Applying Anthropology in the Community
Students in professor J. Montgomery Roper’s Practicing Anthropology class took their studies to the community in the fall semester, performing studies on behalf of local organizations. They used surveys, interviews with local experts, focus groups, archival research, and hours of observation to help suggest improvements at service organizations, for example.
"The course is about learning by doing,” Roper said. “In particular, the students are learning about anthropological methods, policy-making at the community level, and the Grinnell community.”
“My belief is that knowledge builds greater roots when instilled through practice, particularly when the practice involves addressing real-world problems in our own community,” he added.
One of the six student groups in the class looked into how a local food pantry could increase the frequency of donations.
The Mid-Iowa Community Action (MICA) food pantry in Grinnell has a problem. While the need for food remains fairly consistent throughout the year, donations fluctuate a lot.
Grinnell students Sara Hannemann ’14, Eva Metz ’14, and Gina Falada ’16 conducted in-person interviews with staff, volunteers, and local experts and surveyed community members to determine why giving varied, and to look for steps MICA could take to make donations more consistent.
They found that most community members donate food rather than money, but some don’t consider the needs of the food pantry. The students suggested that the pantry get the word out about its specific needs using social media, while radio and newspaper ads, and church-bulletin items. By increasing its profile, communicating its needs, and informing the public, MICA could improve its standing supply of food and lessen the need for emergency food drives, the students found.
Rachel Porath, the Poweshiek County Family Development Director for MICA, worked with Hannemann, Metz, and Falada in the early stages of the project. “It was a pleasure working with the students,” she said. “I will absolutely use some of their ideas moving forward.”
Porath suggested community members the students could interview, and provided the students with information detailing the food pantry’s donations. She hopes the suggested changes will increase donations both in Grinnell and at other MICA food pantries in the state.
Other students in the class looked at issues such as assessing the need to enhance teen and tween programming at the local library, or to back a supported employment program for those with intellectual disabilities in Grinnell.
In addition to poster presentations, each group sent formal reports of their research findings to their community organization.