garden at Neighbor 2 Neighbor for planting and had to finally say goodbye to the amazing team there. Finally, on Friday morning, we gave our all for Tennessee by returning to the food bank and packing a record-breaking 11,000 pounds of food in three hours!
While I could write a book about the many memories and laughs we shared on this trip (please look at our blog for more details), no one moment surpasses the feeling of seeing unity among complete strangers. By the end of the week, this group of 15 participants had transformed into an alt break family. As we worked alongside one another in the rain and the cold, we grew along with the sound of our voices as we sang lots of “Rocky Top.”
While I am thankful for my many experiences at UT, I am most thankful for being a part of this incredible trip.I now realize that community service is about much more than doing good; it’s about kinship, unity, and using each other’s strengths.I hope to carry these lessons into my future endeavors in advocacy, and I can only hope that others will have the opportunity to discover the amazing world of community service here at UT.